When the artist known as Pashur mentally undresses a woman, he isn't doing so for prurient reasons. Pashur, who goes by his first name, is a professional body painter.
On a sunny spring day, the 41-year-old with the sweet, dorky-guy aspect is seated on a chair by a window in a photographer's loft downtown. A half-painted naked model stands in front of him. When he's done, a picture of her will appear on promotional posters for a body-painting event in England.
The event's theme is “vintage Britain,” so Pashur is doing a Sherlock Holmes piece. “It will be an illusion,” he says. “Her arm will be like Sherlock Holmes' arm, holding a magnifying glass, like investigating stuff.”
The model, 23-year-old Rebecca Case, brought two friends with her. As they, too, were young, pretty and nubile, Pashur wondered how they'd feel about posing. All three girls, he figured, would make an excellent triptych – Holmes on Case's front, and Watson and a foggy London night on the other girls' backs.
After brief discussion, the girls reached a consensus: They weren't too shy to take off their tops for the sake of art.
Painting on a human body differs from painting on a flat canvas in key respects. “The contours of the body play a big part in where everything has to go. It's almost like a puzzle,” Pashur explains, as he dabs green onto one girl's shoulder blade.
When he met Case two weeks ago, she had her clothes on. “So I didn't know what her breast shape was like. Or where her belly button is. Or whether it's an innie or outie.”
The idiosyncrasies of each human body affect the overall design. Pashur might, for example, turn an innie belly button into a cavity in the tooth of a pirate character. “Or if it's an outie, I might use it for a button for a robot.”
Navels have a wide range of applications – they can become clefts in a chin, bullet holes, dragon nostrils, zombie tears. Breasts can be turned into giant eyeballs for caricatures, or hairstyles, or baseballs. Today, he turned Case's breast into the bill of Holmes' deerstalker hat. It's a nifty bit of trompe l'oeil.
A Burbank resident, Pashur got his start as a body painter 16 years ago. Freshly graduated from Memphis College of Arts, the Tennessee native was working as a magazine illustrator in Nashville. As a side gig, he got into airbrush tattoos. Could he airbrush an entire body, he wondered? He found a pregnant model and painted her up as a robot with a cyborg baby incubating in a glass casing.
Before he even finished that first piece, he knew that painting bodies was for him.
Only a handful of body artists existed in this country when he was coming up. Today, the scene is bustling, and Pashur has become a major player.
He is self-taught, painting both by hand and with an airbrush. While some artists specialize in horror effects, or fantasy, Pashur is a generalist. “Whatever it takes to get the job done is my style,” he says.
Over the years, Pashur has become so inured to painting on skin, he sometimes forgets that not everyone is comfortable posing nude. “My normal is now not everyone else's normal,” he says.
There are some body painters who do it just to see girls naked. “Those guys do, like, very sloppy work,” he says. Then he shrugs. “You gotta start somewhere. Maybe he's actually trying. You can't be too judgmental. But you usually know. Because when you see them, they're kind of sleazy.”
He turns back to the girl in front of him. “Hold real still for me,” he says. “We're doing some detail work.”
He tends not to paint men because guys have body hair, and it's hard to paint over that. Smooth-shaven bodybuilders are the exception: Really, even though he paints mostly women, any kind of hairless creature really will do. He is hoping to paint an elephant someday.
“Once you paint a body, you don't ever want to go back to painting a white, square canvas,” he says. “When she turns around, that's a piece. When she puts her hand on her hip, that's a piece. You don't want to stop looking at it. Your work comes alive.”
That life is also what makes body painting tricky. Models can be rude. They eat, drink, dance to music playing in the background. Even in the best of circumstances, “She's breathing the whole time I'm painting her. You have to time your brushstrokes.” Mistakes, he cleans up with baby wipes.
The type of body Pashur looks for – fat, skinny, short, tall – depends on the piece. A sci-fi robot, for instance, calls for someone lanky and angular, someone who can “look extra droopy when they droop.” An abstract piece, on the other hand, is best on someone curvy, who can pop her hip out and emphasize the abstraction.
Ordinarily, Pashur eschews busty models. Big boobs skew the design too much. “But a bald model,” he says, “now that could be cool if you were gonna paint a jellyfish. I might paint her head as the bowl of the jellyfish, with the tentacles coming down her neck.”
The list of new pieces he wants to do is endless. It includes a piece he calls “The Battle,” featuring two women painted as dueling aliens, to be photographed in a red rock canyon near Las Vegas. He then will use Photoshop to make it look as if hundreds of female aliens are fighting in different positions.
Another piece involves a person clawing herself open, with her innards falling out: “I'll buy some intestines or steak at the grocery and have her hold it.”
In the “humorous” category, he has plans to paint the Kool-Aid guy busting out of a lady's torso, and Fonzie jumping a shark. Then he'd like to do a mythology-inspired piece involving buff guys turned into stone statues by Medusa. “Of course she'll have snakes, but cool ones. Not cheesy.”
He also needs to fill out gaps in his portfolio with a couple of essential pieces, “just to show I can do it.” He doesn't yet have an anatomy piece, for example. Those show off the artist's knowledge of muscles and make the model look like he or she has been flayed alive.
Pashur's portfolio is plenty diverse already, though. He once painted a monster on a lady's rear end. When she shook her butt, it looked like the monster was playing bongos. “It was hilarious.”
He's also painted a ton of lingerie. It's his one exception to the “no busty models” rule. Not long ago, he painted super-realistic corsets, panties, bras, garter belts and stockings onto 40 naked girls for a party at the Playboy Mansion. He brought a team of artists to help. Ten of the girls, he did himself. They got really efficient by the end – down to one hour per girl. Eventually, he ran out of underwear ideas and had to Google reference photos.
When he's not in a hurry, Pashur can lose himself in the process. Sometimes, he gets so focused on a particular detail that he is startled when his model moves. “Oh!” he'll say, with a small jump. “I forgot. You're alive.”