How To Become a Makeup Artist

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

There are many reasons why becoming a makeup artist is a path worth pursuing. You get to use your artistic sensibilities, make your own hours (depending on the job), and meet other like-minded creatives across all facets of the entertainment industry. But how do you actually become a makeup artist, and what do you need to start your career? Should you attend cosmetology school? Should you join the union? Here’s everything you need to know to become a makeup artist for movies, TV, and more.


What does a makeup artist do?

Makup artist on the set of 'Fear the Walking Dead'Peter Iovino/AMC

The MUA (which means “makeup artist”) uses their artistic skills and technical aptitude to offer makeup and cosmetic services. Using makeup and prosthetics, the artist enhances or radically alters a client’s appearance. “I kind of look at the makeup similar to music. Like on a film or TV, the music [can] emotionally elevate a scene [or] can make a scene go from, like, zero to 60 in terms of emotion,” makeup artist Doniella Davy (“Euphoria,” “Moonlight”) told Entertainment Weekly. “I aim to do something really similar. If the makeup I’m doing is not enhancing the story, then it’s not doing its job.” 

During production, the makeup artist applies daily makeup to the principal actors and keeps track of continuity. They’re also on set for touchups between takes. “You know how stars always look perfect even when they’re standing in the rain, or how there is never a drop of sweat even if they’re a cop busting a perp in the heat of the summer? That’s because every time the director yells ‘Cut!’ someone like me runs in with blotting papers, sponges, brushes, and various tools to move [their makeup] back into place,” Rebecca Perkins, key makeup artist for “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” told makeup site Byrdie.

A makeup artist’s primary responsibilities include:

  • Consulting with directors, concept artists, and performers about desired looks
  • Reading scripts to assess cosmetic requirements for productions
  • Cleaning and cleansing the skin for makeup application
  • Applying makeup to enhance or change the appearance of performers
  • Working with the prosthetics team to concept prosthetic attachments
  • Attaching prosthetics to performers
  • Maintaining continuity across shots
  • Keeping up-to-date with industry standards for makeup, skincare, and other styling elements

Makeup artist vs. esthetician

Makeup artist working with a clientHrytsiv Oleksandr/Shutterstock

The distinction between makeup artist and esthetician is subtle but significant. Makeup artists are usually freelancers who provide makeup services on location for productions. Alternatively, estheticians are more focused on skincare. They must have an esthetician license to operate, and they usually work at a salon or spa.

Types of makeup artists

Scene from 'Rectify'James Minchin/Sundance TV

There are as many different types of makeup artists as there are activities that require it. You’re not going to do the same makeup for someone in a modern-day television series that you will for a news anchor or stage performer. However, except for special effects makeup, no two categories are mutually exclusive when it comes to the makeup artist, meaning the more mediums in which you’re comfortable doing makeup for talent, the better. Here are the most prominent categories of makeup artistry:

  • Print modeling: Makeup for print modeling, also called “editorial,” can vastly vary depending on whether a given shoot is “high concept” or more grounded. The former can include high-fashion shoots for designers (think the ads you see in Vogue) and often entails makeup that is avant-garde and experimental; while the latter encompasses more traditional commercial shoots and print advertisements, and thus requires more natural looks.
  • Headshot: When it comes to actors’ headshots, the intended outcome is for them to look like their best selves on their best day—but they should, undeniably, look like themselves. That means, for both men and women, makeup should be natural to the extent that it is there, but the average onlooker may not even know it. “I always ask my clients a few questions about their personal style and what kind of characters they typically play before we get started,” headshot makeup artist Bridie Coughlan told Backstage. “I like to turn this awkwardness on its head by giving my clients a little speech encouraging them to give me feedback and reassuring them that anything can be changed to make them feel comfortable with their look.”
  • Film/TV: There are exceptions depending on the project, of course, but for the most part, makeup for television and film tries its hardest to be “natural”—the irony being that off camera it looks anything but. However, beneath the harsh production lighting, “less is more” does not actually apply.
  • On-camera personality (news anchors, hosts, etc.): The makeup used for on-camera personalities goes one step further in the natural/not-natural makeup dichotomy. If makeup for television and film aims to look natural on camera, makeup for broadcasts and similar programming aims to look like “evening-wear makeup.”
  • Theater: Unlike its on-camera counterparts, makeup artists in the theater are somewhat few and far between. There are makeup designers who work with the director to establish the look initially, but for a given show, most cast members—even leading ladies—will do their own makeup. The exceptions are for shows that require specialty makeup, such as “Wicked,” but that dips into special effects territory. Which brings us to…
  • SFX: Special effects makeup, known by the industry shorthand as “SFX” makeup, is responsible for the zombies you see on “The Walking Dead,” the all-important fish-human hybrid in “The Shape of Water,” and every other imagination-suspending makeup. Special effects makeup is a different skill altogether than standard makeup design and generally requires specific training.

