The Face Tainter

I survived sleep training and potty training mostly unscathed. I’ve gone through the terrible twos, and the more terrible threes. Twice.  But I am not sure I have yet experienced anything as daunting, in my short years of parenthood, as working the school carnival.

As the face painter.

For the record, it is even more stressful than Bouncy Castle Duty, although on the upside, you do not have to smell any feet.

I balked at the assignment–I have no artistic skills at all, you know. Not all creative people are all kinds of creative. Couldn’t you have me sell cupcakes or something?

No, cupcakes was full. Next time I’m signing up earlier.

I liked Amy Flannagan‘s line on Twitter best: “They say I’m creative. I tell them I’ll write tag lines on the kids’ faces.”

Kids. The other white meat.

And so there I was, promptly at at 12:30 on Saturday, trying to figure out how to combine some unraveling Q-tips, a set of paint brushes, a palate of paints, and a complete lack of talent into something resembling “face painting.” It was like being handed some popsicle sticks, three staples and a jar of peanut butter and told to build a go-kart.

The first girls to arrive up at my station were mercifully easy on me–they wanted the backs of their hands painted, like tattoos. “A heart!” I suggested way too enthusiastically to one kindergartener. “Don’t you want a pretty red heart on your hand?” Why yes, yes she did want a heart! A pretty red heart! And maybe a smaller, equally pretty red heart next to it? A “very cute baby heart?” as I put it.

I started to sweat less. I could totally do this job. Who needs talent when you have amazing sales skills? I could sell every kid on this playground a heart. Done!

Until I got to the kid who wanted a butterfly.

“Did you say a daisy? I bet you want a daisy on your cheek! It will be so pretty! Let’s do a daisy!”

No, a butterfly. Or wait, make it two butterflies. One yellow with red and one red with yellow. This kid was not buying a daisy from me, not today and not ever. I gave in. A few shaky brush strokes later, the critters were complete: the world’s first anorexic butterflies.

There’s your creativity for you.

I held the small hand mirror to her face and she looked delighted. “You’re a good artist!” she said.  I don’t think her mother was thinking the same.

Over the next long (long) hour, my best customers were the ones who came to me on their own, parents nowhere in sight. In fact I avoided making eye contact with any person over about 4 feet tall, for fear they’d demand their three tickets back. (Hey Marjorie, I think we just paid $3 for a pink blob on my kid’s cheek. Good thing this is a write-off.)

Children, as it turns out, are not discerning at all. Mostly, they are just happy to have someone draw something–anything–on their bodies. I got through a couple of fish with black smudges for eyes, a few more scrawny butterflies, and remarkably, one small panda for a third-grader. She called it cute. I beamed.

The entire time, I was having vivid flashbacks of my first job in high school: Hally and I were hired as cake decorators at Carvel. Mostly it was a matter of piping icing into cake borders or tracing lopsided turkeys or ballerinas onto sheet cakes with gel pens. For $3.16 an hour, the manager didn’t seem too concerned with the highly mediocre quality of our work; until the one afternoon we spent a whole shift absorbed in giggles, painting punk rock faces on Deluxe Sundae Dinners with frosting and marascino cherry halves. We were scolded not for our ridiculous designs, but for using too many ingredients on a single cheap cake. (What? The almonds were the mohawk.) Pastry artistry is definitely not my calling. Although it was fun to dive into the giant vat of chocolate crunchies with a spoon.

Now, 25 years since, artistic skills haven’t improved much, but at least the orders were easy to fill. Not one kid asking for a Spiderman face or a werewolf. Not one zebra or cheetah. Butterflies on cheeks ruled the day. I was feeling like I could actually get through this, dignity somewhat intact.

Then my worst fear materialized–the parents with the toddler.

Worse, they were parents with a toddler and a camera.

“Are you the artist?” the mother asked, eagerly handing me three pink tickets.

“Well, when you put it that way…” I said sheepishly, my voice trailing off. “Can we stick with something simple?”

I tried to convince the little boy to get a big star on his cheek. Or a lightning bolt. He was having none of it. I was about to suggest a vampire. How hard would it be to make two fangs? Or maybe he’d be okay with a bunch of red dots. He could have measles! Ack, maybe I should have prepped for this better?

“How about a cat?” the mother suggested, bless her. “I bet we can draw some whiskers. Or a bunny?  Do you want to be a bunny, sweetie?” The boy nodded enthusiastically.

