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A Brief History of Body Painting

By Chet Kresiak

American Olympic swimming champion Natalie Coughlin recently posed for 11 hours to have her body painted for the 2012 annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. She told USA Today that “It feels like something in between a swimsuit — and being naked.”

What Natalie might not realize is that she is simply one participant in an art form which is likely the oldest and most traditional in human history – body painting. This year nudists and naturists everywhere are invited to participate in AANR’s Amazing Canvas Nudist Face and Body Painting Event during Nude Recreation Week, to celebrate the human body as the ultimate art form.

Unlike tattoos, body paint is temporary, applied directly on the human skin, lasting for only several hours, or up to a couple of weeks if using henna. Sometimes the entire body is used as a the canvas, and sometimes only the face, hands, back or chest are decorated.

Body painting possibly predates cave drawings by hundreds of thousands of years. Covering themselves with painting materials made from ochre or manganese dioxide, early humans decorated their bodies for tribal rituals as a means to bring themselves together collectively. These practices continue today among the indigenous peoples of Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and part of Africa. Face painting also goes back to Neanderthal times for hunting, religious reasons, and for military purposes such as camouflage, or expression of brotherhood.

Modern body painting is said to have been born at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where Max Factor and his model were arrested for causing a public disturbance. Factor was demonstrating his new make-up formulated for Hollywood movies through the art of body painting.

In the 1950s and 60s there was an art movement which involved covering a model in paint, and then having the model touch or roll on a canvas to transfer the colors. 1960s Supermodel Veruschka has been the muse for many body painting artists. In 1992, artist Joanne Gair rose to fame through her work on actor Demi Moore, who appeared in her “birthday suit” on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Today the animal rights group PETA uses body painted models as a means of political protest.

Fine art examples of body painting include the use of body painting as performance art by Sacramento galleries, The Painted Alive gallery in New Orleans which is dedicated exclusively to body painting, artist Danny Setiawan who reproduces famous artworks by Salvador Dali, Vincent Van Gogh and Gustav Klimt on human bodies, and New York artist Andy Golub who works his abstract magic on nude models out in public in Times Square.

Commercially, other than the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, body painting can be seen regularly in television commercials, movies (especially science fiction), billboards, magazine advertisements, and there is even a publication Illusion Magazine dedicated to showcasing the art form around the world. The World Bodypainting Festival in Portschach, Austria, is the largest in the world, drawing thousands of visitors to admire the beautiful creations. There are also several festivals which take place in North America, such as the North American Body Painting Championship in Orlando, Florida; the Bodygras Body Painting Competition in Nanaimo, British Columbia; and the Face Painting and Body Art Convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Pillow Book, a 1996 film by Peter Greenaway, revolves around body painting.

In sports, there is hardly an event on television, from colleges to the pros, where fans are not painted with their team’s colors, often spelling out words of encouragement or fellowship in support of the athletes.  The World Cup of Soccer tends to be a showcase for creative body painters, and for the 2006 matches in Berlin, women shared topfree equality with men. And what would professional wrestling be without the costumes and painted faces?

Face painting emerged into our popular culture with the flower children of the 60s, and is a staple at county fairs, open-air markets, children’s parties, theme parks, festivals, and just about any event attended by people of all ages. Can you imagine a circus without brightly painted clowns, or a Halloween without scary face-painted zombies and ghouls coming to your door to beg for treats?

The theater is also another mainstream example of face painting, or make-up, from the fantastical creations in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats,” to the elaborate face designs in Japanese Kabuki dance-drama.

Today, there are many examples of people using body painting as a collective means of expression, such as in the World Naked Bike Ride where people use their bodies as billboards for promoting environmental causes. The Sydney Body Art Ride raises money to fight cancer in children, and holds two world records for the largest group of fully painted people, and the largest group of painted people on bicycles. In the Fremont Solstice Parade, which takes place annually in Seattle, Washington, free-spirited cyclists strip down and paint their bodies and ride in view of 100,000 spectators, all to raise money to help end poverty.

