How to Make a Kabuki Mask

Updated February 21, 2017

Kabuki theatre dates from 17th century Japan and has evolved into a highly stylised and distinctive traditional art form. As classic kabuki is performed by men, mask-like make-up indicates whether the character is a woman, villain, hero or even a wild beast. The make-up is simple and exaggerated. All features are obliterated under a coating of oil and a layer of thick white matt. Then cheekbones, jawbones and eyes are outlined and details of predominant emotion are added. Applying make-up is like putting on a mask and actors regard this ritual as the time to psychologically prepare for the role.

Purchase a plastic theatrical face mask in plain white from a costume shop or online. These cost a few dollars, and they come in male and female face types. Most kabuki make-up is designed on male faces, but the plastic mask forms will fit better if selected for the wearer’s face, so choose the right gender.

Set out a coloured marker collection that includes black. Have a No. 2 pencil with eraser handy and sample drawings or photographs of the mask design you will copy. The make-up links specific colours with emotions: dark red for anger or forcefulness, light blue for calmness and composure, pink for youth and cheer.

Using the pencil, sketch the make-up design on the plastic mask. Emphasise natural facial lines along the nose and around the sides of the mouth. Because you will leave part of the design white to mimic the white kabuki make-up base, be sure to erase any mistakes thoroughly.

Choose the marker that matches the colour for each part of the design, and fill in your pencilled outline.

Let the marker dry for a few minutes, and then punch or poke a hole in each side of the mask at about the temple area and insert the ends of the elastic. Adjust the elastic to fit snugly around your head (or the wearer’s head).

The mask is now ready to wear. You may use a white skullcap to hide your own hair under a traditional kabuki wig if your costume is meant to resemble a classic kabuki character.

Things You'll Need

  • Plain white plastic face mask
  • Length of string-style elastic
  • Single hole-punch or sharp blade
  • Variety pack of coloured markers
  • No. 2 pencil with eraser
  • Sketches or photographs of classic kabuki character make-up
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About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .