The artist who paints with lipstick

Sarah Britten has created a niche for herself in the art world by using a unique medium – lipstick – to create her pictures. It has increased the number of tubes she buys compared to the average woman, but it’s worthwhile because she thinks the colours are extraordinary.

Image description Artist and communication strategist Sarah Britten has exhibited her distinctive creations overseas. (Images: Supplied)

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Priya Pitamber

We’ve all heard of creating artwork with different types of paint, such as acrylic, oils, water-mixable oils or watercolour, but lipstick? Yet that is Sarah Britten’s preferred method to create unique art.

Britten, a communication strategist, is partial to creating pictures portraying Nguni cattle and the Joburg city skyline. Of all the colours of lipstick she has used, she loves black the most, then red that has a lot of orange in it. “A lot of the reds on the market have a lot of blue in them, which I suppose looks good on human skin, but isn’t my favourite to work with.”

Britten admits that certain colours of lipstick – yellow, blue, and including her favourite, black – are difficult to find. “Very moist lipstick is lovely to work with but takes much longer to dry.”

Lipstick is a wonderful medium, she writes on her website. “The colours are extraordinary and it’s possible to write into the paint to reveal the white board beneath. This allows me to imbue the work with layers of meaning.”

She would like her paintings to first grab the viewer at an emotional level; then the picture can be fully revealed the more it is studied. She would like the viewer to see something different each time they see it.

Britten started painting in 2002 and ploughs through about five lipsticks a month, depending on the size of her work. “I did a lipstick audit in 2013 and counted over 450. My use varies hugely, depending on whether I’m preparing for an exhibition or how big the work is.”

sarah art Akabeko

sarah art zebra

sarah art rhino

Image description Britten loves to paint Nguni cattle and the Joburg skyline. But she also paints other wildlife. (Images: Supplied)

A series of fortunate events

In 2002, Britten quit her job to complete her PhD thesis; this, coupled with her husband travelling to the UK looking for work, meant she had no structure in her life.

“I was procrastinating, and one thing led to another,” she says. “I started experimenting with lipstick and the thick shiny cardboard my husband used to make architectural models, and discovered I could paint with it in interesting ways.”

Her first lipstick painting was of a rose. But it was not her first foray into painting. Britten had dabbled in watercolours when she was young; in her 20s she used chalk pastel, which she said was good training for using something like lipstick. “I love the intensity of the lipstick colours, which isn’t possible with watercolour,” she explains. “Occasionally I’ve used fabric paint, which is also very tactile.”

What people think

Using such a one-of-a-kind medium has naturally attracted attention. Britten’s ex-husband first assumed she was creating “feminist vagina art”, but he was relieved when he realised she was painting conventional objects.

“Painting in such a strange medium is good for differentiation – nobody confuses me with anyone else – but I suspect it’s more difficult to be taken seriously by the mainstream art establishment.”

The paintings of rhinos always sell well.

“I am the proud owner of a bull against the skyline of Johannesburg,” writes Erich Viedg, a buyer of one of her works, on her website. “I am very happy with my Sarah Britten Original.”

Going global

From Europe to Asia and the US, Britten has showcased her art. “In 2014, my work was exhibited in a Shanghai shopping mall. In 2015, I exhibited in Tokyo and I have exhibitions planned in Amsterdam, Hong Kong and New York – the latter only in 2018.”

But the highlight has been her first solo exhibition, in 2011. It served as a trigger, to expand the various ways she can use the medium.

There have been trials too. “The biggest challenge has been balancing the compulsion to create with the knowledge that I might not find a buyer for what I produce,” she explains. “I sometimes refer to my impulse to paint as an albatross, because I feel I have to even though I know that my paintings might be piling up gathering dust somewhere.”

Her favourite things

“I love the Goldberg Variations by JS Bach, specifically the 1955 recording by Glenn Gould,” she says of her favourite music to listen to while painting. Her most loved movie is The Shawshank Redemption and the best book she has read so far is Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

“In the end, all we have are our stories, and all we can do is tell them as best we can,” she says in parting. And luckily for her, she has found her own way – using lipstick – to share her stories.