Behind the Greasepaint: An Inside Look at the Application of Clown Makeup

Joseph Grimaldi (1778-1831), was the first clown to include color in both his makeup and costume. At the moment, a majority of clowns in the circus industry wear makeup, and for several reasons. For starters, makeup is worn for visibility. When you are performing in an arena or tent that seats thousands of people and you are under extremely harsh lighting, it can be very difficult for the audience to read your expression. If I’m sitting across the table from you and you raise your eyebrow, I will understand that you are confused. However, if I am sitting in the last row of Madison Square Garden and you raise an eyebrow down on the arena floor a few hundred feet away from me, I won’t see it, and I won’t understand your expression. Using makeup to help accentuate the facial features (we want to help, not hide), can make expressions a lot easier to read.

Another reason for makeup is to differentiate the clown from the other performers. A lot of the interactions a clown has with others is based on authority. A clown, wearing makeup and costume that make them look a little bit goofy and abnormal help create a lower status. When a classic circus clown has an interaction with the ringmaster, there is no question as to who is of a higher status.

Every time I go out in makeup, I get a lot of questions about the application process and why I do things the way I do. So, in order to answer some of those popular questions, here is a step-by-step breakdown of how I apply my makeup.

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1. Moisturize and Cover Up – I begin by applying a thin layer of skin moisturizer, which helps protect my skin from the makeup (which is very harsh). After it has dried for a few minutes, I apply some tattoo and scar cover up on my various blemishes. This helps make my skin tone even, which makes it easier to get equal distribution of color later on.

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2. White – I put white around my eyes using my index finger. Around my eyes I pat the makeup as opposed to rubbing, smudging, and pulling it, which results in equal distribution and prevents it from getting too thick. Notice that I am not too careful in making sure that the white is smooth around the edges.

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3. Clean Up White – Using a pointed cotton swab, I remove the unwanted makeup to help create a better shape around the eye.

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4. Red on Cheeks – I dab some red onto my cheek. The red gets put on the high point of the cheekbone (where the curve in the face is when you smile)

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5. Spread Out the Red – I put my fingers on my cheek and pull the red makeup down. Then I pat on it and move my hand slowly downwards and to the side of my face, which helps to even it out. I repeat this step and the previous step for the other cheek.

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6. Other Red – Using the red that is already on my fingers, I apply some red up my nose bridge, on my philtrum, and on my chin. I know that it looks like a lot of red now, but once all the makeup is applied it will not be as strong and intense.

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7. White Line – I use a thick white pencil and apply a white line under my lower lip. This helps make my mouth movements visible from a distance.

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8. Dimple – I apply a black dimple on my chin using a thick black pencil. The dimple, along with the red on my chin, and the white line under my lip, help make mouth movements and expressions visible from a distance.

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9. Eyebrows – My eyebrows are naturally very dark and very big. It would be illogical to try and cover them up with white because they would just end up a grey, gloppy, mess. Instead, I take advantage of my thick eyebrows by making them even thicker. Using a thick black pencil, I apply almost Groucho Marx style eyebrows. The eyebrows, once I pull my hair back and put it in my hat and I put on my glasses, aid in making eyebrow movements even greater and more visible.

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10. Powder – I take a sock filled with plain baby powder in it and gentle dab it all over my face. The powder sets the makeup so it won’t run when I sweat or am splashed with water. I brush off the extra powder with a large, soft brush.

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11. Eyeliner – At the moment, my eyes are pretty much lost in a sea of white. When I blink, it’s just a white circle. I add a small black line underneath half of each eye to prevent them from being lost and make sure that they are visible. If I were to add these lines before the powder, I would probably smudge it and create a nasty grey.

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12. Final Touches – I put on my nose, which I keep on using a thin strip of toupee tape (other options include liquid latex, string or elastic around the head, putty, or contact cement). My glasses, which are strapped on around my head, help diffuse the red and coordinate with the rest of my costume. I put my hair through the front of my hat, and then I continue putting on the rest of the costume.

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And there you have it! My transformation from Matthew to Phineas. Still got a question? Email me at matthew@americanyouthcircus.org and we’ll address it right here on the blog.

Until next time-

Matthew

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