Engineering a New Stage Blood

Larry Heyman • Props • July 23, 2019

Stage blood. It’s got to look wet, fresh, and realistic. It’s not the dry effects we can sometimes create using paints, dyes, and gloss finishes; no, stage blood has to be fluid. It sounds strange to say, but I’ve been thinking about the challenges of blood onstage for over 30 years now. Theatrical supply companies and makeup houses have produced different versions for use on stage and in film. Each is a little different; viscosity, color, gloss, and each carries its own price tag. 

The feedback I hear most often from prop masters is that the really great products are expensive. This is even more true if you’re doing a long run or particularly bloody show and need higher volumes. A quick review of commercially available stage blood reveals price tags ranging from $100 to $400 per gallon depending on the supplier. At the beginning of the 2018-19 season I realized that we were doing no fewer than three shows that had blood requirements; Side Show, which involves an effect where a chicken is decapitated onstage. (We used a high-quality replica stuffed chicken that was carefully rigged with a removable head). The Wolves, which involves a spontaneous nosebleed onstage. And Julius Caesar (I don’t think I need to go into too much detail, suffice it to say it doesn’t end well.) After investigating a few commercially available products, I began to explore the idea of making my own.

One of the things I share with my students is that stage blood recipes are a lot like barbecue sauce recipes; everybody has one, they all have a secret ingredient, everyone thinks theirs is the best, and they are all materially the same. In 1986, my very first season of professional work, I was fortunate enough to work with and learn Larry Pennington’s very reliable and very stable blood recipe. Armed with what I already knew about this recipe that I’ve used for over 30 years, I decided to do some unscientific research. The challenge I was facing for Caesar was 1960’s era costumes that, due to budget constraints, couldn’t be duplicated. This meant that whatever we used had to be very washable, non-staining and non-reactive. I decided to ask prop masters a simple, open ended question: Good stage blood should be… What follows is a compilation of the most common answers in no particular order. 

Good stage blood is: realistic looking in color, gloss, and flow rate; easily made and reproduced if possible; inexpensive; made with simple, off the shelf ingredients; non staining; washable; non-toxic; not fiber reactive; hypo allergenic (whenever possible); non-irritating to skin

Good stage blood should NOT be: toxic; detergent or soap- based; made from fruit juices, jams or jellies, ketchup or other food-based compounds; difficult to reproduce; a nonsensical combination of ingredients (the kitchen sink approach)

Again, none of what I did to this point was particularly scientific and the next step wasn’t either. I looked at the wish list and determined that the most complicated asks had to do with staining and washability. At this point I decided to breakdown my long-held recipe and examine the role of each ingredient. The recipe was simple: corn syrup (vehicle), peanut butter (resist), corn starch (thickener) and coloring agent (colorant). I had seen other recipes that contain baking soda, and either citric acid or vinegar (acetic acid), but I’d never added those. I’ve also changed the resist over the years and settled on tahini, made from sesame seeds with a lower allergy response than peanut butter.

As I refined the recipe, I realized that gel food coloring, the kind sold at baking supply stores is superior to the liquid grocery store variety. The color is pure, stable, and rich and the concentrate is such that one only needs a little bit for a large batch of blood. Using a 24-ounce bottle of corn syrup only required 2 teaspoons of colorant to reach a dense and dark consistency once other ingredients were added. The first recipe revision: corn syrup, tahini, glycerin, colorant, and pharmaceutical food thickener changed two ingredients and added one—glycerin, which displaces water and changes the way moisture absorbs into fabric fibers. It worked well but was still staining most fabrics. 

I made a call to my 89-year-old dad, a pharmacist, and read through the ingredients, he suggested looking at ways to get the colorant to bond to the sugars, which are larger molecules. I reached out to a friend who is a molecular biologist, when I read off the ingredients I’d seen used, I mentioned baking soda and citric acid. She identified those items as being part of a buffered chelating agent, something that causes certain molecules to bond to others, and said citric acid is used to “mess with” polysaccharides. She also told me that what I had done with the colorant, only adding enough to saturate and not over adding is called “titrating”.

I found citric acid in the canning section of my local hardware store, and bicarbonate of soda in the baking aisle. Starting with around 12 ounces of water, my students and I added 4 tablespoons of baking soda (totally unscientific and arbitrary,) to the water. Then with what I remembered from high school chemistry about titration, I began to add citric acid powder slowly, allowing it to foam. When it stopped, I took that to mean the solution had reached a neutral, buffered state. I simply added that mixture to the stage blood recipe I’d already started, it foamed again…most likely because of the alkalinity of the corn syrup.

We began testing it on fabric samples, using hot soapy water to clean them. It was working, the blood sat neatly on the surface of the fabric and later washed out with no staining. I sent the recipe to my friend Denise Wallace-Spriggs at the Huntington Theatre and she spent a few weeks testing it; it only stained nylon netting (nylon is dyed with acid dye). 

It’s been a completely unscientific process with a few detours into chemistry. The most important thing for me though, was the process of minimizing and refining ingredients, using the best quality components available, and understanding the role of each in the mix. One of my favorite things about this mixture is that it’s completely color adjustable; we add blue food dye, and acid proof caramel coloring in very small amounts and completely adjust the look of the blood for stage. The recipe is easy to procure, measure, and mix.

Professor Heyman’s Oklahoma City University School of Theatre Modified Blood Recipe:
Buffered Chelating Solution:
12 ounces of hot water
4 Tablespoons bicarbonate of soda
3 Tablespoons citric acid powder
Add soda to water first. Stir until dissolved. Slowly sprinkle citric acid over the surface of the solution, allow solution to foam before adding more. Continue to stir until all foaming has stopped.

Blood Solution:
Chelating solution
24 oz. corn syrup
3 Tablespoons Tahini
2 Teaspoons glycerin
2 Teaspoons gel food color (red) Americolor brand
1 drop liquid blue food color
5 drops acid proof caramel color
Combine corn syrup, tahini, glycerin, and coloring agents in a large container. Mix well. Slowly add chelating solution to mixture. At this point color can be adjusted by adding very small amounts of different shades of red, or small amounts of blue.

You can email the author with comments and questions at ldheyman@okcu.edu

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!