The Bare to Breakers event in San Francisco features nude and body painted runners to promote the acceptance of nudity in public. In Columbus, Ohio, where women have the legal right to be topfree, the annual Comfest event in a public park features thousands of men, women and children, many with their bodies and faces painted with festive flowers, butterflies, peace symbols and other designs inspired by the hippie culture of the 1960s. Fantasy Fest in Key West, Florida, and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Louisiana, would not be the same without the colorful, body painted celebrants who proudly display their creations in public.

Of course, body painting is a traditional activity found in nudist and naturist gatherings. Venues like Lake Como and Sunsport Gardens in Florida often bring in professional body painters to decorate the members and guests. Stephane Deschanes, one of the most respected spokespersons for naturism, includes body painting as a regular event at Bare Oaks Park in Ontario. The Naturist Society promotes body painting for both children and adults at its Gatherings and Festivals, and the clothing-optional section of Haulover Beach in Miami is often a spot for colorfully painted people. Face and body painting is a regular nudist activity around the world, including the United Kingdom, France, Croatia, Australia, and Russia, among others.

Face and body painting supplies can be purchased from dozens of retailers online, and can be found in family stores such as Target and Walmart.  Crayola markets body paint products for children, including Bathtub Body Doodles, Quick and Easy Henna Body Art Kit, Face Painting Kit, and Washable Markers. Silly Farm  has an amazing selection of face and body art for all ages.

On July 14, 2012, the American Association for Nude Recreation invites you to participate in our first Amazing Canvas Nudist Face and Body Painting Event. Full details can be found as they happen on We look forward to this great event, a continuation of the longest known art form in human history, the ultimate expression of the beauty of the human body.

Information in the article was taken from the following sources:

The Other Paper

Sunsport Gardens

USA Today


Photo courtesy of Chet Kresiak.

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8 Responses to A Brief History of Body Painting

  1. Pingback: History of Body Painting « Naturist Review

  2. Bill says:

    Doesn’t this contradict the belief that it’s the adorned body that is sexualized and that it’s the adorned body (or in this case the painted body) that sexualizes the body?

    • Cathy J Woofter says:

      Would you please enlighten me about the belief that it’s the adorned body that is sexualized. I’ve never heard of that belief. I even googled it and didn’t come up with anything. I don’t profess to be that good at research so I would like to know more. Everything I read seemed to support the reply from Tim. I’ve only been a nudist for a couple of years so I have a lot to learn but from everything that I’ve witnessed at the family nudist camps I’ve been to, sexuality plays no part in the nudist community. As Tim says, there are exceptions to the rule.

      • Grant says:

        There’s the belief that “Simple Nudity” doesn’t have the sexualized properties that say wearing some skimpy outfit or a bikini has. Also the way the clothes are designed they are designed to emphasize certain parts where as simply being nude is just that, just not wearing clothes and once someone gets used to that then indeed one may find more sexuality and focusing on bodies occurring at textile locations.

        But body painting puts the emphasis back upon the body. Indeed especially when artists use the exposure of some of the parts as part of the design.

        And then of course is the touching factor. Of course with massages you have the touching factor too but then again I have never heard of children being part of massages.

  3. Tim says:

    I would say not, since the body is not necassarily painted (or adorned) for strictly fertility purposes, although there is an element of that in some circumstances (Fantasy Fest or Mardi Gras). We can adorn the body for reasons of social connectedness where we all wear the same pattern to distinguish ourselves from others. Think of the way Mennonites or Amish present themselves. They are apart from others, just as we nudists are apart from others in our appearance.
    When we adorn our nude bodies we celebrate the body as the vessel of our being, not as a single purpose sexual device. We can say, “Look at me, and how I have decorated myself. Isn’t it lovely. It matches the grasss and trees and sky and all things natural.”
    I think that there can be a sexual purpose to body adornment, but that is not what we are talking about.

  4. Pingback: All-Nudist » Nuggets!

  5. Pingback: All-Nudist » AANR’s Amazing Canvas Naked Body Painting Promotion

  6. Beryl says:

    Face and body painting is about the expression of art, the ability to enjoy the human body as a canvas and experiment with different ideas. Although not everyone can understand or appreciate the art because they are clouded by the judgement of what they perceive. There are many people that love face painting and body painting in Sydney.

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