An NHL goaltender's mask is not only the one thing standing between a man's head and a 160-kilometre slapshot — it is also Sylvie Marsolais' canvas.
The Montreal-area airbrush artist is one of a small group who paint masks for the league's top goalies — each a unique work of art made to showcase both the team and the netminder's personality.
A recent mask Marsolais painted for the Florida Panthers' Reto Berra features palm trees superimposed over a background of team colours in red, gold and black. A surfer catches a wave on one side, while a realistic panther snarls on the other. Team logos decorate much of the top, while the back plate features the initials of Berra's family members.
Marsolais, 38, says each goaltender gets a personalized design and no two are ever the same.
"There's no production and there's no reproduction, it's just creativity from A to Z," the artist says in an interview in her workshop in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac as she layers red paint on a mask with smooth strokes and then stops to check the drawing in front of her.
Marsolais, who operates Sylabrush Airbrush with her partner Alexandre Mathys, says some goaltenders approach her knowing exactly what they want, while others let her take the lead in the design.
Team logos and brick walls are popular motifs, but goaltenders also request everything from family portraits to religious symbols to video game characters.
For logos and large graphics she uses vinyl stencils that are carefully stuck and later peeled off with a sharp knife. More detailed work, such as portraits, she draws freehand.
Her masks take anywhere between 15 and 40 hours to paint and cost anything from $600 to more than double that amount.
The painting of goalie masks is a competitive market, and many artists also try to stand out with signature techniques and special effects.
Marsolais' newest specialty is "ghost paint" that changes colour when heat or cold is applied.
As an example, a mask she painted for Ottawa's Craig Anderson features a black background that fades away when heat is applied with a hair dryer to reveal Marvin the Martian — a tribute to retired goalie Patrick Lalime, whose masks always featured the character.
Another painter, Swedish artist Dave Gunnarsson, attracted attention this year for his work with glow-in-the-dark paint, including a dramatic glowing lightning bolt mask for Tampa Bay backstopper Ben Bishop.
Gunnarsson, a prolific artist who paints masks for more than half the league's goaltenders, also lists a number of "special effects" on his website that include 3-D, metallic, holographic and glowing paints.
But for Alberta-based painter Jason Bartziokas, a good mask is less about gimmicks and more about simple, bold design.
"It's scale," said the Jasper-based airbrush artist, who counts Andrew Hammond and Chad Johnson among his NHL clients.
"I think bigger is better. A lot of times you'll have nice little details incorporated which is nice, but with the vents and screws and buckles they don't register as strong."
He says the secret is to find a balance between what looks good from afar for spectators and personal touches intended for the goalie alone.
"A lot of them use the back plate almost as a journal: things like their grandfather's initials, town where (they're) from, or the home country's flag," he said.
"The chin is the usual area to put a number or a nickname."
Bartziokas says the mask-painting field is more crowded than ever, meaning artists usually get contracts either through a personal relationship with the goaltender or through a team's trainer. Many artists begin painting for players at junior level and hope to stick with them as they move up the levels.
Both Bartziokas and Marsolais are goaltenders themselves, something they say gives them a personal connection to the game.
And both of them struggle to answer when asked to choose a favourite mask from among the ones they've done, given the time and energy invested into each one.
"The last one I've finished is always my favourite," Marsolais said.