How to Become a Makeup Artist for Film and Performing Arts

Gaining experience and building a portfolio are often the first steps toward becoming a TV, theatre, or film makeup artist.

Learning the relevant makeup skills can be done through a reputable beauty school, especially one specializing in makeup artistry–but this is not the only path, nor is a formal program required for the career. Many emerging makeup artists go through a college theatre or film program, participate in workshops, work on student films or local theatre, or find mentors in the industry to volunteer or work with.

Developing a well-rounded skillset with detailed knowledge of products, techniques, and design can help you stand out in the industry. You can grow and maintain a network by joining a union, marketing on social media, and connecting with other professionals.

What Does a Performing Arts or Film Makeup Artist Do?

Film, TV, and stage makeup artists develop and implement specific makeup looks for a range of productions. The collaboration between makeup artists, actors, and production teams is vital to bring characters to life through the artistry of makeup explains Sarah Roberts, a licensed makeup artist and founder of a Beauty Edit.

“[A makeup artist’s] skills are showcased through various techniques such as creating special effects, aging makeup, or highlighting the natural beauty of actors,” said Roberts.

Depending on the project, film makeup artists can spend anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day on set. For many productions, this means early morning call times and long days. "For TV, I'm up at 3 a.m. to do makeup for the morning news," said Nyssa Green, an Atlanta-based makeup artist with 15 years of experience in TV, film, and print. "I'll get my setup prepped and get 3–4 anchors done by 5 a.m."

Makeup artists for theatre productions work with the director and creative team to design characters and train actors on makeup. For complex looks like Elphaba's green skin in Broadway's "Wicked," makeup artists apply makeup and prosthetics each night and perform touch-ups throughout the show.

For smaller-budget, local, or realistic productions, you may also be asked to help with hair or wig styling to complete a character's look. All actors in nearly every show wear makeup, even if they're not supposed to look like it, thanks to the harsh stage lighting.

Having an arsenal of skills can help set you apart from others, explains celebrity makeup artist Elaine Badro. Whether you’re looking to become a makeup artist for film, TV or theatre, having an array of skills, techniques and equipment can help you land jobs and grow your career.

How Do I Become a TV, Theatre, or Film Makeup Artist?

Developing your craft, gaining experience, and building a network are the key steps to becoming a professional makeup artist for TV, theatre, or film.


Some performing arts makeup artists go through a formal cosmetology, esthetician, or makeup artistry program. However, many artists start at makeup counters, community theaters, or apprenticeships while training to become a professional. Some go through a two- or four-year film or theatre program.

Others build their skills as freelance event makeup artists before transitioning into TV and film in larger markets. Badro recommends assisting established makeup artists on set or attending seminars from your favorite artists.

"A makeup artist should seek out mentors and take classes with anyone that's already been successful in the industry," said Green. "Do excellent work, be diverse, and network constantly."

While you may need to work for a discounted rate or volunteer while gaining experience, growing your portfolio by learning from others can help you build a network and gain invaluable skills and insight. Don't be afraid to seek advice from veterans in the industry.

Develop Skills Beyond Makeup

While makeup application is the foundation for a theatre, TV, and film makeup artist, additional skills can help you stand apart and earn additional gigs, especially when you're starting out.

"If you want to excel in this industry, I highly recommend pursuing additional training and skills beyond the basics of makeup application," said Roberts. "Specialized training in hairstyling and wig application can be invaluable, as it enhances your versatility and makes you more appealing to production teams."

Makeup artists should also have a solid understanding of how lighting and weather impact performers and makeup looks. Additional details like skin care, hair, and nails can be an important part of a makeup artist's role on set.

Though traditional makeup artists often go for an esthetician license, cosmetology is probably a better fit for those who want to do nails and hair along with makeup.

Build a Portfolio

Your portfolio is a key tool to showcase your skills and specialties. Be sure to take detailed photos of your work and ask clients for permission to share these images.

Highlight a diverse range of projects, clients, and productions to create a compelling story. "Don't be afraid to showcase your portfolio on social media and maintain long-term relationships," said Badro. "You never know when someone needs a makeup artist."


