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.
- How Do I Know If My Costume Requires Makeup?
- What Makeup Do I Need?
- What Other Products Might I Need?
- Which Brand of Makeup is Best?
- How Do I Apply It?
- Where Should I Buy My Makeup?
- Is Higher-Priced Makeup Worth the Extra Cost?
- What if I’m Allergic to Makeup?
- Where Can I Learn More?
How Do I Know If My Costume Requires Makeup?
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:
- Your costume isn’t normal street wear. In most cases, cosplay means you’re wearing something unusual – say, a brightly-colored outfit, or one with a different texture than normal clothing. The way these materials reflect light and bounce it up toward your face is also different than everyday clothing. At best, it’s unflattering to be underlit by an intense color; at worst, it can completely wash out your face.
- You’re wearing a wig. If you have a wig for your costume, chances are that it doesn’t exactly match your natural hair color. Since your natural skin tone will most likely clash with this, a little color-correction may be in order; otherwise, you might end up looking a bit ill.
- You’re not cosplaying yourself. Many times, the characters we’re cosplaying are of a different age, sex, personality, or species than ourselves. This is what makes them fun to cosplay! But if you really want to resemble your character, you may need to modify your appearance. (Example: I’m 30-something woman of Dutch extraction, with pink-toned skin and freckles. While I sometimes cosplay someone my own age and sex, the range of characters I portray also includes young children and men of all ages, as well as characters with pale porcelain skin, outdoorsy tanned skin, wrinkles, beard stubble, etc.)
- There will be a camera anywhere in the vicinity. Cons are terrible places to take photos: Fluorescent lights, ugly hotel color schemes, and camera flash all conspire to do unflattering things to your appearance. Camera flash washes out your skin, flattens your face and wipes out facial features, rendering you shiny or pasty, heavier, and sometimes completely unrecognizable. Even someone who looks fine in real life can look bad in a flash photo, and photos last a lot longer than people’s memories. Makeup can help with many of these issues. (For more photo tips, check out our panel Cosplay Pics 101: Posing For Cosplay Photos.)
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.
What Makeup Do I Need?
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:
1) Foundation or Base.
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:
- Mineral or Powder Foundation: This offers the lightest coverage. It is a fine powder that is applied lightly with a brush all over the face. It combines the benefits of foundation and powder (discussed below). If your skin is fairly even and you don’t need to smooth out freckles or blotches, this is probably all you need to look good for the camera.
- Liquid Foundation: This is a little more opaque, giving slightly more coverage, but is still fairly light on the skin. For lighter coverage, a tiny amount of liquid foundation should be dabbed onto the face and then smoothed gently with a sponge or clean fingertips. For heavier coverage, you can apply with a foundation brush (a large, flat brush designed to smooth the product over your skin). The key here is to BLEND, and make sure that ALL of your face and neck is covered lightly but evenly. Pay special attention to the jawline; you don’t want any hard edges where your makeup stops! Properly applied, liquid foundation should soak into the skin and you shouldn’t be able to feel it on your face. If your face feels sticky or oily, or if you look like a mannequin when you’re finished, you probably have too much makeup on.
- Mousse Foundation: This is a hybrid cross between liquid and crème foundations; it is a fluffy, thicker liquid that usually comes in a pump or jar. It offers heavier coverage than liquid, but is not as dense or opaque as crème. To apply, follow the same steps as liquid foundation: Dab on lightly, then blend. Blend. Blend. Blending is especially important with heavier makeup!
- Crème/Cream Foundation: This is the most opaque foundation available. A thick paste, usually in a jar, it resembles theatrical/stage makeup. It can be applied with a sponge or brush. Crème foundation is recommended if you need to change your skin tone dramatically, or if you naturally have very uneven skin color. Remember to blend! (Note: Crème foundation usually needs to be set with powder to keep it from smearing or rubbing off. See below.)
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.
3) Eye Definition.
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:
- Eyeliner. Eyeliner is used to create an edge or shadow around the lid of your eye. It can come in the form of a pencil, crème, liquid or powder. Each has different properties: Liquid liner creates a hard, crisp line, while powder liner gives a soft, smoky look. Pencil and crème liners can be smudged for a softer line. Apply sparingly, as too much liner can make your eyes look small and narrow, rather than setting them off. In most cases, it’s best to stick to natural colors (brown, grey, soft black) and apply liner only to the outer third of your eyelid. The liner shouldn’t be obvious when you’re finished; if you look like a panda, you’re probably wearing too much!
- Mascara. This is a liquid that is applied to your eyelashes to make them look longer. Long, dark lashes usually indicate a feminine or very pretty character, so use black mascara only if you’re going for that look. If you want more definition but don’t want to look girly, use clear, brown, or “soft black” (actually a charcoal grey color) mascara instead.
- Eyeshadow. Eyeshadow can be a tricky beast; it comes in thousands of colors, textures and even press-on patterns! While some characters require bold and dramatic eyeshadow colors, many costumes call for a more natural look. Use browns, grays, or charcoal tones (depending on your natural skin tone) to shade the crease area of the eyelid. (When choosing natural eyeshadow colors, look at the shadows around the sides of your nose, ears and jawline, and try to match your makeup color those naturally-occurring shadow tones.) Apply shadow with a brush, in very light layers; it’s easy to go overboard and end up looking bruised!
What Other Products Might I Need?
Good question! A lot of that will depend on your particular costume. Some other products we love:
- Primer. This is a clear or tinted gel that is applied beneath your foundation. Primer smooths your skin, fills pores and fine lines, and makes your makeup stay in place hours longer! A boon for the all-day con attendee.
- Lip Treatment. Full, colored lips indicate a feminine character, while thinner, paler lips indicate a masculine character. For cosplayers playing girls, lipstick or lip gloss is a must, while those playing guys should make sure their lips aren’t too pronounced. (Example: I have very red, girly lips, so whenever I crossplay, I apply a flesh-tone lipstick or foundation and powder over my lips to tone them down.)
- Highlighter. If you want to give your face a more pronounced shape, you can use highlighter on the spots you want to catch more light. For slender, feminine characters, this can be applied along the browbone (under the outer half of the eyebrow) and cheekbones. For thin or gaunt characters, try the bridge of the nose, chin and cheekbones.
- Contouring Shadow/Color Wheel. The opposite of highlighter, this powder makes sections of your face look deeper or sunken (i.e., if you’re playing Severus Snape, you can use this around your eyes and in the hollows of your cheeks). When applied beneath cheekbones, it can accentuate high bone structure. You can also apply this just under the jawline to create a more pronounced jaw for masculine characters.
- Barrier Spray/Sealing Spray. This is a finishing spray that sets your makeup in place and reduces smudging or rub-off. For cosplayers who anticipate a long day, or those who sweat a lot, or those wearing easily-stained costumes, this is indispensable.
Which Brand of Makeup is Best?
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 cheap made-in-China Halloween kits. Many of them contain lead.)
How Do I Apply It?
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!
- foundation brush (for powder, or liquid foundations with heavy coverage)
- sponge (for liquid foundations, light coverage — wash frequently, replace occasionally)
- eyeshadow brush
- powder brush (for apply loose powder to set)
And there are of course additional tools which are very useful:
- liner brush (for powder eyeliners, preferred for some effects)
- blush/contour brush (for blush, highlights, contouring, etc.)
- angled brush (for shaping and eye effects)
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).
Where Should I Buy My Makeup?
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.)
What if I’m Allergic to Makeup?
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.
Where Can I Learn More?
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.