How Stage Makeup Works

John Lithgow begins to apply makeup before a performance of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." See pictures of makeup tips.
Joe Tabacca/AP Photo

Creating a believable character is one of the greatest challenges an actor faces when performing in a show. Actors must consider a host of factors. What does the character sound like? How does he or she move? And of course there's the often-parodied question, "What's my character's motivation?" One thing that can help an actor flesh out a role into a believable character is stage makeup.

Through stage makeup, actors can transform themselves. They can travel through time to play someone younger or add decades of experience with a few simple products and techniques. They can switch genders or become something inhuman. And just as stage makeup can help an audience suspend disbelief as they watch a show it can help an actor lose him or herself in a role.


Stage makeup and cosmetic makeup have two different goals. People use cosmetics to hide imperfections or enhance certain features. But an actor uses stage makeup as part of creating a character. That might mean enhancing imperfections rather than hiding them or employing dramatic application techniques rather than opting for subtlety. Actors can use some cosmetic products for theatrical purposes, but in general performers need to use different techniques and makeup to create the right look for the stage.

Actors won't always employ the same techniques and makeup from one show to another. The way an actor uses stage makeup depends upon the venue itself. An actor performing on a large stage with a house that can seat hundreds of people may need to make his or her makeup more striking than a performer in a smaller theater. For very small venues, actors may only use a simple foundation or powder. Some might not use any makeup at all.

We'll begin with a quick look at the basics every actor needs in a makeup kit.





Types of Stage Makeup

An actor's makeup kit should contain foundation, rouge, eyeshadow and other basics.

Every actor or makeup artist needs certain tools to create the perfect face for a production. The first thing to consider is the makeup itself. There are two main categories of stage makeup: cream-based makeup and cake makeup.

Cream-based makeup contains oil and can come in cream or stick formats. It's also known as greasepaint. In general, it's easier to apply cream-based makeup evenly than cake makeup. It's a heavy makeup and can cause people with sensitive skin to develop acne after wearing it for a few hours. It's also harder to remove than cake makeup.


Cake makeup comes in powder form, which you must mix with a little water before applying to your skin. While cake makeup tends to be gentler on the skin, it's also challenging to apply without streaking. Cake makeup is easier to remove than cream-based makeup.

Either type of makeup should have a high-pigment content. The pigment is important in stage productions, because actors often perform under bright lights. These lights will reveal imperfections. Makeup with a high-pigment content can conceal blemishes or other skin conditions.

In addition to a foundation, actors will need rouge, shadow and highlight makeup, a pencil liner, mascara, eye shadow, lip color and powder. Most actors and makeup artists will use a translucent powder, though some will choose a powder that matches the color of their foundation. That covers the basics. For special effects, actors may need additional makeup including an adhesive called spirit gum, blood makeup, crepe hair (for false beards) or gelatin.

Other items that should be in every actor's makeup kit are various makeup removers. Many actors use cold cream to remove makeup. But a full makeup kit could also include spirit gum remover, an astringent, moisturizer and eye cream.


Stage Makeup Tools

Applying makeup becomes easy with a large mirror, bright lighting and a little practice.

The well-equipped actor will have a variety of tools inside a makeup kit. To apply a foundation smoothly, actors use makeup sponges. You can find sponges made of latex or latex-free materials. The triangular sponge is popular among actors because the shape of the sponge makes it easier to apply makeup around features like the ears and nose.

A good makeup kit will also contain a variety of brushes. Use a soft, long-haired brush to apply rouge or other powder-based colors on top of your foundation. Use shorter-hair brushes to apply shadows and highlights if you wish to accentuate the lines of your face -- an essential part of creating an older appearance.


A powder puff is also a necessary tool. As you might expect given the name, you use a powder puff to apply setting powder on top of your makeup. Setting your makeup prevents it from streaking or smudging as you perform. Since actors can become warm under the hot lights of the stage or while moving around under bulky costumes, sweating is almost impossible to avoid. Setting your makeup with powder will help prevent you from sweating it off in the middle of the show.

If you plan to create special effects with your makeup, you'll want to purchase a stipple sponge. The basic stipple sponge doesn't look like a sponge at all. It looks more like a block made out of wire mesh. Actors use stipple sponges to create special textures with makeup. With the right application technique, you can use a stipple sponge to create effects like bloody scratches or severe burns.

