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Get What You Need

Randi Minetor • Feature • April 2, 2016
Actors are expected to supply—and know how to apply—their own basic makeup.
Actors are expected to supply—and know how to apply—their own basic makeup.

Actors are expected to know how to apply their own makeup, which means knowing what looks good

Professional makeup artist Nan Zabriskie has seen the effects of misguided choices on the faces of young actors.

“I was working with a predominantly African-American cast at the Goodman Theatre” —Chicago’s Tony-winning resident professional theatre— “and I know what colors work and which don’t,” she said. “One actor knew that she had to have what it took to do her own makeup, but she looked terribly yellow onstage. I asked how she chose her colors, and she said, ‘I went to a fancy department store makeup counter, and they told me what I should have.’ She ended up spending a ton of money, and it was all wrong.”

By the time most actors get their Actors Equity Association (AEA) union card, they should have had some kind of training in makeup, said Zabriskie—who also teaches makeup at DePaul University Theatre School—but not everyone has that opportunity. “Some people pick it up by looking at other people in the dressing room,” she said. “Actors and makeup artists share tricks. But some people haven’t a clue unless they’ve had some real training.”

Actors in professional situations are expected to bring their own “ordinary and conventional” stage makeup, according to AEA rule 14 (G)(1), and while a costumer or makeup artist may work with an actor to achieve a certain look, the actor will be expected to execute that look on his or her own for rehearsals and performances. Even extras, opera supernumeraries and non-Equity cast members need to have their own makeup when they arrive for dress rehearsal, and they need to know how to apply it appropriately for their role.

A makeup artist shows off what Graftobian makeup can do.
A makeup artist shows off what Graftobian makeup can do.

The Baseline

Ask any makeup artist, instructor, or manufacturer’s representative, and they all give the same answer: The number one thing actors need to do when buying makeup is to find a foundation that matches their own skin tone. 

“You can buy very specific foundations—most companies have light ethnic, dark ethnic, light and dark Caucasian, and olive,” said Erin Auble, a designer and lecturer who teaches makeup techniques at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. “As an instructor, I get a foundation sample pack from Ben Nye, so I can have my students try them out and compare. The best option may be to mix two or more colors to get a good match.”

The affordably priced student theatrical kit offered by Ben Nye comes in eight different shades, from dark brown to fair/lightest, accompanied by a contour palette for highlights and shadows. If these foundation shades aren’t quite right for an actor’s skin tone, adding a little red or yellow to the basic shade may do the trick. 

“You need yellow, red, black and white to create many new colors or to shift your foundation color,” said Zabriskie. “Ben Nye goldenrod and green can mix with a highlight to form a high value yellow or seafoam green used to block out eye bags and blemishes.” 

Makeup manufacturer Graftobian offers deluxe student theatrical kits for light, medium or dark skintones, each with six foundation colors to help beginning actors find the right shade. “It’s a great way to start out, and then add things as you need them,” said Amanda Last, customer assistance specialist at Graftobian. “It’s all about using the proper product to get the look and the effect and have it last.”

Actors also need to consider the makeup formulation they want to use: cream or water-based (also called cake). Cream makeup can be easier to blend and mix, the experts noted, but water-based makeup may reduce the potential for smearing. “Cream is easier to blend and change than water-based,” said Zabriskie. “Water-based is very fast, and needs no powder to set it.” Water-based makeup, however, will tend to sweat off more quickly onstage. 

Auble prefers the water-based makeup. “Water-activated sets as it dries,” she said. “With cream, you’ll want some kind of setting powder so it doesn’t smear.”

The more important question is what will hold up over the course of a performance. “If it were me, and I was doing something with a local theatre troupe or working with a high school on a musical, I’d want to use makeup that’s good, that’s going to work,” said Last. “You may have to touch it up during the night, but you don’t want your actors to look like crypt-keepers because the makeup won’t hold up under the lights. Don’t go to your corner drugstore for your stage makeup. You need something that’s going to stand up under the heat.”


The contents of a Ben Nye beginner makeup kit.
The contents of a Ben Nye beginner makeup kit.

