The Creativity Interviews: Makeup Artist & Body Painter, Ren Allen

As part of my ongoing quest to explore what it means to live a creative life, I periodically invite kick ass creatives to come play with us on the blog.


I asked Ren for a bio pic, and she said to use this one.

Today’s episode:

Beauty, trust, vulnerability, and what happens when your canvas needs a potty break…

It’s such a pleasure for me to share this artist with you! The first time I ever saw Ren Allen’s face and body paintings, I was awestruck. It was hard for me to imagine painting such beautiful works of art on living, breathing canvases – the intimacy of it, and the necessary impermanence. Everything about her work and process attracted and fascinated me, and though I’ve watched her from afar, in blog posts and Facebook updates, it only recently occurred to me that I could invite her here and ask her all about how she does the magic that she does.

Lucky us, she said yes!

Ren and her husband, photographer Keith Dixon, have a studio in downtown Jonesborough, Tennessee. Together they create and collaborate on body art, weddings, portraits, head-shots and video work. In the interview, we talk about Ren’s body-painting process, but you can see it in action (and learn more about her journey)  in this mini documentary.  Plus, since Keith is a photographer, there are a lot of gorgeous photos in this interview. Prepare to be dazzled. Seriously.


j: Life is demanding. What are your tricks for getting into a creative space? 

BA_030Ren: I think people who wait to “get into a creative space” miss out on a lot of creative opportunities. Creativity and creation come from a place of being willing to do the work. Being willing to show up. If you keep showing up for your “thing,” the creative space has been made. Staying present throughout the flow of frustration and challenges allows so many great learning moments to unfold. Art isn’t some magical talent that a few people possess. It belongs to those who are willing to show up. Willing to create. Willing to face the rhythm, the ups and downs of the process.

In my case, all I have to do is book a model and put a date on the calendar! There are other people affected if I choose to say no to the process. Whether I’m feeling creative or not, there are at least two other people who have committed to being available (the photographer, who happens to be my husband, and a model) so it does help you commit to being present. If a concept or design frustrates me, I can’t walk away. There is a living breathing person in front of me who is counting on going home at some point that day. There is a photographer in the next room who is saving time and energy for when I am finished. That right there keeps you pushing, keeps you present and keeps you from making excuses.

That might be one of the reasons I love this art form so much. I work best with deadlines or calendar dates.

Also, I’ve never had a problem with a lack of ideas….my challenge is knowing which of the kajillion ideas to start with!  My brain is not a calm, quiet place and lucky for me, it is constantly coming up with body paint ideas. I think part of that is just doing the work. Action has great power.


j: What’s the weirdest (funniest, most surprising) thing that inspires you?

BA_010Ren: I paint naked people! I mean really, that probably seems weird to most. It is one of the things I love about this art form though. Because every work is a collaboration. Every piece is affected by the shape and energy of the person under my brush.

This art form brings me in contact with so many interesting people and their stories, which is really the main thing that inspires me. Their scars, their longings, their beauty are all part of the process. I have long been fascinated with humans, and now my desire to create, to paint, is perfectly knit with my fascination in the human experience.

Another thing I am constantly enamored with is the very fleeting nature of this art form. All art is temporary when we look at the bigger picture, but with body painting the temporary nature isn’t something you can ignore. The paint gets washed off at the end of the day. You have a finite amount of time to work, and the work exists for a very finite amount of time as well.

This is a great practice in creating and letting go. Over and over again. It reminds me to stay present for every moment. None of them ever exist again but we so easily slip into apathy. My paint reminds me of this.

Death is a great inspiration to me…or more accurately, the life/death/re-birth process that goes on all around us every minute. We are all walking compost. Maybe that seems strange, but the fleeting nature of paint, of body paint especially, keeps me grounded in the knowledge that I am also temporary. I want to use the paint to capture a feeling, a story, a moment and know that it is in the birth of it and the decay of it where the deep beauty lies.


j: I think being publicly creative is inherently scary. How do you manage fear?

BA_003Ren: This is a great question and one that has deeply affected me in the past. I remember all too well the very first body art show I organized and how terrifying that was. Not only to paint all day for the public but to have the responsibility for an entire show. Other artists were depending on me, the gallery owner was depending on me and I felt absolutely vulnerable!

I think being a creative or doing any creative work for the public is being willing to be vulnerable in a big way. It lays open every demon you’ve tried to smother. It surfaces every self-doubt you’ve ever had. All at once. The only way for me, is to ignore it. Other fears might need some nurture, some self-reflection but these need to be ignored. You march all over them by moving forward. After a while your confidence gets greater and it isn’t as hard.

I wrote a two-part blog post about this recently! You were part of the inspiration behind that series, J, so I am including the links here.

