Local painter perfects craft on living canvases
If Thomas Huus is the Neil Armstrong of face painting, then North Dakota is his moon.
"When I started, there was nobody; I had no competition," he said.
Seven years after setting up at the Fargo Street Fair on a whim to make some extra money, the West Fargo resident has honed his face painting craft into a fine art.
In fact, that's exactly how the longtime painting whiz views his career; creating works of art on living canvases.
"I'm a painter, and whether it's a face or a canvas or a wall, it's just another surface," said Huus, who has been painting since he was 14 years old and now runs Thomas Face and Body Painting. "But that's what makes my face painting different - this is a professional artist doing it."
Even though he had little competition in the beginning, it took a while for Huus' talent to get noticed.
"I've been a struggling, starving artist for most of my life, but I am finally getting the business aspects together," said Huus, a husband and father to several children. "It's a lot of work to figure this stuff out."
But momentum grew and, pretty soon, Huus was getting booked for everything from small family get-togethers to grandiose state fairs. Now, he can say he's pretty much seen it all.
"I've been to every street fair in the state," he said.
One of Huus' most recent gigs was during the Children's Miracle Network telethon at Sanford Health in Fargo. Huus set up his desk and gear, and within minutes had children flocking to get their faces painted.
After whipping up a sparkly streak of multi-colored stars on five-year-old Moorhead twins, Elizabeth and Quinn Dreessen, Huus is met with a bit more challenging order.
A young NDSU fan wishes to have the Bison mascot emblazoned on his cheek.
With the boys' Bison backpack for reference, Huus deftly duplicates its likeness on the young NDSU fan's face. By the time he is finished just a few minutes later, everything from the ivory horns to the green-fringed golden fur is spot on.
"There," Huus said, as he holds up a pair of small mirrors. "What do you think?"
The boy smiles and thanks Huus.
"That's what I love about this job," Huus said. "Instant gratification."
Some folks might brush off face painting as a profession, given its outwardly simplistic nature. But Huus stressed that to do what he does, in a fast and technically sound manner, is nothing but simple.
"It's taken me years to perfect it," he said.
When Huus has dozens of antsy, impatient children waiting in line during a festival, it is for both his benefit and his clients that he get through as many painting in as short a time as possible without skimping on quality.
Another aspect often overlooked, however, is with the products he uses. Huus is careful only use FDA compliant face and body paint that, he claims, is far and away superior to any packaged goods bought cheaply off the shelf during Halloween.
In fact, Huus cautioned the use of those paints.
"One thing I've notices is people using the wrong products," he said. Poor paint can be dangerous and result in reactions, skin stains, or worse. "When it comes to my face and body painting, it's really of a cosmetic quality," he said.
Huus said he buys his paint from an American company that has been supplying theatrical makeup for more than 70 years.
"It's what you see in the movies," he said.
He also sells the same stuff he uses, and while he admitted that anyone can find it available online, Huus offers free product training with a purchase. His theory is that organizations or groups who would like to do makeup or face painting on a regular basis, could be taught by a professional first.
"It's really not as simple as people think," he said. "Any time you're dealing with kids, there are certain health issues you need to recognize, such as skin issues, infections...not transmitting from one person to a lot of other kids.
"And it's another thing when they've been standing in line for an hour and you have to tell them, 'sorry, I can't do that.' How do you take care of these situations?"
Labor of love
Face and body painting may be the norm, but Huus' work does not stop there.
"I can do anything from tastefully painting a pregnancy bump to henna tattoos to design work," he said. Thomas Face Painting even offers a service totally unique to the business: UV painting.
"Not only am I the first, but I am the only artist in North Dakota who does UV body paints," he said.
The paint, which glows under black light, is a favorite for parties and clubs, he said.
Winter may not be the busiest time of year for Huus, but he still is preparing for the busy summer ahead. Besides Huus himself, Thomas Face and Body Painting has several "apprentice artists" on hand who have been trained up to Huus' standards for speed and quality.
And behind Huus is his entire family.
"It really is a family-run business: I couldn't do it without them," he said.
Few artists ever get to really make a living off doing what they love. And even if they do, it can be a long wait between paychecks.
Huus, on the other hand, has found that happy medium between honing his craft and not eating baked beans every night.
Plus he's having fun, too.
"I love what I do. It's a lot of fun and the perfect job for an honest day's work," he said. "But here's what really drives it home for me: I can paint a canvas and, say, invest 20 or 40 hours into it. That's a huge investment. Then maybe it goes to a gallery, and they probably want at least half of the profits, so you really have to charge a lot for a painting. In difficult times like we're living in today, people just don't buy many paintings any more.
"As far as face and body painting goes, I get paid as soon as I do it."
Even more than the money, Huus appreciates the reactions he receives from happy customers. He put it into perspective.
"You can work for a year, then do a gallery opening and have one night to feel that gratification that you did a good job," he said. "But with this, you get an immediate response, because you show them and get that huge smile.
"And really, a parent is never more proud than when they're thinking of their children."
For questions about face painting, body painting, henna tattoos or any of Huus' work, visit his website at www.thomasfacepainting.com, or call him at 701-552-0204.