The Elements

The well-equipped beginning makeup kit includes these elements, application tools, and skin care essentials:


Neutral face powder to set the foundation

Highlight and shadow cream—a lighter shade and a darker shade than the foundation, for creating contours and shadows. “That’s the basis of chiaroscuro, making the eye see dimension it’s not really seeing through the use of light and shade,” Zabriskie said. Actors may or may not need rouge, but most starter kits include it.

Natural lip liner and color

Eyebrow/eyeliner pencil

Colors for specific effects: a dark purple, a true red, a black cream and a yellow. These colors can be used correctively—the purple can darken shadows, the red can blend with foundation for a pinker shade, and the yellow can mask dark circles under eyes or a skin blemish. A little black mixes with any color to darken it.

Powder puff to apply the powder

A powder brush, both to take off excess powder and to apply more when necessary

Sponges and a fat, stiff brush for applying foundation. Experts recommend starting with both sponges and a brush in the kit, and working with each to determine which suits the actor best. “I’m a person who loves brushes,” said Last. “I don’t like sponges. Can people do amazing things with sponges and an airbrush? Yes, but I’m not one of those people. It’s about personal preference and knowing what you feel comfortable with, and what you need to get the desired effect.”

Liner brushes—1/4-inch flat brushes that behave well in cream makeup, for foundation, liners and highlights

Spirit gum

Modeling wax

A small amount of stage blood

Lotion or cold cream. “I have my students put on lotion or Pond’s face cream first, because it becomes a barrier between the face and the makeup,” said Auble. “Some colors stain, so the protection is helpful.”

Makeup remover solution

A sturdy case to hold and organize the makeup


Actors who did not take a makeup course in college or who need to refine their skills will benefit most from demonstrations by professionals—whether these are in person, online, or in videos. Most major metropolitan areas have stores that sell theatrical makeup and that offer training sessions and classes for actors, said Auble. “Find someone that sells it locally—here in Rochester, it’s Arlene’s Costumes,” a retailer of clothing and makeup for cosplay as well as theatre and dance. “They will have a basic knowledge,” and they will know who buys their makeup regularly for professional use. If there is no one on staff who can give advice about using the makeup, the proprietor may be able to provide contact information for someone who can.

Colleges that offer degrees in acting have makeup classes in their curricula, and some professors or instructors may be willing to tutor an actor for a fee. If no other options are available locally, however, most of the makeup manufacturers have created DVD tutorials to teach actors how to use their products effectively.

“Ask for help,” said Auble—of instructors, other actors, or adept classmates. “Here at RIT, the guys beg the girls for help. Men don’t know how to put on eyeliner, for example. When you have a good class or a good cast, everyone will help each other.”


A Note about Allergies

Actors who believe they have sensitive skin have little to fear from using stage makeup, Last said. “Hypoallergenic is a marketing term—there is no FDA definition for it,” she said. “What causes a reaction in most people is fragrance, and we don’t use fragrances in our makeup at all. All makeup should list its ingredients on the package. By and large, people with skin sensitivities do very well with our makeup.”

Zabriskie concurred. “In the literally thousands of actors and students I’ve dealt with, I’ve had about four reactions to the products,” she said. “If you’re really concerned, leave one side of your face as a control, and put the makeup on the other side, and see what happens. If it’s a problem, you can put on a barrier cream—the industry calls them primers. It forms a barrier between you and the makeup.”

The one allergy that does appear on occasion is sensitivity to latex. “I start by asking them, ‘Do you know if you’re sensitive to latex or spirit gum? Do you know if you’re good with cream-based or water-based makeup?” said Zabriskie. “Sometimes the reaction has to do with tech week tiredness, diet disruptions, or wearing the makeup for many hours longer than you would in performance. We can always use a different brand if it’s a problem.” 

Auble had one student who could not tolerate the cream makeup, but had no trouble with water-based products. “I have them test the makeup on the back of their hand first,” she said. “I’ve only come upon one or two students who had a reaction to any of this.”

The more important concern for actors, said Last, is to find the products they like and that work well for them, and to become proficient in using them. “The baseline is to keep learning product and how to use it,” she said. “There are so many products, and the difference is subtle, and some will work better for you than others.”

“How do my students get good at this?” Auble added. “Practice, practice, practice.”  

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