Once you willingly face the fear and allow that vulnerability, you realize that being publicly creative is a lot less scary and a lot more inspirational. It connects people. It connects your audience to your art, to your process, and I think there is a great value in that.


j: How do you deal with critics?

BA_007Ren: I addressed this topic partially in Part 1 of the blog post on dealing with fear (above). But mostly I think you have to care so deeply about your craft that nothing else matters. If you’re focused on your process, on emerging yourself as an artist, it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.

You begin to develop a pretty thick skin where these things are concerned. You also seek out brilliant artists in your genre who inspire and encourage you. Go where the best of the best can be found and learn what they know. Because there isn’t room for anything but growth.

What other people think isn’t any of my business right? It’s true. The more you care about the work you do, the less you care about naysayers. Fall in love with your art. Love it so deeply and fully that your passion for it matters more than critical words. Be open to useful feedback from artists you trust but don’t worry so much about those who think your art “less than” because you don’t create for them anyway.

Surround yourself with amazing people. Your community will greatly affect your ability to create. But sometimes, your best work comes at the edge of discomfort and fear.


j: It seems to me that painting a body is nothing like painting a traditional canvas. For instance, an artist buys the canvas they think will best suit their vision.Obviously you can’t do that. How does it work for you? How does the humanness of your canvas affect what you paint?

BA_011Ren: This is a multi-layered question!  I do often bring in a “canvas” best suited for whatever concept I want to create. So we do choose our canvas at times, other times the canvas chooses us. In both instances there are things that emerge during a painting I can’t predict.

The human canvas has a very profound effect on the artist. Mostly because you learn about people when you’re painting them! There is a high level of trust between body painter and model. They are letting you into their vulnerable place and that is something I don’t take lightly.

The human canvas needs breaks to eat, to use the bathroom, to stretch, and all of that has to be factored into a sitting.

I think the humanness of it makes the work more beautiful, more overarching and pointed.

We often hear about art as a healing modality. With body paint the healing aspect of art gets taken to a whole new level. People bring me their fears, their self-loathing, their dreams, their healing journey, their desire to love themselves, their rawness,their beauty or their complete comfort. The impact of seeing themselves as art is one way to uncloud their vision. To be a work of art is an act of courage. An act of healing for some and an act of expression for others. Those colors I put on their skin are a small part of a bigger journey, and I am honored to be present for the unfolding.



There were more pictures than I could display in a single post. Visit the gallery on Ren’s site to see more.

Thank you, Ren, for being so generous, both here and out in the world doing what you do like the creative badass you are.

I’d love to hear what you think about this art form? Have you ever participated – as either artist or canvas? Would you like to?


  1. Karin on November 14, 2013 at 7:26 am

    What amazing pictures.
    I’ve always thought the human body makes an interesting canvas–the skin itself makes the art so….breathable.
    Maybe that’s why I appreciate tattoos so much.
    But this is different than tattoos–it’s so temporary, but still so beautiful.
    Thanks for sharing this with us! And Ren, if you read this, you are very talented and I look forward to browsing your gallery later! (Definitely a bookmark)

    • j on November 14, 2013 at 12:19 pm

      I appreciate tattoos, too. Especially the stories behind them. I don’t have a tattoo. I’ve never felt comfortable with their permanence. I feel I’m always changing and so I find it hard to commit to a design that would stay unchanged on my body year after year. (Though I know that concern is simplistic, and that people often have tattoos that are meant to honor a specific time of their life.) The impermanence of Ren’s art is part of what makes it so wonderful, I think. So much time and attention and love goes into its creation, even though everyone involved knows it will come off at the end of the day. Amazing.

  2. June O'Reilly on November 14, 2013 at 7:27 am

    so wonderful ♥
    thank you for asking the questions
    for the deep answers
    and the insights that can be applied to many places

    • j on November 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm

      You’re welcome, and you’re right, June. “Fall in love with your art” are words you can live by, no matter who you are.

  3. julia on November 14, 2013 at 8:51 am

    J, Ren – there are way too many emotions here right now, too many to try to wrap in words.

    Deep breaths…I’m sitting here with tears – out of eyes, down cheeks, dripping all over. Reading these words, seeing these photos – this art – did something to me that I’ll be processing for a long, long time. I’m blown away by the vulnerability, the tenderness & courage here. Oh my gosh.

    Reading this this morning brought to the surface these tender, unhealed parts of me – it’s like they are all sitting here right now saying – we need your love. Like I said, I can’t explain with words – but something important has happened.

    From all the little parts of me, J & Ren, thank you for this beauty.

    • j on November 14, 2013 at 12:27 pm

      Oh, Julia. First, *hug*.

