How to: Aztec Face Painting

Written by helaine dawson
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How to: Aztec Face Painting
The Aztec Lord of the Dead "Mictlantecuhtli" was depicted as a skeleton or skull. (Human skull image by Photosani from

Fierce looking skull masks and face paint are traditionally worn by Aztec warriors performing ritual dances, particularly on "the Day of the Dead." Skulls represent death and rebirth in Aztec culture, and are used to show respect for the departed.

In honour of their ancestors, families of Mexican descent gather together every November 2 to celebrate the holiday "Día de los Muertos" or Day of the Dead; the one day a year when the deceased can return to give guidance to the living.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • 3 make-up sponges
  • Medium paint brush
  • 2 small paint brushes or cotton swabs
  • White face paint
  • Black face paint

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  1. 1

    Apply white face paint with a clean make-up sponge to the entire face. Use a dabbing and blending motion, don't rub or smear. Start at the forehead, down and beside the nose then outward to cover the cheeks. Blend the white face paint onto the neck area or stop at the jawline depending on the rest of your costuming.

  2. 2

    Use another clean make-up sponge to contour under the cheek bones with black face paint. Shade in an inverted triangle on each cheek. Make the shading heavier directly under the cheek bone and fade into the jaw. Add some shading at the temples and down onto the cheekbone.

  3. 3

    Load the medium paint brush with black face paint to create eye sockets. Darken the entire area: from under the brow bone to above the cheek bone and from the inside of the nose to the outside of the eye. Follow the natural contour of the eye, stroking the face paint onto and encircling the eyelids and under the eyes. Do not pull or rub the delicate skin around the eye. Brush some of the black face paint onto the nose in a triangle from about mid-length to under the tip and including the sides and around the nostrils.

  4. 4

    Draw a line from the corner of the mouth outward towards the cheek on both sides using either a small paint brush or cotton swab with black face paint. Extend the line about halfway across the cheek and make it heavy and dark. Shade in the area above and below including the lips, and out to both ends. Do not obliterate the line with excessive shading. Draw heavy vertical lines through the shading from end to end for teeth.

  5. 5

    Load a clean small paint brush or cotton swab on one side with white face paint. Press the flat length of the brush or swab between the vertical lines. Paint one row of teeth across the upper lip and one row below. Start at the middle and work your way outward towards the cheek. Begin again in the middle and repeat for the other side, matching the pattern on both sides.

  6. 6

    Finish shading and blending the edges of the contouring all around the face with the third clean sponge.

Tips and warnings

  • For examples of authentic Aztec face painting and costuming inspiration, watch the video clips included in the resource section below. The best references are professional Aztec dance companies from Mexico.
  • You must use a cosmetic face paint specifically for use on the skin. There are many water based face paints available. Do not use art or craft paints which can cause severe allergic reactions.

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