10 Tips to Improve Your Special Effects Makeup Skills

Special Effects Blog Post

It’s one of those questions I keep getting; “Do you have any tips for improving in special effects makeup”. Bear in mind that I’m still learning and have a long, long way to go before I get anywhere near Stan Winston levels of perfection, but these tips have helped me, and I think they’ll help you too.

1. It’s not about the tools

Don’t get me wrong, the tools help a lot! Once you’ve used a good quality pure black eyeshadow over the watered down rubbish that get’s passed off as black eyeshadow, you know there’s no going back. But there’s a use for that terrible chalky eyeshadow. Is it an off black bordering on grey colour? Perfect! You can use it to replicate the effect of soot, dirt etc. The most important thing to focus on is technique and application, those will save you when the tools aren’t pulling their weight.

2. There’s almost always a way to work around the problem

So you messed up. Ok, calm down, close your eyes and look at it again. Do you really need to tear the whole thing off and start again? You might have to, but is there a way to work around the problem? Before you panic, improvise.

3. Steady on the blood

This is one of my pet hates, especially around Halloween. I get it, not everyone wants to dress up and spend ages working on the details of a severe 3rd-degree burn. But when I see “makeup artists” apply the dunk-my-face-in-blood technique, it does make me see red. Think about the wound! Where is it located on the body? how fresh is it? How was it created? Will there be small shards of glass or mud stuck to it? Think about that before you reach for the blood.

4. What is it? NOT, what brand is it

Brand snobbery, fine, you can have it if you want. But you could spend half the money you do, and still have enough left over for a quick weekend holiday to Malta. Focus on the quality and function of the product rather than the name which is stamped on the packaging. For example, a lot of the expensive bruise wheels can be replaced with lipsticks of the same colour. Special effects fake sweat is only glycerin (no, seriously, it’s the only ingredient). Look at the ingredients and how it applies first, before you look at the brand.


5. Don’t just learn about makeup

Don’t just read special effects books. Read art books, medical books, costume design, anatomy books. The more you understand about the details which underly and surround your makeup, the better artist you will be.

6. Keep a reference photos library

It’s now a running joke in my family that whenever anyone gets’s hurt, I’ll be the first one there with a camera. A few weeks ago when my little sister fell over and cut her knee open, and the first thing she did was run over and proudly ask if her new injury was good enough to be added to my collection. It sounds odd, and yes, people will probably mock you for it, but if you want to do excellent makeup then you need to know exactly what the standard you’re trying to imitate is.  Even the small things; like scratches, scrapes, bruises, bruises on different skin tones etc. Collect it all.

7. Skin, skin, skin

If you keep a reference photo library there are two things I would highly recommend you do, and that is, have it ordered by injuries in order of severity, and skin tones. It’s absolutely vital that you understand that the colours which show up with a bruise on someone with very pale skin, will not be the same colours which show up on someone with very dark skin. A sunburn on someone with a caramel skin tone will not be the same as someone with an ebony skin tone. Learn about skin in all of its varieties.

Busted Knuckle

8. Watch and learn

Observing people is often an untapped gold mine. Look at people skin especially and the story it tells. Do they look tired? Do they look happy? What is it about the placement of colour and shades on their face that makes them look that way? Wrinkles? Why are they wrinkled that much? Is it smokers wrinkles? Laughing wrinkles? Worried wrinkles. Age spots, hyperpigmentation, acnes etc. The more you learn to read the story on people’s skin, the better makeup artist you will be.

9. Try new things. Challenge yourself.

All the time. What I like to do is pop a film on at the end of the day, grab a few random tools from black eyeliner to scar wax and see what I can do with just that. So you only have three lipsticks to work with? Ok, let’s find animals in nature which have those -or close to those – colours on their skin or face. Now try to replicate that pattern on your hand. A moray eel, a betta fish, even trees. Also, don’t just go for the colourful things, go for animals or plants with small subtle details and small variations in colour.

10. Tools are everywhere/don’t use ‘pretty’ brushes

Those old art brushes that are too splayed out to use anymore? Keep them, they’re perfect for simulating thread veils. As for that perfect bronze ferrule, expensive set of super soft non-synthetic makeup brushes? Yea…please don’t use them for special effects. They won’t last a week. There needs to be a very clear break between the brushes you use for makeup and special effects makeup. Special effects brushes need to be able to take a battering, or at least disposable enough not to care if you accidently leave it to dry with latex in the bristles.

Finally, I want to add a few notes from Stuart Bray who was kind enough to add his own suggestions. If you haven’t seen his work, here’s the link. Watch and be amazed.

  •  Stressing reference is important. Learning the correct terms for injuries and understanding the mechanism of injury will I form what words you use when using Google to find images.
  • As to blood, cheap blood often stains and doesn’t look good.  The trick is to, again, study what blood really looks like and how it behaves. Bleeding ‘happens’ rather than is ‘done’ and often applied blood looks like it was applied….like it is contrived.
  • Blood also clots and dries quickly and changes colour as it does so. Make sure it is dark enough and doesn’t bead up on oil based makeup as that’s a dead giveaway. This is reticulated and is caused by the surface tension of a thin film. Of water sitting on top of an oily surface.
  • Use dishwashing detergent (fairy liquid) on the surface or as an additive to the blood you apply to reduce this effect t if you don’t have a silicone flow blood.
  • Silicone flow bloods are designed to be used on silicone and other oil based surfaces, and consequently flow naturally over a surface and remain realistic.
  • Also, I think if going for realism,  avoid cheesy smiley pictures in the portfolio.  Nothing gives away an otherwise realistic throat cut than someone apparently happy to be slashed.

Follow me on Instagram