These days when we think of cinema, theater and modeling, the use of makeup in those industries is a massive part of it. It’s just something that’s intrinsic in those artistic forms and probably a necessity too.

theater makeup, artistic makeup
A group of actors in action on stage of the Odessa Opera and Ballet Theater during performance of children’s musical performance “The Cold Heart”. Photo by Aleksandr Lesik

It’s hard to imagine people performing on stage or in front of a camera with all of these massive lights shining on them and not having had at least some makeup applied beforehand to offset the flattening effect that said lights cause and ensure facial features can be distinguished from afar.

And of course it goes well beyond just that little bit of contour or foundation that all actors and performers must wear for practicality, theatrical makeup often goes a lot further. It can be used to completely transform someone into a character that’s unrecognizable from them.

What’s interesting is that theater and cinema haven’t changed that much in the last hundred years or so. Visual effects on screen have of course, but as far as the makeup process, there isn’t a whole lot of difference now to how it was back in the 1920s or 30s.

Theatrical makeup is way older than that though. In fact it’s an awful lot older than a lot of people seem to realize. Let’s take a look at the long and interesting history of theatrical makeup artistry.

A portrait of an angry, crazy clown from a horror film over the red curtain. NAME Entertainers members include both clowns and make up artists! Photo by Prometeus


Like basically everything to do with theater and really with what we understand as storytelling today, the origins of theatrical makeup date back to Ancient Greece. That’s right, this practice is thousands of years old. 

From what we understand, the first person to ever use makeup on stage was an actor known as Thespis. Though you may not recognize the name, you’ve probably realized that the word “thespian”, which basically means relating to drama and theater, is derived from him.

Thespis is actually widely recognized by historians as being the first person to ever appear on stage playing a character in any capacity and so it stands to reason that he would also be the one to mark this revolutionary change.

The story goes that Thespis wanted to differentiate himself from the emerging Greek chorus and so he began using makeup of his own volition. His brand was a toxic mixture of mercury and lead, which allowed for him to alter the character which he was playing too.

The Greeks soon started using masks for this purpose instead of Thespis’ dangerous concoction, but theatrical makeup would soon resurface elsewhere:

Ancient Greece theatre masks in marble stone. Photo by alessandro0770

Elizabethan Theater

As the discussion about the history of theater always goes, we move from Ancient Greece to Shakespeare. Well not just Shakespeare, the entirety of the theater around England in the 14th and 15th Century.

Queen Elizabeth I is synonymous with makeup, many illustrations depict her with chalk-white skin with red cheeks and lips and this was similar in many ways to what stage actors of that period aimed for with makeup too. 

Madame Tussauds wax museum in London, England of Queen Elizabeth I. Photo by Claudio Caridi

It was much more complex than what Thespis did with much different materials including chalk and ochre. Shakespeare’s plays regularly featured dark-skinned characters such as Moors, and since characters of that skin tone weren’t common in London, white actors would wear soot to replicate it.

It was essentially blackface, but that was the approach back then. In Shakespearean plays, female characters were played by men, and so a white face and red cheeks was used to distinguish the male actors as female characters. 

From this point on, theatrical makeup has always been a big part of the industry.


As the industrial age approached, the materials and processes involved in creating makeup became significantly more sophisticated. Pigment powders became much more widely used and we also saw the rise of greasepaint.

This was something that was envisioned by a German actor in the 1800s who mixed lard with pigments to create a kind of makeup that was smooth and very easy to apply and this quickly became the standard.

There was also the advent of pancake makeup which was developed by Max Factor in the early 1900s. Revolutionary at the time, this was water-based and thick and made it possible to cover up imperfections without caking up or giving skin an unflattering shine.

With this advancement towards a thorough and much more realistic style of makeup, we started to approach what theatrical makeup looks like today.

Modern Times

The makeup industry has now taken on a life of its own both in terms of beauty and entertainment. We have reached a point where people can make money through makeup and beauty from the comfort of their own home.

makeup artist
A makeup artist is just like any other artist, the right tools are key. Photo by Ron Lach

And in films and plays, makeup is capable of full transformation. Using cosmetics which are much easier on the skin, being primarily oil, water or powder-based, the sky’s the limit for what can be accomplished.

Consider 1983’s “The Hunger”, in which a 36-year old David Bowie was transformed through makeup into a man who appeared to be well into old age. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button saw Brad Pitt as someone much older and much younger than the actor was at the time.

And then there’s John Hurt in The Elephant Man where deformity that the unfortunate title character was afflicted by is recreated with incredible realism. And these are just a few of the hundreds of examples of outstanding makeup jobs in modern entertainment.

From the humble beginnings of Thespian and his red and shite colored paint, we are now at a stage where people can appear on stage or on screen looking like completely different people without the use of makeup being in any way obvious. And who knows where we’re going to go from here.

* This is a sponsored post and NAME Entertainers was paid to promote this article.

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