Theatrical Makeup Styles

Written by nicholas pell
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Theatrical Makeup Styles
Natural-looking make-up is just one style of theatrical make-up. (make-up image by from

Theatrical stage make-up is a long-standing tradition---from the natural tones of Western theatre to the bizarre, monstrous make-up of Japanese kabuki. Whether you are a make-up artist or just a casual fan of the stage, you might be interested to know about different theatrical make-up styles.


The natural-looking theatrical make-up intended to make actors look most realistic under the harsh lights of the live stage is known as "straight" make-up. This style of make-up begins by giving the actor an even skin tone using foundation in a colour close to that of the actor, with the rule being to go a shade or two darker. Foundation should be applied to all exposed parts of the actor's body. Liner pencils add definition to eyebrows. Mascara and eyeliner make the eyes more noticeable from faraway parts of the theatre. Lip colour makes the mouth stand out and should be applied with a brush rather than a stick. Fake eyelashes work well to accentuate women's eyelashes. The goal with straight make-up is to make the actor look as realistic as possible. Avoid using too much make-up or giving the actor a garish appearance, but remember that the lights drown out facial features.


Kabuki is a Japanese theatre art with its own distinct style of make-up. Even within the kabuki style, variations depend on the character portrayed. Colors hold great importance in kabuki, as they are used to display a character's emotion. Some examples of kabuki emotion colour codes include grey on the chin (indicating dreariness), pale red or pink (showing that the character is light and youthful), purple (representing nobility or sublimity) and black (used to show fright and terror). Common characters in kabuki distinguished by their make-up include demons, ghosts and other non-humans.


Fantasy make-up is used to show non-human characters in Western theatre. A make-up artist can have a lot of fun---playing up their creative side, uninhibited by anything other than their own imagination. Styles of make-up that point toward the fantastical include vampires, fairies and witches. Though these styles have conventions and tropes (for example, vampires with very white faces), the artist has a lot of room to experiment. In the example of fairies, the artist can experiment with designs around the eyes that include a great deal of detail, swirling and blending.


Another example of Japanese theatrical make-up is butoh. Typically, butoh performers paint their entire bodies white while naked. However, butoh performers are not always constrained by this, feeling free to paint their body any colour or combination of colours that seems to go with the performance.

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