This is a supplement to our Makeup for Costuming panel and workshop — shorter, internet-friendly version!
So you’ve got a great costume and the perfect wig, and you’re all ready to strut your stuff! You go to the convention, pose for a hundred photos, and then go home and prowl the internet looking for your pictures. But when you find them, you’re appalled: Your face is washed out. Your forehead is so shiny it’s glowing. You look fifteen pounds heavier. You look like a random person wearing a wig, rather than really resembling your character.
Sound familiar? The solution may be as simple as powdering your nose — or a few other easy fixes.
Makeup can be an intimidating topic, especially if you’ve never used it before! But consider that for every actor or actress on stage, TV, or the movie screen, makeup is a very real part of their costumes. It helps them become their character, and is the key to looking good on camera or under stage lights. In the same way, makeup should be a major part of your cosplay!
Now, obviously, not every costume requires makeup. If you’re wearing something that obscures your face – a mask, a fursuit, a deep hood – makeup might be overkill. If you’re cosplaying an original character who looks exactly like you, and you know for certain that you won’t have any photos taken in costume, you might be able to get by without makeup.
On the other hand, if ANY of these statements describes your costume, you might need to visit the rest of this FAQ for some ideas on how to perfect your look:
In short, for any costume that shows your face, and which you’re wearing in a public place, it’s a good idea to take a few cosmetic steps. Fortunately, getting started with cosplay makeup can be easy and inexpensive! Keep reading.
Nearly every costume requires some cosmetic detailing, but you don’t need to wear a metric ton of greasepaint to reap the benefits; sometimes, a very light application is the best fix! There are lots of types of cosmetics and as many cosplay uses, but here are the three basic makeup ingredients that you should include for EVERY costume:
This kind of makeup evens out your skin tone and gives you that smooth, airbrushed look (because anime, comic book and video game characters rarely have freckles, tan lines or blotches). It also absorbs light so you don’t end up glowing in flash photos.
When choosing a foundation, try to match your skin tone as closely as possible. Take a friend to the store with you to help you choose the right color, and test the foundation on the side of your face (not your hand) to see how well the color matches.
Foundation comes in several varieties and opacities. Each person’s skin is unique, so you may want to experiment with several types to see which of these works best for you:
Powder sets your foundation (keeps it from rubbing or sweating off as quickly) and diffuses light, so you don’t end up with hotspots or a shiny nose in your pictures. If you’re planning on having photos taken in your costume, powder is your best cosmetic asset!
Powder comes in two forms: Loose and pressed. Loose powder comes in a jar, and is applied with a powder brush (a large, round brush with soft bristles, as seen at left). This is best for applying all over your face and neck and “finishing” your makeup. Pressed powder is a flat disc of solid powder that comes in a compact, and is applied with a sponge or flat powder puff. It is ideal to carry for quick touch-ups throughout the day.
Powder may be tinted to match your skin tone/foundation, or it may be a colorless setting powder that is only meant to keep your foundation from rubbing off. (Colorless antiperspirant setting powder is available from theatrical suppliers, and is ideal for setting creme colors so the makeup doesn’t smear or sweat off.) Either of these can be used for cosplay purposes.
Your character may not be the type to wear eye makeup. But the eyes are the central feature in most anime/manga/game art, and unfortunately they’re the first thing to fade out in photos. You don’t need to glam up your eyes Las Vegas-style if it’s not appropriate to the character, but it’s a good idea to set them off with some subtle cosmetics.
You may not need to use all of these kinds of makeup to achieve your look, but here are some options for cosplay eyewear:
Good question! A lot of that will depend on your particular costume. Some other products we love:
There are hundreds of brands of makeup, and as many different skin types in the world. I can tell you what products I like to use, but chances are it won’t work as well on YOUR skin as a different product might. Even Laura and Alena, who are sisters, use completely different types and colors of makeup. There is no substitute for trying it out on yourself.
A good plan when looking for high-quality cosmetics is to look for a reputable retailer – good makeup stores rarely sell junk – and/or lots of customer reviews. One resource I use when researching new products is Sephora, which has tons of customer product reviews, as well as a very generous return policy (in case you buy something that just doesn’t work out for you).
For special effects makeup, however, the field is narrowed greatly. It’s best to stick to makeup sold for use on stage, as it’s much more reliable than off-brands. Ben Nye, Mehron, and Kryolan are all high-quality brands. DO NOT use makeup kits sold for Halloween or costume use, even if it carries a better brand name; they are poor quality (not the brand’s usual line), and usually contain toxic substances. (I am not kidding. Read the fine print on those made-in-China Halloween kits. Many of them contain lead.)
