MakinBacon writes on a variety of topics across the internet and loves finding new ways to celebrate and look at the world.
Sugar Skull Face Paint & Culture
Skull makeup goes beyond looking cool—it is part of a rich tradition. Countries and regions with a heavy Catholic influence, especially Mexico, use calaveras (skulls, often made of sugar) to represent departed souls for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) and All Souls Day.
Practitioners place the skulls on what is called an ofrenda, which is an altar in the home or near the gravestone of the departed. Many people have used the sugar skull imagery for makeup as an extension of the celebrations. Several such works are seen below, as well as a few more realistic skulls.
In This Article
- Skull makeup and culture
- Skull makeup designs
- Application tips
- Which paints and products to use
- Step-by-step instructions on how to apply sugar skull makeup
- How to clean your makeup brushes
- Photos of skull makeup examples for inspiration
- Sugar skull makeup video tutorials
Skull Makeup Designs
Whatever type of skull makeup you choose to apply, there are a few basic features for an effective design:
- Eye Sockets: All skull face paint designs have circles around the eyes, usually in a dark color such as grey or black.
- Sunken Cheek Bones: Most skull designs also include something to accentuate the cheeks in a way that gives them a sunken look. Sometimes it's nothing more than subtle line to remind the viewer that it is a skull, though such minimalist design doesn't give a sense of realism.
- Teeth: All skull facial makeup features a row of teeth. The degree of realism for the teeth can vary—in many sugar skull designs there are simply a series of vertical black lines on the lips. In those instances the purpose is to remind the viewer it is a skull, but not necessarily in a way that depicts them as a real skull. Of course, other skull designs go all-out to create realistic teeth.
- Nose: Finally, one of the most noticeable characteristics of a skull is that it no longer has a nose. This can be represented by painting the nose in a dark color to make it appear absent.
How to Do Skull Face Paint
A wide variety of face paints and makeups are available for purchase, especially around Halloween. While you should let your budget be your guide, I recommend makeup over face paint if you want something rich in color that's more healthy for your skin. But whatever you choose, the following application tips will help either product stand out:
- To make your eyebrows easier to paint over, slick them flat with a glue stick.
- Before beginning to paint your face, you can outline the main features in a nude eye pencil.
- Apply the darkest details first. This is counterintuitive for some, who believe that you paint all of the white, and then the other colors go on top. However, for the eye sockets, nose, and mandible (if you are going to connect the mouth all the way to the side of the face) should be drawn/painted first.
- Paint around this with white. If you are going for an especially solid color, you can apply the white in layers.
- Set the white makeup with a powder.
- Paint the smaller details (spider webs, flower petals, teeth, etc) last, on top of the white. Eyeliner can work especially well for fine lines.
Paints or Makeup Products to Use
You can create great skull makeup with most makeup products or face paints. The pictures below use a variety of generic products. However, MAC products, in particular, are known for their brilliant colors and are available in every city, so I have included a specific list of products from their line that could be used to create a Día de Los Muertos skull. While these products are pricey, they are helpful to get a sense of what professionals would use—you can try to find similar products in whatever brand you are using. See the video tutorials below for an example of what can be done with really affordable makeup.
- Black Chromaline pencil for the nose, mandible, and outline of the eye sockets
- Dark eyeshadow in the color of your choice to fill in the eye sockets (if you would like black eye sockets, you can fill them in with the Chromaline pencil)
- White Chromacake to cover the rest of the face (a jumbo white eyeliner can also be used)
- Sponge or wide flat brush to apply the Chromacake
- Set Powder to prevent the Chromacake from smearing
- Bright Acrylic Paints for the flower petals and other details
- Medium rounded brush to apply the flower petals; small pointed brush for fine lines
- Penultimate Eye Liner (a liquid pen-style liner) to draw on details such as the spider web and teeth
Apply Skull Makeup or Face Paint: 8 Easy Steps
Now that you have your makeup, here is a few steps for how to apply it.
It is helpful to view a variety photographs and video tutorials before applying your own sugar skull makeup, and those are included further down in this article.
Step 1: Outline the Eye Sockets, Nose, and Mandible in Eyeliner
It is easy to follow the natural curves of your face—for the sockets, trace beneath the circles under your eyes and above your eyebrows; for your nose, trace around the nostrils and follow their curves to meet in the middle of the nose. Many skulls have a forked tip at the top of the nose hole, and many sugar skulls extend a stem beneath the nose so that the black shape resembles a spade.
You can use nude eyeliner around your eyes and nose if you wish. For the mandible, use black eyeliner, as you will be blending it in later.
If you have thick eyebrows, now is a great time to apply the trick mentioned above. Smooth them flat with a glue stick in order to make them easy to paint over.
Step 2: Apply the White Face Paint
Next, apply the white face paint or jumbo eyeliner. Whichever you end up using, use a sponge to spread it in thin, even layers. Do not go on too thick—if you want the makeup to look whiter, you can apply a second layer. Use the edge of the sponge to get as close as possible to your outlines.
Step 3: Set the Face Paint With Powder
In order to keep your face from smearing and looking shiny, set the white makeup with a loose powder. You can buy special powder at a pharmacy or cosmetic store, but baby powder will still prevent your face from looking oily.
