Theatrical Makeup

Theatre artist applying makeup

Thousands of years ago, people in many parts of the world discovered that powdered pigments mixed into a base of wax or grease could be used to create striking effects of personal adornment and transformation. The survival of that practice is reflected in a common term for theatrical makeup, "grease-paint." Select types or styles of makeup were often used for special occasions, which could include going to war, celebrating stages of life, and religious festivals. The latter often included performative aspects, such as dance and reenactments of mythical events. Modern theatrical makeup therefore is heir to a very ancient performance tradition.

Ancient Theater Traditions

Some ancient theatrical traditions have relied on masks for the creation of visual characters; others have relied on makeup for the same purpose. In Asia, for example, one can point to the masked theater of Java and the elaborately made-up Kathakali dance theater of southwestern India, or the masked religious dances of Tibet and the strikingly masklike makeup of the Peking Opera and related theatrical forms in China. In Japan, the Noh drama is masked, while Kabuki drama employs extravagant makeup.

Stage Makeup

Ancient Greek theater was masked, but later European theater usually used stage makeup to create characters, heighten facial features, and compensate for the effects of stage lighting. (The Italian Commedia del'Arte, which continued to employ masks, was an important exception.) Until well into the twentieth century, performers were expected to do their own makeup, as they were expected to supply their own stage costumes. The professional theatrical makeup artist is a modern phenomenon, as is the theatrical costume designer.


Theatrical makeup is inseparable from the act of performance itself. The aim of theatrical makeup is to delineate and enhance the role of a character and to give performers an additional tool for conveying the characters being performed. Stage makeup is often used to create visual stereotypes or clichés that will be readily understood by the audience. Stage makeup is usually much more colorful and graphic than ordinary cosmetic makeup. When viewed closely, it can seem excessive and exaggerated, but it works when the performer is on stage being seen at a distance by the audience. Theatrical makeup itself is also heavier, more dense, and more strongly colored than ordinary cosmetics, and it is often produced in the form of lipstick-like waxy crayons or pencils. For many performers, the act of putting on makeup is an important part of the ritual of preparing for a performance; it allows the performer to move psychologically into the role of the character as the makeup is being applied.

Modern Makeup Artists

Makeup artists are employed today in a variety of roles, and they often specialize in, for example, theatrical makeup, cinema makeup, fashion photography and runway makeup, or special effects. Regardless of specialty, they typically require years of training and practice to perfect their skills. Special effects makeup is particularly prominent in the world of film, but has also played an important role in the success of many popular Broadway productions, such as Jekyll and Hyde and Beauty and the Beast. In the film trilogy The Lord of the Rings, the prosthetic feet worn by the hobbits were made by a team of special effects makeup artists. Hundreds of pairs were made, as a new pair had to be worn daily by each actor in a hobbit role. In executing such assignments, makeup artists have to draw on skills in sculpture and other plastic arts as well as in the use of cosmetics.

Establishing a Character

Whether in the dramatic makeup of a horror film or the powerful aesthetic appeal of the unique makeup employed by the Cirque du Soleil, makeup plays an important part in establishing the characterization and impact of a performed role. Baz Luhrmann's successful films of Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge, and his stage production of La Bohême, owed a significant part of their theatricality and audience appeal to his production team's careful use of makeup techniques that evoked a period style. As these examples indicate, by the early twenty-first century makeup in different theatrical and fashion genres began to cross previously rigid barriers. The world of film, especially in special effects, has had a profound impact on the development of new techniques of stage makeup, and today theatrical makeup shows up regularly on fashion catwalks as well. Recent fashion shows by Dior and Givenchy, for example, have been notable for their strong sense of theater. Fashion makeup artists have begun to borrow liberally from traditional stage makeup techniques to create striking new designs that help to showcase the fashions on display. Meanwhile, theatrical makeup is enriched by new developments in film, fashion photography, and other media.

See also Makeup Artists.


Corson, Richard. Fashions in Makeup: From Ancient to Modern Times. London: Peter Owen Ltd., 1972.

Delamar, Penny. The Complete Make-up Artist: Working in Film, Television, and Theater. 2nd edition. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2002.

Kehoe, Vincent. The Technique of the Professional Make-up Artist. New York: Focal Press, 1995.

Theatrical Makeup