Because many makeup artists work on a freelance basis, you need to maintain and expand your client base over time.

"It's also important to understand the business side of the industry, including networking, building a portfolio, and marketing your services," said Roberts. Participating in local events, posting on social media, and connecting with other makeup artists can help you jumpstart your career in the industry.

Do I Need to Go to Cosmetology or Makeup School to Be a Film Makeup Artist?

While cosmetology school isn't required to be a makeup artist in the TV, film or theatre industries, training programs can benefit many aspiring artists. Some professionals go to cosmetology, esthetics, or makeup school, but many go other routes.

A popular way to become a film, TV, or theatre makeup artist is through a specialized training program. These range from six to eight months and can teach you techniques like airbrushing, HD makeup, special effects, sculpting, prosthetics, and character creation. These programs also help you build a portfolio and gain first-hand experience with an array of products.

"Although specific licensing requirements may not exist for makeup artists in the TV, film, or stage industry, completing a reputable makeup artist program can be advantageous," said Roberts. "These programs offer comprehensive training in makeup techniques, sanitation practices, and industry knowledge."

Beauty schools can provide detailed instruction on techniques and teach you how to plan, sketch, and coordinate makeup looks with other departments. For film makeup artist jobs, you'll need a detailed knowledge of products, trends, and safety practices to create screen-worthy looks.

READ MORE: Find a makeup school near you

READ MORE: Learn more about cosmetology school

Do I Need a License to be a Film Makeup Artist?

While most states don't require a license to do makeup for TV, film or performing arts, having a license can be a helpful tool when booking clients or starting out in the business.

"Licensing as a cosmetologist or esthetician is definitely a plus for someone looking to be a makeup artist in the industry," said Green. She advocates for additional training and licensing to help artists improve their skills, timing, and knowledge.

A license may be required to perform services for the general public, however. If you plan to do freelance work for individual clients outside of television, film, or theatre, you'll need to check your state's individual requirements and obtain the appropriate license.

READ MORE: Learn more about makeup artist licensure

Do I Need to be in a Union to do Theatre or Film Makeup?

While you may not need to be a part of a union to work as a TV or stage makeup artists, being a member can provide security and lead to more significant projects and consistent work opportunities.

“[Being in a union] also provides access to healthcare and retirement benefits,” said Roberts. “[Membership] gives makeup artists collective bargaining power, helping them establish themselves as professionals in the industry.”

Membership in a union like Local 706 (IATSE) for TV and film makeup artists can provide you with access to film makeup artist job listings, contacts, and other benefits.

How Much Money Do Theatre and Film Makeup Artists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, theatrical and performance makeup artists make an average of $45 an hour, or $93,850 per year. Television, film, and social media makeup artists are among the highest paid in the beauty industry with an average annual income of $110,000, but salaries vary widely. Makeup artists for amusement parks and performing arts companies earn an average of $38,120–57,830 per year.

Many makeup artists work on a freelance basis, so you'll likely need to take business expenses and taxes into account when planning your career in the industry.

Working in an industry hub can help you retain clients or find full-time roles. California, Florida, New York, Illinois, and the District of Columbia have the highest employment rates for theatrical makeup artists. Cities like Atlanta, Austin, and New Orleans also provide opportunities for skilled artists.

O*net projects a 4% to 7% growth rate for theatrical makeup artists over the next 10 years, a steady increase for creative professionals looking to make an entrance in the industry.

However, though the pay looks very high and the growth is promising, there are a few important things to remember:

  • Only a few states publish salary information for this career.
  • The field is quite small and competitive.
  • Freelance work, which is common in this industry, isn't necessarily factored into this amount.

With that in mind, it may be worth getting a cosmetology or esthetician license so you can best support yourself while pursuing your behind-the-scenes dreams of theatre, TV, and film makeup artistry.

Some Very Cool Theatre and Film Makeup Work

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Resources for Film and Performing Arts Makeup Artist

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