Step 4: Paint or Color the Nose and Mandible
Use black face paint or eyeliner to color in the nose and blend the mandible into the white.
Step 5: Shade in the Eye Sockets
While you could use face paint to color in the eye sockets, the thick paint can crease in your eyelids. Instead, use a medium-rounded brush to apply eyeshadow. Fill in the circles with a dark color; if you like, you can apply a lighter color to the upper eyelid.
Step 6: Paint on Flower Petals
Wipe the eyeshadow off of your medium-rounded brush with a paper towel, then use it to apply the acrylic or face paint. The shape of the brush can easily be used to form the petals.
Step 7: Apply Petal and Teeth Details
Use a small pointed brush to paint the details. The teeth are a must, but you will often also see the outline around and the dots in the flower petals.
If you are doing a male sugar skull, a curly mustache is a fun touch.
If you have liquid eyeliner, that can be used both for the teeth and for fine details, such as the legs and outline of the spider in the next picture.
Step 8: Embellish
Finally, add embellishments to your heart's desire! Common embellishments include:
- Spider webs
How to Clean Your Makeup Brushes
After all of that acrylic face paint on your makeup brushes, you will surely want to wash them off! Here are two ways to do so—whether you have a professional brush cleaner or simply a bar of soap.
With a Professional Brush Cleaner:
- Spray the brush cleaner on your brush head and massage the bristles with your fingers to work the paint out.
- Then rinse your brush off under a running facet as you continue to massage the bristles until the water runs clear.
- Reshape the bristles and let dry.
With a Bar of Soap:
- Dip the brush in running water and then wipe it back and forth against the bar of soap to work out the paint.
- Rinse the brush under the faucet until the water runs clear.
- Reshape the bristles and let dry.
Variations of Skull Face Paint
Don't get too concerned about quality at first; there are a couple of basic elements to making a skull, and everything else is built off of that foundation. Depending on the style of skull you decide to go with, your makeup will vary in color and style. Whatever style of skull you choose, they'll all have a few characteristics in common.
- The eye area is almost always a circle and filled in. The darker the better.
- The teeth will contrast with the darker colors of the skull and can be realistic (longer) or more simple (straight up and down lines on both lips).
- The nose area is, of course, only cartilage on a skull. It's always represented by darkening the nose to create the illusion of decay.
This skull design has a sense of realism to it, and I like the shaded indentations in the temple and forehead area, which give it a sense of decay. Another thing unique to this skull is the way the area of the throat is "skeletonized" with the suggestions of vertebrae. That really looks cool.
I have no critiques of the design, but there are a few things to learn from this picture that is more attributable to the person who applied the makeup.
For example, the areas around the eyes and nose should have been filled more completely. Both look odd, with the skin obviously bare for all to see. The exposed skin takes away from the skull effect. Also, the teeth use visibly thicker lines over the lips than they do to both sides under the cheeks.
Whenever I see this, the first thought that comes to my mind is that a man with little makeup experience did the work. However, that doesn't matter. This picture shows a skull design with a lot of potential, and when the makeup is applied correctly, it will look excellent.
Glittery Voodoo Sugar Skull Makeup
Here is an example of a sugar skull with the eye sockets painted a vibrant color instead of black.
This is one way of designing a sugar skull: not only using color but also adding accessories to create the ornate effect. Here, rhinestones are included around the eyes and at the end of the scrolling lines on her cheeks and chin.
It also shows the traditional sugar skull design of suggesting the teeth through the use of vertical black lines. This can make the mouth appear to be sewn shut.
White-Based Sugar Skull With Pink Highlights and Spider Web
A white base is the hallmark of skull makeup, and it's no different from this example of a sugar skull. This one is interesting because the artist decided to add some pink around the eyes and on the chin.
Aesthetically, I think it would have been better to have something that matches her bright red hair. But if she is officially participating in the Day of the Dead festivities, it may be that pink was a color associated with her departed loved one, which is one way to honor the deceased on that special day.
One thing I liked very much was the way the teeth were designed. It looks like the inner part of the lips was painted black to give the suggestion of a slightly agape jaw, even when her mouth is closed. Looks great.
Airbrushed Scary Skull Face
This is just a good, old-fashioned scary skull, and it's airbrushed awesomely. You can almost feel the deterioration of this skull, with the area around the nose rotted away and the teeth completely exposed.
The area just below the eyes also depicts deterioration in a convincing manner, resulting in a very compelling and frightening skull face.
Realistic Skull Face
I find this final skull face extraordinary. The way she closed her eyes in the photograph was helpful in achieving her effect, but the costume will still work with her eyes open.
The way the base white color was shaded is one of the keys to how convincing this makeup is. You get the sense that parts of the skull are deteriorating at different rates than others. The teeth are slightly yellowed, and she extends them above and below her lips. They were done very well, especially those on the top lip.
But for me, what brought it to a higher level were the cracks in the skull's forehead. They make it look like the skull has been fractured somehow. That's a great effect.
Whether painting a realistic or sugar skull, the wide variety of designs you have just seen can be used to create some great skull looks.
Any of these would be a great costume for Halloween or other special events, reminding us how we can take just about any theme and, with creativity and a little skill, make some great skull art using makeup and paint.