Pulling Back the Curtain: Beyond Beauty Make-up

Eyelashes 2 copy

Eyelashes and Make-up from “The Legend of Georgia McBride” (2014) at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company.

When it comes to make-up, we often think of our mothers or sisters looking at their reflection in the bathroom mirror as they add a hint of blush on their cheeks or gently slide a tube of lipstick across their lips. Make-up is often seen as an accent for an everyday beauty look or something you buy at a local grocery store for Halloween.  However, during my discussions with Make-up Artists for theatre, film, and other forms of entertainment I found their work to be more than smearing green face paint on an performer to turn them into the Elphaba for a production of Wicked. Not only are there various techniques of Make-up, but the methods are always changing and improving. Curious to see what I mean by this? Then continue reading to learn about this intricate and evolving industry.


Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

Is there a set approach to designing? Does designing mean you get to whatever you want? The Make-up Artists I interviewed had a couple of different approaches to design:

  • Eric Clark-A current designer of the Cirque du Soliel show “One Night, One Drop,” a show designed around finding sustainable water sources for developing countries, begins designing after the Director gives ideas or images on a Mood Board for a concept of the show. From here, Eric uses art books and multiple online resources to reach the Director’s visual concept. He also uses Procreate on his iPad to develop colors and designs.Meredith
  • Meredith Murphy-Currently a Costume Designer and Costume Crafts Artisan at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities in Arvada, Colorado, Meredith used her knowledge and experience during her training at Monster Maker Studios to see the design all the way through to the end. She focuses on starting with shapes of creatures she wants to sculpt and approaches the situation with an open mind. Working with her in Costume Crafts, she constantly reminded me, “There isn’t a “Costume Crafts” college that has set ways of accomplishing something. There are multiple ways to do things.” From Meredith’s advice I’ve found you can always take something apart and start over again and use your materials for something else.
  • Jocelen Barnett-Although Jocelen is not a Make-up Designer, her work with designers at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theatre Company requires her to learn new techniques and think creatively to produce the look a designer has researched and decided upon.  For “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” Jocelen had to figure out how to complete an entire look in under two minutes, a complicated feat given the fact that most drag queen make-up takes at least an hour to apply because of the heavy foundation and contours.  It’s evident that designing takes more than making a pretty drawing, it takes knowledge of your materials and other fields as well.

Applying Make-up should be pretty easy, right? Not at all. Take for example the process of Life Casting, used to make Prosthetics, explained by both Eric and Meredith:

Step 1

Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

  • This first step requires covering the performer’s head and face with material to make a Negative Impression of their head. In Meredith’s case, she used Body Double, which picks up every detail from pores to hair.

    Step 2

    Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

  • Now that a Negative Impression is created, a plaster (Meredith used Ultracal-30) can be sculpted inside to create a Positive Impression of the performer’s head and face.

    Step 3

    Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

  • Once the Positive Impression is finished, the impression is sprayed with a release agent and layers of plaster are sculpted on top of the Positive Impression to make another mold. It is placed in a special oven to bake. When the mold is taken out, another Negative Impression is created.

    Step 4

    Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

  • Using foam latex of foam, gel, a curing agent, and a base agent, this mix is poured into the Negative Impression. The Positive Impression is then placed on top of the foam latex. The void in between the Negative and Positive Impressions provides the shape that the foam latex will take as it forms a mold. After baking for 4½-5 hours, the mold that has been formed is taken out, which is now a prosthetic.
Step 5

Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

What other techniques are used in Make-up? One technique Meredith finds that has helped her as she transitions from Costume Crafts to Make-up is her knowledge and comfort with airbrushing. Knowing how materials behave that you airbrush with, whether it is India Inks or alcohol palettes (which can be used on performers since alcohol sterilizes and they last longer) gives you a stronger sense of how to use the materials and their potential strengths and drawbacks. Eric also adds that in addition to knowing the characteristics and chemical composition of Make-up products you also need to understand how to use Make-up products for multiple uses. For example, blush can be use on more than cheeks, it can also be used on eyes or lips. He also suggests understanding how the visual arts are connected and having knowledge of different artistic techniques. Eric also stresses the importance of empathy for the performer. Understanding how it feels to have prosthetic pieces and Make-up applied to you helps improve your technique and know how to troubleshoot problems such as allergic reactions to Make-up products.  Possible allergic reactions and having performers become sick from using the same make-up brushes is what causes Jocelen to recommend sanitation as one of the very important Make-up techniques.  Make-up is an industry where psychological, artistic, and chemical elements all come together.

Meredith Working

Make-up and Costume Design and Creation from Meredith Murphy during her class at Monster Maker Studios.

Are there specific ways of creating Special Effects with Make-up? Eric explains that when it comes to Special Effects Make-up, you have to compile everything you know and have experienced to creatively and safely take on the challenges of Special Effects. During his experience with “One Night, One Drop,” Eric has to figure out how to cover some of the performers in something that appears to have the same characteristics and look of crude oil. In order to find products that can create the appearance of crude oil but also aren’t slippery and put the performers at risk, he has to approach the challenge more creatively. By contacting companies whose products he’s used before to learn more about their qualities and chemical composition, he’s working on the concerns of using these materials. But using products aren’t the only place to start. As Meredith and Eric have both found, just about anything can be used to create a desired effect. It’s all about looking at things in a completely different way and not always thinking about them for their intended use.  Jocelen, for instance, wanted to achieve an effect of skin peeling off a performer’s face and achieved this look by layering pieces of tissue paper with liquid latex.  This work required Jocelen to be patient to let the layers dry in between steps and pick up the fine details.

If you’ve worked in a salon as a hairdresser or cosmetologist in a salon, can you work as a Hair and Make-up Artist? The work to ventilate wigs, style hair, and apply make-up requires training, extensive education, and apprenticeship experience to reach where each of these Hair and Make-up Artists works today. How do you begin a career in this field? Read my next post tomorrow to find out.

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