Makeup Designer

  • Makeup Designer

The design process is about telling a story, and a makeup artist paints that story in color. The actor emotes through his or her body and face, but it is the makeup designer’s task to enhance that emotion and help convey the character.


The makeup designer is hired by the producer during pre-production, and begins by reading the script. He or she must identify the period, location, mood, and any specific descriptions in the text that must be reflected on the actor’s face, like scars, wounds, or other significant physical features. This is especially challenging when preparing for fantasy productions like Shrek, Young Frankenstein, or the Off-Broadway cult classic Bat Boy. (Depending on the skills of the designer, a special effects makeup designer may be hired to concentrate on latex work and other facial prosthetics.) The makeup designer consults with the director, costume designer, and production designer to establish visual themes that reflect the aesthetic vision of the show. The makeup designer must create a color palette that complements the lighting, costumes, and characters: For The Little Mermaid, a cool palette with hints of shine and glitter might be best, but for Civil War or Man of La Mancha, warm tones with a certain antique, muted quality would be more appropriate.

Next the makeup designer creates facial representations of each lead and supporting character in the medium of his or her choice; this could be a sketch on paper, watercolor paintings, or digital mock-ups. An illustration of male and female background performers is created as a general template. After these designs are refined and eventually approved by the director, the designer does a trial run with each actor to perfect the image and will present the looks to the director with full costume during the “parade.”

The designer assembles a “bible,” which holds receipts for products and expendables, color information, and the character illustrations—everything needed to reproduce the process, with all information generated by the makeup department. In many cases, stage actors will be left to execute their own makeup each night during the run of the production, so the designer and makeup artists must train the performers in the proper application of makeup and provide them with design templates. Often, the makeup designer must also instruct the actor on how to prepare their faces for the heavy greasepaint and necessary technique for removal.

Skills & Education

Stage makeup is not like the products you find at the drugstore or the department-store cosmetics counter. It is highly concentrated pigment suspended in a thick base, meant to stand up to sweat, and a little goes a long way. A makeup designer must be specifically trained in the proper use of these materials. A college degree in theatrical production with a concentration in makeup design is preferred, though an education in makeup design from a beauty or fashion school can be helpful if combined with additional training for theater. Special effects training and proficiency with latex and other faux materials is valuable in this career. A designer must have a solid understanding of lighting and color theory, and most of all, a steady hand and creative mind.

What to Expect

Costumers and makeup artists get closer to the cast than any other member of the production staff. Dressing bodies and painting faces is an intimate process that requires someone who is both discreet and polite—it doesn’t hurt to be a good conversationalist (with sweet-smelling breath). In the makeup department of a live production, there aren’t many steps up the ladder, so graduation from one level to the next will depend on your experience and evolving skill. Stay current on emerging techniques. With time and several credits under your belt, you will make the steps forward from makeup assistant to artist and eventually designer. These artists are eligible for membership in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents production technicians and artists in film, television, and theater.


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