One black nose and six thin, white, nearly straight lines later, he almost could pass for a bunny. Or you know, an otter. Either way.

I held up the mirror and watched his gorgeous eyes open even wider as a giant smile spread across his face. The father snapped more photos and I realized I would end up in some family’s baby book, my artistry forever preserved in time.

Fortunately, the Dunk the Principal booth opened for business, drawing a big crowd and keeping my station light. My final customers were my own kids. Sage had the entire scenario mapped out all week; I was to say, what’s your name little girl? and she would respond, I’M YOUR DAUGHTER! and we would all laugh. It went exactly as she had planned.

She even thought the pink heart on her cheek with the blue arrow through it was perfect. So perfect, Thalia asked for the very same one.


26 thoughts on “The Face Tainter”

  1. I'm so impressed that you gave it a try!

    I love face painting. I've done it at a couple of events and the neighborhood block party.

    My son and his friend stood in line at our school fair for a long time to get their faces painted a couple of years ago. Then the friend asked for a red dragon and the guy on face painting duty panicked. I told him I'd do the dragon if he would paint my son. My kid asked for green squares for some reason and the guy looked so relieved! Also glad not to have to paint a dragon.

    Anyway, a tip for future, figure out what you feel comfortable painting and make a sample sign. Then they just point to what they want and it would be less nerve wracking. (Give kids the choice of a rainbow or a heart or a star and they are usually happy.)

  2. I think my husband would actually be really good at this! He's always drawing on your boys with sharpie markers (on bellies and back where the general public can't see). So paint would be the same idea. And for once, he'd be able to show off his work. Too bad he'd refuse.

    (You should see the elves both kids had on their backs around Christmas. Pretty kick ass.)

  3. Every time you write a post about something at the elementary school, it brings me back to my own childhood. And for this, I thank you. I have such wonderful memories of growing up in that 'hood.

    You are also a braver woman than I. My claim to fame is volunteering at the carnival to bring in a cake for the cake walk.

  4. So great! And I like imagining that somewhere out there is a mom's post on her own blog about the strange anorexic butterfly she paid $3 to get emblazoned on her kid's cheek.

  5. You rock. If I got assigned to face paint duty, I would be limited to hearts, stars, and octopi.

  6. This made me laugh and laugh. When my now 9yo was in pre-school I too was roped into helping with the face painting. Hilariously bad face painting. But the enormous smiles from the kids, whose faces I'd just 'artistically' ruined were totally worth it. Funnily enough, the next year I got in nice and early and signed up to sell the cupcakes 🙂

  7. Too funny! I totally feel your pain! My girls are in elementary and preschool…and they both had carnivals the same weekend…and I volunteered for both. It was crazy! I steer FAR FAR away from the face painting business. Give me an auction anyday…but nothing that requires an artistic hand. Luckily both schools had quite a few ambitious high school students who offered their talents. Teenagers are a great labor force for carnivals – they need volunteer hours for college!

    Save yourself the stress next year and sign up at the first possible moment.

  8. This is where I hope that my kid's school really needs some pro-bono IT work. I mean, I was an art major, but I liked doing abstract sculpture.

  9. People still ask me to decorate their children's cakes – after learning about our stint at Carvel… and alas, they are always disappointed. If only they'd let me decorate punk rockers with mohawks!

  10. I got roped into doing the face painting at a big family reunion YEARS ago when I was maybe 9? I still remember that everyone there got some kind of paintwork done. I did hearts, stars, rainbows, unicorns, cats, dogs, sports themed works and in one memorable instance, a bloody dagger so ornate I got asked by 2 biker dudes to put a similar one on them! During college, I was a cake decorator working in a grocery store bakery. I did a lot of the typical cakes “from the book”, but the best ones were the ones where I got to talk to the moms who wanted something special. I’ve done a black and white kitchen complete with hot pink appliances, an underwater scene with fish and starfish and coral and a shark covered in a clear glaze, an outer space scene with planets and a rocket ship covered in glitter dust, a black, red and gold cake for the Chinese New Year with accurate Chinese on it (and a pig picture that looked like it was done with a calligraphy brush), and the most memorable one? A little boy and his mom came in and wanted me to make a cake that had a guy in a tree stand shooting a deer with a bow to congratulate Daddy on getting a kill during his hunting trip. I was never a bad artist, but I tried my best to talk that kid out of it since I was sure I wouldn’t do it justice. But the mom called the next day to thank me for it, nonetheless, and those warm fuzzies carried me for a while.

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