If this is your first time painting your face a different color, you’re probably looking for ways to use it correctly. If you’re going to spend the time applying face paint, you want it to look good, not like clown makeup at a local fair.
As a general rule, the secret to good cosplay face paint is getting an opaque base layer of paint, then contouring your face with a darker color. Once you’ve got these skills mastered, all you have to do is touch-ups around your eyes and lips, and make sure your face paint is sealed.
Overall, you should expect the process to take a long time. Even if you are only painting your face and don’t need to worry about the rest of your body, it’s a good idea to set aside one or two hours. I recommend practicing at least once before the day of the convention so that you know what you’re doing. The more familiar you get with face paint, the faster it will go and the less frustrated you’ll be.
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Step 1: Set up
Before you get started, take some time to get set up so you don’t end up ruining your clothes or getting face paint in your hair. Don’t wear your costume yet because sometimes face paint can drip (especially water-based paint). You’ll also want to use a fixing spray on the paint before putting your costume on so that it won’t rub off.
To set up for your face paint application:
- Wear a low-neck shirt. Apply the face paint while wearing something with a low neck or just the undergarments you’ll have on with your costume. Whatever you’re wearing, you want to make sure you can apply the paint below the costume’s neckline.
- Pull your hair back. If you’ll be wearing a wig, now is the time to put your hair back and put a wig cap on.
- Apply prosthetics and contacts. You want to apply any prosthetics or contacts you will be using before you face paint. I also recommend painting any prosthetic pieces ahead of time, so you only have to think about the seam between the prosthetic and your face.
- Apply a face primer. Using a primer on your face will make it easier for the paint to adhere to a solid, smooth layer. Make sure to include some product on your neck and any area of your chest and shoulders that you’ll be painting.
- Collect your face paint supplies. For face painting you will need:
- face paint of choice (plus water for water-based face paint)
- makeup brushes or sponges
- A contour color (this can be another color of face paint or powdered makeup)
- eye makeup (shadow, liner, mascara)
- Lip color
- Translucent powder
- Fixing spray
Types of cosplay face paint
The two types of paint that you will use for cosplay are water-based face paints and creme face paints. Several other types of face paint can be used also. Alcohol-activated paints, grease paints, and airbrushing are all used by special effects makeup artists for movies and plays. However, they are not used for cosplay very often because they are expensive and difficult to remove from your skin.
Both Water-based and creme makeup:
- Are easily applied with a sponge or a brush.
- Can offer full coverage for your skin.
- Can be removed using makeup remover wipes.
- Can be sealed to prevent smudging and staining.
Water-based face paint
It is more common to use water-based face paint in cosplay. It’s the cheapest type of face paint and is easiest to find. This type of paint tends to seal more easily, keeping it from rubbing off on your costume or anything it comes into contact with. At the same time, these paints are more likely to streak if you are sweating a lot and are applied in thinner layers. So it’s usually more difficult to get light colors to appear opaque on your skin.
- Mehron Paradise Makeup AQ: This is the brand that I use and prefer for face paint. It has good coverage and is pretty long-lasting (even at a summer convention), as long as you seal the paint with a fixing spray (I used Kryolan Fixing Spray). Mehron also has good quality creme makeup, but they are best known for their aqua makeup.
- Snazaroo: This is one of the types of face paint that’s the cheapest. It’s meant more as Halloween makeup and, therefore, doesn’t last as long as other brands. However, if your budget is tight, Snazaroo is a decent option for darker colors.
- TAG: This is another lesser-known brand. I’ve never used it, but I’ve heard white has excellent coverage and an opaque look in this brand.
Creme face paint
Most cosplayers will choose to use water-based face paint, however, creme face paint can be the better option depending on what you’re looking for. Creme face paint is easier to blend with different colors and correct mistakes that you made during the application. It will also give you a thicker, more opaque layer of makeup, which is a plus for lighter colors. Since it won’t streak off when you sweat, creme face paint also tends to last longer than water-based face paint.
Creme-based paint is necessary if you’re using some kind of prosthetics, such as elf ears or a fake nose. Water-based face paint just doesn’t adhere well to these synthetic pieces, so you’ll have to use creme.
On the downside, you need to use more creme paint to cover your face since you aren’t using water to help it spread out. You’ll also find that creme face paint is stickier and more difficult to seal without smudging. You’ll need to take extra time carefully patting powder onto your paint until it is matte and is not sticky to the touch.
- Ben Nye: This is the most common creme makeup because it is relatively cheap while still being of excellent quality. Ben Nye brand also has an aqua makeup line.
- Graftobian: This is the brand that was recommended to me to cover prosthetics. It’s not quite as oily as other creme makeups, so it will adhere better to latex and other synthetic materials.
- Kryolan: This is known for being one of the most high-end makeup brands in the industry. Therefore even though you’ll get high-quality makeup, it’s also usually the most expensive option.
Step 2: Apply paint
The first thing you want to do is apply an opaque, base layer of face paint. For water-based makeup, I recommend using a buffing brush (such as a kabuki brush). For creme makeup, I recommend using a disposable sponge. However, either type of applicator can work for both types of face paint.
If you are using water-based paint, you’ll need to activate it with water first. Add a small amount of water to the paint dish. I’ll usually dip the brush or sponge in water and swirl it around in the paint until it becomes frothy and paintable.
If you are using a brush: I recommend using a kabuki brush so it can cover large areas. Collect paint on the brush by swirling it in the paint. Using the same swirling motion, apply the paint to large areas of your face, ears, and neck until you have a solid base layer. Then use a smaller brush to apply face paint to the small areas around the eyes, ears, and nose.