Makeup kits should also include tools designed to help remove makeup. Washcloths, cotton balls, baby wipes and a towel are good items to have on hand. If you're using putty to alter the shape of your nose, you may also want to have some dental floss on hand. You can use the floss to peel away the putty.


Applying Stage Makeup

Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame transforms into Fagin in the musical "Oliver!"
Dave M. Benett/Getty Images

There are a few tips every actor should follow before applying stage makeup. Male actors shouldn't shave immediately before applying stage makeup. Shaving can irritate the skin and applying makeup can cause further irritation. Actors should also make sure their faces are clean and dry before putting on makeup. It's easier to ensure a smooth makeup application if your skin is clean beforehand.

Sit in a well-lit room in front of a mirror and make sure your clothing and hair are out of the way before you begin. Apply foundation to a sponge. If you're using a cream-based makeup, you can rub the sponge a few times across the makeup's surface. If you're using cake makeup, you'll need to dampen your sponge before you rub it against the foundation.


Dab the sponge against your face to apply the foundation. Next, blend the foundation into your skin by rubbing gently with the sponge. Apply the makeup evenly across your face. Remember, how heavily you apply makeup depends upon the venue. In a smaller theater, the audience will be sitting close to you and a heavy makeup application could be distracting. But you'll need a heavier application if the theater is larger and the audience will be farther away.

Next, it's time to apply highlights, shading and eye shadow. Use makeup a shade or two lighter or darker than your foundation. With just a little practice, actors can use highlights and shading to give their face the appearance of a different shape. You should apply highlights along your bone structure, particularly along your cheekbones and nose. A darker color can create shading along your cheeks and nostrils. It's important to blend the spots where highlights and shading meet.

You can also use highlights and shading to add years to your face. First, you can use a fine brush to emphasize the natural lines in your face by applying shading along each line. Next, you can use a clean brush to apply highlights along the edges of the darker lines. Finally, blend the edges together gently. By emphasizing the lines of your face you can give yourself an aged, wrinkled appearance.

You don't need a wide assortment of eye shadow colors to create effective stage makeup. Using makeup a few shades lighter than your foundation can help emphasize your eyes, making them appear larger to the audience. If your character should appear to have smaller eyes, you can use a darker color. Powder-based eye shadow works well, and you should use a brush to apply the makeup evenly to your upper eyelid.


Stage Makeup and Finishing Touches

Once your foundation, highlights, shading and eye shadow are to your liking, it's time to apply powder. Press your powder puff into your container of powder and gently shake off any excess powder -- too much powder can cause makeup to cake. Gently dab at the applied makeup to set it in place. This should also prevent your makeup from appearing too shiny when you're under the lights.

After setting your makeup, you can apply eyeliner, mascara, lip color and rouge. It's okay to use makeup to exaggerate your features. Again, keep the venue in mind when applying makeup. You want your makeup to enhance your character without being distracting. Remember that most productions take place under bright lights, which tend to deemphasize your face's structure. You need to use makeup to prevent your face from appearing featureless or flat.


Eyeliner helps emphasize your eyes. You can use either a pencil liner, a brush with a powder-based eyeliner or an eyeliner pen. Stick with basic colors like black or brown-black. Male actors can use eyeliner to outline their lower eyelids from the outer edge of the eye to the center.

For lip color, lipstick and lip outliner are both useful. You'll want the outliner to be a shade or two darker than the lip color. Use the outliner to define your lips. The color will prevent your lips from blending in with the rest of your face. It doesn't need to be a dramatic color.

Apply rouge with a soft brush. Again, subtle colors are fine if that's what your character requires. Use the rouge to define your cheeks and give shape to your face.

These are just the basics of makeup application. Some productions will require further consideration. Playing a character from a different era of history may necessitate special makeup techniques to achieve the right look. Special effects such as prosthetics or burns, cuts, bruises and other wounds also require extra work.

Makeup can become a fun and helpful part in creating a character. Novice actors may find the process intimidating, but with a little practice and research it's easy to grasp the basics. And remember that while theater techniques aren't subtle -- you shouldn't use a heavy hand if your project is a video, film or photo shoot.

Learn more about makeup through the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Corson, Richard et al. "Stage Makeup." 10th Edition. Boston: Pearson. April 17, 2009.
  • "Stage Makeup Tips." (Nov. 7, 2009)
  • Parker, Alaina. "Stage Makeup." Dec. 7, 2006. (Nov. 6, 2009)