Tools matter — you wouldn’t put together a fabulous costume with mismatched thread or duct tape, would you? Nor should you try to apply great makeup with those cheap sponge tools included in the box. Disposable free tools are usually worth what you paid. And fingers are great for finger-painting, but artists use brushes for a reason.
Makeup brushes are available in hundreds of styles, but there are a few essentials I refuse to do without. I include links for illustration purposes only; there are a variety of great brands and options, and I just chose nice photos!
And there are of course additional tools which are very useful:
Key to brushes is not only shape, but stiffness and bristle type. Natural and synthetic bristles carry pigment and oils differently, and the flexibility of a bristle determines how it will apply the makeup. In a workshop I can present two brushes for you to feel the difference, but that’s a bit harder over the internet — you’ll have to trust me that brushes really do vary.
You needn’t (and shouldn’t!) buy the most expensive brushes available, but the cheapest aren’t recommended, either. Cheap plastic bristles are hard to work with and cheap brushes often fall apart quickly (leaving bristles stuck in your look!). Replacing a brush every few months quickly becomes more expensive than buying a single good brush which should last you for 10 years or more.
Also, be sure to clean your brushes! They do collect makeup and skin oils, and they will work better and last longer if you give them a regular once-over. (I use water-diluted commercial cleaner; at my current rate, one bottle should last me 6 years or more. Alternately, use other household products, as in the linked video.)
Remember, when applying makeup, you want to BLEND. Brushes will help you; smooth them in a gentle sweeping or circular motion, especially when applying powdered makeup. You don’t want hard lines where your foundation stops (this includes at the jawline or ears), nor dense smears of blush or eyeshadow with visible edges. As with all artistic skills, applying makeup well can take practice, so take some time to try various application techniques and figure out what works best for you (and your particular costume).
We are pretty loyal to Sephora (seriously, we don’t get any kickback for saying that — it’s just a great place to shop!), but any store that allows you to test or sample makeup is a good bet. Sephora, MAC, Victoria’s Secret, and most department stores with makeup counters (Estee Lauder, Elizabeth Arden, et al) will allow you to try before you buy, which allows you to learn a) how it looks on you, and b) how long it lasts before it wears off – both important considerations when shopping for costume makeup!
The trade-off for this convenience is that those stores typically sell higher-end cosmetics, which cost more than the makeup at your average drug store. If you’re just getting started and don’t want to drop more than a few dollars for your first experiment, by all means, go to the local Walgreens or Target and pick up some makeup there! Some drug store brands are quite good and will serve just as well as their higher-priced counterparts.
That said, see the next section.
Cost does not always correlate to quality. If you buy celebrity-brand eyeshadow, you’re paying more for some celebrity’s name, and it’s not necessarily a better product than a non-designer brand. However, it is true that higher-quality makeup (which also costs more, in most cases) is more pigmented, while cheaper makeup contains more fillers and less pigment. This means it takes more of a cheaper product to make up for the weaker color.
Need a metaphor? Think of crayons. If you colored with Crayola crayons as a child, you know that they produced bright and intense colors on the pages of your coloring book. But when you went to a restaurant and got a kid’s menu that came with cheap off-brand crayons, the crayons were waxy and faint and you had to scribble harder to get any color to show up on the paper. They left so much wax on the paper that you could scrape the crayon off with your fingernail.
High-quality makeup, like Crayolas, goes on bright and smooth and lasts longer. Cheap makeup, like cheap crayons, takes more product to get the same amount of color, and wears off your skin more quickly. This means you’ll use less of a high-quality product, so you’re actually getting more applications out of it, and it will last you longer — so in that regard, yes, it’s worth the higher cost.
On the other hand, if you don’t actually need your makeup to last for 16 hours, you can get by without spending the extra money. It depends on your own habits and what you want from your makeup. (Personally, I use a variety of both very cheap and more expensive products, depending on the day/costume/event.)
People with sensitive skin or allergies often find that what they’re reacting to is actually a binder or filler in cheap makeup, rather than the pigments themselves. Often, higher-quality mineral makeups (which have fewer or no synthetic ingredients) won’t trigger the same allergies. You might want to experiment and see what works best for your skin. Also, using a barrier or sealer spray under your makeup can reduce skin irritation, as can removing makeup thoroughly with a good cleanser. If you see a dermatologist, consult him/her for additional advice.
For hands-on learning with various types of makeup, you’re welcome to attend to one of our Makeup For Costuming workshops (we offer this at Gen Con every year, and several other conventions on a rotating basis). We also offer a Makeup For Cosplay panel, with the same information but without the hands-on demos, at many cons throughout the year.