Applying Different Stage Makeup Looks

Tamara Warta
Be stage ready!

Applying stage makeup properly can be a challenging task. Learning the appropriate techniques can save you time, money, and embarrassment before you, or your performer, steps out into the spotlight.

The Art of Applying Stage Makeup

Do you remember the first time you wore cosmetics? Perhaps you wore a lipstick a little too dark, or your eyeshadow was in a shade and quantity that is now pretty embarrassing in hindsight. Just like an amateur preteen with her first tube of rouge, applying stage makeup can be daunting to the small theater company or makeup artist fresh out of college.

Perhaps you have a child about to make their stage debut. Maybe you are an aspiring actor yourself and you need to learn the art of preparing theatrical makeup. Either way, being skilled at applying stage makeup is a valuable skill to have.

Before you learn techniques of the trade, it's important to know some general tips that can make or break your final result.

  • Always make sure skin is clean and dry before applying anything
  • Have all of your supplies arranged ahead of time. This way you can apply the makeup for the dress rehearsal exactly as it will be for the performance
  • Check to ensure that there are no allergies to latex or cosmetics.
  • Always use paint designed specifically for the skin

Creating Various Looks for the Stage

Basic Stage Makeup

Applying a base of stage makeup can be tough at first. The difficulty comes from the stark contrast between the makeup's appearance in natural light and that which is seen from the stage.

Makeup should be stronger and darker than that worn in real life, however, you don't want to overpower the face in such a manner that the lead actor appears clown-like, especially to those audience members who splurged on front row seats.

The most common culprit in overzealous application is the cake base used in most performance settings. Wearing too much can cause the subject to look orange and unnatural, while too little will trigger a "washed out". Both appearances can be equally unattractive.

Use a proper cake foundation. This involves applying water to the pancake and then applying it to the face with a typical makeup sponge. The more water used, the thinner and lighter the color will go on. Apply from the inside of the T-zone out to the jawline and neck. This will prevent unnecessary streaking and an "orange" look.

Finish off with rouge on the applies of the cheeks and a liquid eyeliner, applying on the rim of the eye and then gradually thickening to prevent a cat-like final result.

Aging an Actor

Many times, especially in community theatre, a younger actor will be cast as an older character. The first step is to find examples of the character's age.

  • Look for pictures on the Internet of individuals within that age range. Really take a moment to study the lines and contours of a face lacking youth. Where are the wrinkles? Where is there a loss of elasticity?
  • Have the actor scrunch up his face while you apply the cake foundation.
  • With the creases left behind, trace over in eye pencil. These will serve as drawn in wrinkles to add age and depth to the face.
  • Use some highlights and shading with various tones of cake foundation.
  • You can throw in some white and grey paint to add to the effect.
  • Some theatre companies keep it simple by using white glue or a clear gel that can fuse small portions of the skin together, or create a more defined crease in the skin.
  • Add some rouge or go the opposite route with a subtle brown to add sallowness to the skin

Period Makeup

If you are performing a Shakespearean play or some other piece from a specific time period, it is important not to be heavy-handed with the base.

  • Create a white face with a simple powder several shades lighter than what the actor would typically wear.
  • Further the contrast with dramatically red lips. Give longevity with a longwearing lipstick or a red face paint.
  • Add accented beauty marks with an eye pencil or a dark brown paint.

Again, research is the most powerful tool you have toward a winning makeup look that is both convincing and appropriate.

Animal Prints

Some dance productions may call for a human to be transformed into an animal. While masks are always an option, you could always try using face paint.

  • Cut adhesive strips into circles, ovals, stripes, or any other shape suited to your desired animal pattern.
  • Paint over the entire face and the adhesive strips with a base color such as black or brown.
  • After this has had a few minutes to dry (a blow dryer can speed this process), peel off the adhesive.
  • Carefully define the bare shapes made with your choice of color
  • Trace over the eyebrows, cheeks, jawline, and other areas of the face necessary for accentuation
  • Glitter and bright colors can help complete the look of other-worldy creatures.

Skin Abrasions

Lastly, special effects makeup can be great for a production full of drama or violence.

  • Invest in some latex or spirit gum that can be used to create gaping wounds, scars, or other disfigurements that add an element of fear to your play.
  • Combine gelatin and water to clump a chunky "wound" onto your skin
  • Red face paint or fake blood can add accentuation to the pretend injury
  • For scars, stick to shades of pink and a flatter marking

Special effects and really any form of applying stage makeup can be tricky. Taking classes specifically on special effects makeup at your local recreation center or community college can help you make the leap from amateur to budding professional.

General Stage Makeup Application Techniques

The following techniques are useful for applying stage makeup.

  • Apply makeup evenly, but heavy. You will need to apply much more than an individual would usually wear.
  • Use a sponge or makeup brush to apply base, coating face and neck and evening out the edges with a cotton ball or wedge. Powder will finish off your base by removing shine.
  • Add color, such as blush or bronzer, on the apples of your cheeks. If you are attempting to look younger or fresh faced, add just a little color to the tip of your nose, as well.
  • For elaborate makeup looks, such as a total face color change, apply stage makeup beginning near your forehead, working your way down with the makeup sponge or brush. It may require several coats, especially if you are trying to turn the face white, like a mime or other character.
  • If you need to wear a wig for your part, be sure to blend makeup beyond where the wig meets your skin. This will make the look appear more natural.
  • Apply eyeliners well beyond your lash line to create a dramatic look. This is also a good way to add an exotic appearance to a character's look.

Additional Tips

Consider these steps to really improve your stage makeup look.

  • Professional stage makeup kits can be purchased online or at theater retail shops. These kits are useful if a drastic makeup look is needed.
  • Both men and women often wear stage makeup to achieve a more pleasing look on stage.
  • Stage makeup techniques do not necessarily come easily. Practice makes perfect.
  • Before applying any makeup, be sure to start with fresh, clean pores and skin to prevent future breakouts. Stage lights are notorious for making individuals sweat.

Whether you're just learning to apply stage makeup or looking to improve your technique, there are a variety of resources available. Check out online theater communities for advanced help from old pros.

Applying Different Stage Makeup Looks