Training to Become a Theatrical Makeup Artist



Good theatrical makeup may not be the star of the show, but for the actors baking under those harsh stage lights, it’s an important element of the production. It helps set the stage, define the mood, and complement the actor’s performance.

Theatrical makeup is an art in itself, and makeup artists who have mastered this art form enjoy successful careers preparing performers for the stage.

A Theatrical Makeup Primer: What Every Makeup Artist Should Know

Before things get too complicated, let’s talk about basic stage makeup. In general, theatrical makeup must be stronger and darker than traditional makeup to compete with bright lights and an audience watching from a distance.

On the other hand, it mustn’t be too strong or it will end up overpowering the face and looking orange and unnatural. This means that like so many other makeup artistry techniques, you must have a discerning eye and a skillful hand.

Pancake Foundation

A bolder face for theater means calling in the reinforcements – pancake foundation. Pancake foundation is applied using a makeup sponge and a small amount of water to achieve the desired look. The more water used, the thinner and lighter the color will appear.

Because of its thick consistency, it is best to begin applying pancake foundation to the T-zone, the jawline, and the neck, blending as you go. After expertly applying the foundation, finish the look with a bold cream rouge, cream eye shadow, and a liquid eyeliner.

Cake foundation is also the perfect medium for creating older characters. Ask the actor to scrunch his face while you apply the cake foundation. Doing so will create natural creases in the makeup, which you will then fill in with an eye pencil to add age and depth to the face. You can also add a subtle hint of brown to the foundation to create sallowness.

Even experienced makeup artists find working with pancake foundation to be challenging at first. Although makeup should be exaggerated close up and look more natural from afar, it is a challenge finding the right balance between looking washed out and looking like a clown.

Keep in mind that pancake foundation is like applying a layer of paint to a blank canvas. It is thick and less forgiving than traditional foundations, but it is second to none when creating a face for the stage. Applying pancake foundation takes a skillful touch, plenty of blending expertise, and loads of trial and error to get it right.

Cream Rouges and Eye Colors

The hot lights of the theater are enough to make anyone a sweaty mess. Because of the sweat factor, it’s important to switch out powder makeup for their cream-based counterparts, and consider those with waterproof elements.

Many theatrical makeup artists swear by a fixing spray once the makeup is applied, followed by a dusting of translucent powder to set the look. And it certainly never hurts to have a stash of blotting papers in your makeup bag at all times.

What Every Theatrical Makeup Artist Needs

Your makeup case for the theater will likely be far removed from the one you use for fashion shoots or private clients. You may choose to build your own kit or purchase one of the many pre-assembled theatrical makeup kits designed to take the guesswork out of creating a professional theatrical makeup collection with everything you’ll need.

Whatever you choose, you’ll want to make sure your theatrical makeup artist case includes:

  • Pancake makeup in at least three shades to allow for expert blending: fair/olive fair, medium/olive medium, and medium dark/dark
  • A palette of cream eye, cheek, and lip colors
  • Translucent powder
  • Eye liner pencils
  • Highlight eye cream
  • Stipple sponges
  • Foam makeup sponges
  • Powder puff
  • Blotting papers
  • Makeup remover and cleanser
  • Disposable lipstick and lip gloss applicators

Theatrical makeup is intensely pigmented and easy to blend, so most makeup artists find that choosing theatrical-specific makeup is the best way to go.

Most theatrical makeup artists will tell you that high-quality theatrical makeup is worth its weight in gold, so always aim for big names in theatrical makeup like Ben Nye, Mehron, and Kryolan.

You can also purchase smaller student kits if you want to begin experimenting with theatrical makeup but you don’t want to make the investment just yet.

Training in Theatrical Makeup: What You Need to Know

Trained theatrical makeup artists are able to deftly determine the makeup needs of theater actors based on the lighting, the script, the character, and the distance from the audience.

Many theatrical makeup artists may also choose to pursue advanced training in areas like high-definition makeup, special effects makeup, and airbrushing. Special effects makeup includes an array of highly specialized techniques that include:

  • Prosthetics
  • Creature design
  • Hair and beard application
  • Mold making
  • Eyes and teeth
  • Sculpting

Although comprehensive makeup artistry programs teach the basics, entering the world of theatrical makeup will require an advanced course of training. Programs available through local beauty academies and career training institutes prepare practicing makeup artists and those that aspire to a career in professional stage makeup artistry by providing them with the knowledge, skills and specialized techniques unique to applying makeup for theater, film, and television.

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