Tutorial: Apply Face Paint for Costumes

cosplay face paint in 7 steps

Whether you’re going for a look that’s cute, scary, or utterly otherworldly, perfecting your face paint is key to nailing your cosplay. But if it’s your first time, or you’re looking to improve your techniques, it may seem a bit daunting. With the right materials and some practice, you’ll be sporting a flawlessly painted face in no time.

You’ll start by prepping your skin to ensure a smooth canvas. Clean and moisturize your skin as you would before applying any kind of makeup—this step is crucial for making sure the paint lasts as long as you need it to. Next up, you’ll want to choose the right kind of face paint. There’s a variety out there, from water-activated to alcohol-based paints, each with their pros and cons depending on your needs.

The other trick for making sure your face paint doesn’t smudge or wear off too quickly is setting it properly. Once you’ve applied the paint and are happy with how it looks, a bit of translucent powder or setting spray can help seal the deal. With a steady hand and a touch of patience, your face paint will look professional and last all day—or night—long.

Overall, you should expect the process to take a long time. It’s a good idea to set aside one or two hours, and I recommend practicing at least once before the day of the convention. The more familiar you get with face paint, the faster it will go and the less frustrated you’ll be.

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Before You Start

Ttake 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). 

To set up for your face paint application:

  • Wear a low-neck shirt. Apply the face paint while wearing something with a low neck. 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. 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. 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:
NYX primer
Use a primer on your skin before applying face paint for better coverage and longer-lasting paint.

Types of cosplay face paint

The two most common types of paint that you will use for cosplay are water-based face paints and creme face paints. Several other types of face paint exist in special effects makeup, but are not as practical to use for cosplay makeup.

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

Water-based face paint is the cheapest and most common type. This kind of paint tends to seal more easily, keeping it from rubbing off on your costume. On the downside, these paints are more likely to streak if you are sweating a lot. They also need to be applied in thin layers, making it 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).
  • 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.
  • TAG: This is another lesser-known brand. I’ve never used it, but I’ve heard white has excellent coverage in this brand.

Creme face paint

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.


  • 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.
  • 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.
the first layer of paint
Apply the paint in a solid layer over your entire face, ears and neck. Use a smaller brush to get the details, so you don’t get any paint in your eyes.

Step 1: Apply a layer of paint over your whole face

The first thing you want to do is apply an opaque, base layer 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 and swirl it around in the paint until it becomes frothy and paintable.

If you are using a brush: (my preferred method) I recommend using a kabuki brush so it can cover large areas. Using a swirling motion to 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. Go over the large areas of your face and neck, and then carefully fill in the details around your eyes, nose, and ears.

contour your face
Use a darker colored paint or powder to contour your face.

Step 2: Contour

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.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. 

Add lipstick to your face
This lipstick is the same color as the contour I used, but you can use whatever color you want.

Step 3: 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.

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).

adding dark eyebrows
The color of your brows will depend on the color of your wig.

Step 4: 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, 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.

Adding eye makeup
Make sure to cover your waterline under your eye so it’s no longer skin-colored.

Step 5: Eyes

You can basically treat your eyes the same way you would with normal makeup. 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.

Kryolan fixing spray
Use a fixing spray after your makeup is finished to keep it set and prevent smudging during the day.

Step 6: Keep your face paint on all day

After your face is painted to your satisfaction, there is still one more step. You need to make sure your makeup won’t rub off or smudge during the day.

The first step is to use a translucent setting powder. You can 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. 

  1. Using a fluffy powder brush, dab the translucent powder over your face and entire painted area.
  2. Let the powder sit for 30 seconds to a minute.
  3. Gently brush off the powder.
  4. 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. Hold the spray at arm’s length and mist your face and areas of your body that have been painted. Carefully dab at any areas that have drips 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.

face paint wit glasses
If you where glasses, add an extra layer of fixing spray around the bridge of your nose and your temples.

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.

wiping off your face paint
You can remove your face paint using a regular makeup remover cloth.

How to remove face paint

To remove the makeup, all you have to do is use a makeup remover wipe or cleanser 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. 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 (I remember one year at Otakon when a hotel charged a number of attendees for this).

Emily Joice

My name is Emily, and I have been cosplaying since my very first convention in 2008. Over the years, I've experimented with all different kinds of cosplay costumes, especially loving the process of creating props and styling wigs. I also delved into cosplay photography, and love exploring how to optimize costumes so they look excellent in photos. Most of the photos you find on this site were taken by me over my years at anime conventions.

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