      I know just how you feel, Julia. The same thing happened to me when I saw Ren’s art for the first time, and then again, as we corresponded for the interview, and then again as I put the post together. I think there are, sadly, many of us who’ve had complicated relationships with our bodies, and for us, Ren’s art absolutely does bring to the surface our tender, unhealed places… in a good way, I think. In a hopeful way.

      I feel inspired and determined to move past the emotional debris of my past.

  4. Marcie on November 14, 2013 at 9:43 am

    I’m struck speechless here – both by Ren’s talent and the beauty of the canvases she creates…and by her inspiring words around the process of showing up for your creative self.
    Absolutely brilliant post.

    • j on November 14, 2013 at 12:29 pm

      Thank you, Marcie. I’m so glad it touched you. Feeling very grateful for Ren’s talent and generosity today.

  5. Ren on November 14, 2013 at 1:52 pm

    Wow….now *I* am sitting here tearing up reading all these lovely responses. I am so touched that the art has this power. Something I knew for myself, but to see it move others is so incredible for me. Thank you. Awed and humbled. I have a whole essay about scars and about making peace with our bodies that I plan to put out there soon. Still editing a bit but it is deeply tied to the body painting I do. Love to all of you….

    • j on November 15, 2013 at 8:46 am

      I can’t wait to read your essay, Ren. xo

  6. Annie Neugebauer (@AnnieNeugebauer) on November 14, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    This is absolutely stunning. The art, the interview, all of it. What a unique guest for your series, j. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. Beautiful, beautiful stuff.

    • j on November 15, 2013 at 8:47 am

      Thank you, Annie. Me too. There’s a lot here to think about.

  7. Ren on November 14, 2013 at 7:37 pm

    Also…. booking appointments in Jonesborough anytime! 🙂

    • j on November 15, 2013 at 8:48 am

      Ha! I don’t get over your way very often. Maybe you’ll have a reason to come to the SF Bay Area…

  8. Pam on November 14, 2013 at 8:38 pm

    Wonderful! I love Ren’s posts, too.

    I absolutely agree about how showing up to do the work is the way to make the creative space.

    Now I’ll be thinking about what I would want to have painted on me! *dreams a good long while*

    • j on November 15, 2013 at 8:49 am

      I wondered that too. Then I decided, I’d probably turn myself over to Ren’s imagination. For me, that might be part of the healing… giving up a little control.

  9. David Doodleslice Cohen on November 15, 2013 at 8:43 am

    So great to see the two of you get together! 🙂

    • j on November 15, 2013 at 8:50 am

      Thanks, David. I think we look kind of good together, in a bloggy sort of way. 😉

  10. Naomi Wittlin on November 15, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Absolutely stunning. I am so glad to have gotten a chance to hear more about Ren and see her work. Thank you!

    • j on November 16, 2013 at 11:52 am

      You’re welcome! I’m so happy to have shared her with all of you!

  11. Alarna Rose Gray on November 17, 2013 at 9:27 pm

    These are beautiful paintings, and very thought provoking interview. I was going to start with “I would never…” but I think I, too, am reaching the point that it is time to change the language. Maybe the question needs to be, why would we never? Hope you get to do it oneday…

    • j on November 27, 2013 at 2:34 pm

      Good question – why? Because of whole lot of baggage, I’m thinking. Stuff I need to drop curbside immediately. Or you know, at the end of a long evolution. 🙂

  12. Chris Edgar on November 18, 2013 at 1:02 pm

    Looks like a lot of fun, J — I can definitely relate to what she says about the importance of just being willing to sit there and make an attempt to create something. For me, sitting down at my desk or piano is about 90% of the battle — once I’ve been able to do that for some period of time, I can almost guarantee that something I find worthwhile is going to emerge. That’s starting to feel easier and easier.

    • j on November 27, 2013 at 2:37 pm

      I feel that way about writing too, Chris. Getting myself to sit down and start is much harder than the actual writing 90 percent of the time. The doodly art is much easier in that way. Sitting down to do it feels so much like playing, I sometimes feel guilty.

      Which is a problem I’d like to have All. The. Time.

  13. Nina Badzin on November 27, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    This interview and Ren’s work are fascinating. I just finished reading The War of Art and the author’s main message–to fight all kinds of resistance (inner and outer) and just DO the work seems to go along with Ren’s method, too. I loved this: “Creativity and creation come from a place of being willing to do the work. “

    • j on November 27, 2013 at 2:41 pm

      I loved The War of Art. I’ve read it twice, and it’s probably about time for me to read it again. That one, and The Artist’s Way were serious game changers for me. And yes, “Do the work” is the single best advice anyone’s ever given me. Although, to be precise, my English professor said, “Just write.” That was right after he said, “Get out of my office.”

      Tough love.

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