[Editor’s Note: earlier this month Sharpologist ran "Confessions of an Ordinary Shaver,” about one man’s shaving philosophy. To contrast it, Doug writes how shaving can be artistry.] There are secret artists among us. Perhaps you are one. These artists don’t make sculpture or pictures; rather they have elevated the daily shave well beyond mere grooming, and even beyond skilled craftsmanship. They give a performance that usually only they themselves witness; but it is truly art. Their primary tool is a razor with a single cutting edge at its business end. This includes straight razors, single-edge safety razors, double-edge razors, and even single-bladed disposable razors.
Most shaving artists start like other shavers new to the single-edged concept – usually having previously shaved with multi-bladed disposable designs. As a result, they had become accustomed to shaving quickly, with little attention to razor pressure against the skin, usually only shaving with the primary grain of the beard, and with a result decidedly mediocre.
Genesis of the Shaving Artist
Most shaving artists probably begin their journey to shaving artistry with video instructions on the three-pass shave – perhaps often provided by the Sharpologist himself. The key thing that this shave-by-numbers technique provides is the crucial introduction to the close shave, the near-baby-smooth shave, the potential offered by a single-bladed shaving instrument.
The next ingredient that may be needed to propel the future shaving artist on his journey is sensitive skin. For those destined for shaving artistry, it may be fate that paves their path by making the three-pass shave too irritating to be sustainable day after day. This commonly leads the inchoate shaving artist on a journey through various razors, blades, soaps, prepping techniques, and balms.
Over time, the future shaving artist settles on his preferred tools and supplies. These are not enough, however, because of the motivation for both a smooth and comfortable shave despite easily offended skin. So the budding artist experiments with touch and technique. Deviating from three strict passes, he experiments with fewer, and with different stroking directions. He studies everything, he questions everything.
Sometimes he will physically modify razors. He may make his own shaving-lubricant formulations including shave oils, soaps and creams. Over time, when these trials and experiments have diminished and settled down into a fairly stable routine and shaving kit, the shaving artist fully abandons recommendations prescribed by others. He is in full command not only of the tools of his art, but also its techniques. He makes his own rules and approach. Then there is just one final step the shaving craftsman takes to become a true shaving artist.
The Ultimate Step to Artistry
The artist must declare himself as an artist – at least to himself.
In that realization and recognition of his daily grooming as a creative expression, every stoke acquires greater meaning. Every nuance of applied technique becomes artistry.
This artistry is subtle but the deviation from common practices may be obvious. In the workman-like approach of a three pass shave, the first pass, with grain, sweeps whiskers and lather from the face like one brooms a garage floor. It removes stubble and lather, leaving a relatively clean expanse of facial skin in its wake. The used lather is repeatedly rinsed off the razor. Even from this most basic beginning of a shave, the shaving artist may vary in any number of ways according to his facial topography and beard characteristics.
For example, even his shave preparation may vary. His selection of razor and blade, soaps, creams, shaving brushes and the rest are a creative decisions, made not by whim, but by the ultimate effect that he seeks to achieve on this particular day. He may prep his beard with hot towels, warm water, or he may simply use cool tap water to gently wet the stubble and preserve skin oils that hot water may remove. He may make the initial with-grain strokes as buffing strokes of moderate length. He might also choose to make his strokes oblique – a general variation of the so-called Gillette slide; that is, strokes where the blade edge is not perpendicular to the stroke direction. He may also shave in a pattern of strokes that run from a lathered area outward to the perimeter of the lather – the so-called anti-raking pattern, in which the face is not swept entirely clean of lather as the shave progresses. He may also not even make a complete with-grain first pass, preferring instead to shave the beard in regions – each region being shaved completely smooth before moving on to the next.
Yet whether done as a complete first pass or merely as the first strokes in a region of the beard, the with-grain start is merely prelude, as a painter might prepare his canvas with background tones for earth and sky. Depending on the shaving artist’s early choices, he can take many paths less traveled by. He may re-lather; or – if he has chosen to make buffing strokes and swipe used lather from the razor with a finger, re-wetting and re-applying with his free hand – he may not actually do a second full-beard lather from the brush as he progresses through the remainder of his private performance.
As a sculptor is familiar with the texture of his clay and the tools to remove or re-shape it, the shaving artist knows the nuance of his beard. So while eschewing the 1-2-3 progression of the three-pass shave, he may still employ cross-grain strokes where they best apply. However, to reduce unnecessary strokes of sharp steel against sensitive skin, the shaving artist may move directly from with-grain to against-grain strokes. These, too, may be oblique, and perhaps even buffing, but would more often be short and very slow in character to have better feel and control of the edge, which is so dangerously close to living tissue beneath the upper-most layers of old epidermal cells. But, to follow those initial with-grain sweeps, he may also choose slow, careful J-hooking strokes in areas that are otherwise problematic, with challenging mixed grain. These J-hooking strokes might be used in areas just under the jaw line and behind the jaw line under the ears.
It has been said that no creative work is finished; it is merely abandoned. So it is with the shaving artist. As the shave nears its final act, choices continue to be made. Often, the final finishing strokes are done with a minimum of soap – relying on the minuscule residual-soap layer and fortified with much water for safety. Problem areas are addressed, and usually with stroke variations not previously employed in this shave. Whatever the technique or tool, it is always done considering the balance between excessive stroking (which can damage sensitive skin) and the desired smoothness from the day’s shaving performance.
In sum, the artistry is in the self awareness that the shaving artist is in full command of his craft , and he uses that command as a conscious creative expression. That is the key: the shaving artist is intentionally making his personal artistic statement. He isn’t merely grooming; he is creating. Every shave is new creative project. His creation is transitory, yes, but for that brief time, it is there; it is real and can be enjoyed – at least by his solitary audience of the artist himself.
Art is a process as much as an outcome. Every shave may not become a masterpiece, but each of the shaving artist’s actions is a conscious expression of that goal.
Happy shaving, happy creating!
About the Author
Douglas N. Hansford is a registered dietitian nutritionist in private practice in Southeastern Michigan, specializing in finding and addressing food sensitivities that underlie many chronic physical conditions. He is also a freelance writer and shaving artist.