Let your face dry and then repeat the process if you need better coverage. It can help to apply a fixing spray between layers so that you don’t accidentally rub off the first one when trying to add more paint.
If you are using a sponge: Apply paint to the sponge and then put it on your face one streak at a time. Try to avoid going over areas that you’ve covered so that you don’t end up rubbing the face paint away and causing a streaked look. You can pat or dab the brush onto your face in areas where the paint isn’t covering as well. Go over the large areas of your face and neck, and then carefully fill in the details around your eyes, nose, and ears. Let the makeup dry and then apply a second layer if necessary.
Step 3: Contour
Once you have your base layer of paint, you want to add some contour around the sides of your face and nose. Applying one solid color of face paint tends to make you look flat, which doesn’t translate well to photography. You’ll need to take the time to enhance the shadows on your face to give it a better overall effect.
If you are using creme paint and contouring with another creme paint, you can go ahead and start contouring with the second color and blending the two paints together.
If you are using water-based face paint or you are using powder makeup for contouring, you should apply a fixing spray before adding the contour. This will help to seal the base layer before applying the contour, so there is less risk of messing it up.
Apply your contour makeup color along the sides of your face and under your cheekbones, along the sides of your nose, under your chin, and a small dab under your bottom lip. Then you will blend these areas into your base face paint layer.
After you’ve contoured, you can also add in any designs, scars, or tattoos for your character.
Tip: When choosing a contour color, it’s okay if it’s slightly different from the main shade of the face paint. In fact, using an adjacent, darker color will often look best. This means for a blue face, you can try going a little purple to a blue-violet, and for green, you might go a little blue-green. Warm colors (reds, oranges, and yellows), will look best with shades of brown as the contour color, or maybe using red violets.
Step 4: Lips
Depending on your character, you might not be able to use typical lipstick colors when applying face paint. A pink or red, might not look natural on blue or green skin. If you are trying to get a natural skin color, it will usually look best if you rely on basic color theory.
For example, if you’re giving yourself blue skin, combine the blue with the natural pink color of lips to get a purple color. Combining green with red would get you a shade of brown, while yellow and red would be orange.
You can, of course, choose to make the lips whatever color you want based on the design of your character. Sometimes dark lips look best on face paint because they will be a good contrast point.
When applying face paint, I will cover my lips with the base color. Then I will spray that with a fixing spray before adding the lip color. You can use lipstick, another face paint, or any other type of makeup. Just remember that makeup on lips will be the first place to rub off, so you’ll want to keep touch-up makeup with you to use during the day (especially after you eat).
Step 5: Eyebrows
Next, you need to work on your eyebrows. I will always cover them completely with the base layer of face paint. I’ll need to add color back into the eyebrows to make them look right on the face.
The color you choose will depend entirely on your wig or hair color. You can use powder, creme makeup, face paint, or whatever you have that is the correct color for your character. Then take a thin brush and add strokes of the color to your eyebrows until you’ve filled them in.
Step 6: Eyes
You can basically treat your eyes the same way you would with normal makeup. It’s a good idea to focus on contouring your eyes to make them look better with face paint, but the overall technique is no different than when you apply regular eye makeup. If a lot of face paint got onto your eyelashes, you’ll need to apply extra mascara to cover it up.
The only difference is that you will probably need to cover your waterline with eye makeup. This is the area on the edge of the lower lid that will still be skin-colored. Very carefully, pull down your lower lid and apply eyeliner or creme makeup to the edge of your eyelid. I like to use either black or white (to make the eye appear bigger), but you can also use the same color as your face paint or a different color altogether.
Step 7: Keep your face paint on all day
After your face is painted to your satisfaction, there is still one more step before it’s time to put your costume on and go out on the convention floor. You need to make sure your makeup won’t rub off or smudge during the day. This will prevent any major color damage to your own costume, and it will keep you from ruining anyone else’s costume when you’re interacting with them.
The first step is to use a translucent setting powder. You should use this for both types of face paint, but it’s absolutely necessary if you are using creme face paint. Unlike water paints that dry smooth, creme paints have a sticky finish that will smudge very easily if it’s not set in place.
- Using a fluffy powder brush, dab the translucent powder over your face and entire painted area.
- Let the powder sit for 30 seconds to a minute.
- Gently brush off the powder.
- Repeat as necessary until your face paint is not sticky to the touch.
After you’ve set your makeup with powder, use a fixing spray to give it extra staying powder. Hold the spray at arm’s length and mist your face and areas of your body that have been painted with the sealing spray. You can dab at any areas that have large drops of spray, but otherwise, just wait for it to dry. If you live in a particularly humid area, you can use another misted layer of spray for an even better seal.
Wearing glasses with face paint
Sometimes you or your character will need to wear glasses with face paint. In these cases, apply an extra layer of a sealing spray to the inner sides of your nose and along your temples. Since the glasses will be rubbing against these points on your face, there is a greater chance the friction will cause the paint to wear off.
It’s also a good idea to occasionally check your paint in the mirror to see if any of it is rubbing off. You can make quick touch-ups and reseal the paint whenever necessary.
How to remove face paint
To remove the makeup, all you have to do is use a makeup remover wipe and rub it off your face and neck. This will get 90% of the makeup removed, but you’ll probably still see some color along your hairline and in odd places, like the folds of your ears. You’ll want to hop in the shower to get the residual paint off.
Do NOT shower before removing most of the paint, especially if you are staying in a hotel. The face paint will get all over the shower making it difficult to clean. Some hotels may count this as damage to the room and charge an extra fee.
All types of face paint can be removed this way, but expect to use 5-10 of those makeup remover cloths if you’ve only painted your face. In my experience, water-based paint comes off more easily than creme, but a tiring process at the end of a day to simply take all that makeup off your face.