What is a makeup kit, and what should I have in mine?

Makeup artist working with a clientPaolo Bona/Shutterstock

The makeup artist’s kit is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: It’s your bag of tricks—your supply of all the makeup and brushes and other beautifying tools you have in your possession that you bring with you to every job you do. Yes, you as the makeup artist are responsible for supplying the actual makeup. In order to get the low-down on all things kit, Backstage consulted with Yasmina Smith-Tyson, a makeup artist with more than 13 years of experience, who is now a unionized MUA working on television and film projects.

As you’re starting to put your kit together, you may be wondering: Do I have to use only high-end products? Absolutely not. “If anyone is starting out and needs to put together their entire kit, do drugstore brands—it’s all the same stuff,” says Smith-Tyson. “If you’re someone who’s starting out and you’re like I was, then you’re broke. You’re trying to be as handy as you can. Get one or two nice matte eyeshadow palettes from Sephora, but fill it out with drugstore items. Get dollar store sponges, do whatever you can to beef up your kit. Don’t be ashamed.”

Makeup artist education requirements

Scene from 'Dark Winds'Michael Moriatis/Stalwart Productions/AMC

Makeup artists' education requirements are minimal since the job does not usually require a license or certification. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t pursue an education in your craft. Some states also require specialized licenses or cosmetology certification, so be sure to check with your state’s cosmetology board to figure out what, if any, requirements there are.

Many makeup artists earn a certificate such as the esthetician license offered by the American Association of Cosmetology Schools. They may also enroll in local cosmetology programs to learn foundational skills and refine their techniques. Depending on the school and location, tuition for these programs usually costs between $3,000 and $10,000.

Though you don’t need school to perform makeup artistry, it can help you get ahead in this competitive field. “In this industry, you should always keep learning and always keep going to school and going to seminars,” Smith-Tyson says. “More skills can only mean more work, and you can speak to your products more. It’s a no-brainer.”

Smith-Tyson clarifies, though, that school is not merely a way to bide your time. “You have to want it,” she says. “You’re not going to school because your parents don’t know what to do with you. You have to be willing to give up Saturdays and be willing to do the extra work.”

Can I become a makeup artist online?

Woman having makeup applied while reading a scriptStockLite/Shutterstock

When it comes to self-education for something like makeup artistry, today’s online resources are better than they’ve ever been. A number of programs offer online makeup artist training, including:

  • The Online Makeup School
  • Online Makeup Academy
  • QC Makeup Academy
  • Cosmo Makeup Academy
  • AOFM Online Makeup School

Additionally, many makeup artists, such as these cosmetic connoisseurs, post helpful tutorials on social media: 

Feel free to do your own research and find MUAs who inspire you to experiment and improve your skills.

Still, while internet resources such as YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok are certainly valuable, Smith-Tyson says there are some limits to online videos. “YouTube is a really great resource, but learning off of YouTube and then actually understanding how to correctly shape and shade and apply to someone’s face—there is such a difference,” she says. “The YouTube world is so vast. It’s still a really great resource, but there is refinement that you need, and that is harder to get from YouTube.” Be sure to practice what you learn on real-life faces to refine your technique.

Is there a union for makeup artists?

Steve Martin on the set of 'Only Murders in the Building'“Only Murders in the Building” Credit: Patrick Harbron/Hulu

Whether or not to join the makeup artists union depends on what exactly you hope to do with your career. If you want to be a makeup artist working mainly in fashion, joining the union will not be super beneficial. However, if you want to work in film and television, the union is worth considering for a number of reasons, but chief among them is the insular stability and union assurance. 

Because the union is such a backbone of the industry, it’s unsurprising that gaining membership requires multiple steps. 

“You have to submit an application and then you get interviewed,” Smith-Tyson says. “You need letters of recommendation and [must] prove you live in the area. Your application is reviewed by a board. If they approve it, you come in for an interview. During your interview process, you sit across the table from three union members. They ask you questions and you bring in your portfolio and they speak to your portfolio. It’s all very diplomatic and it’s in place for a reason. It takes commitment. You have to want to be in the union. It’s not for someone who’s like, ‘I want to work with celebrities.’ You have to want it, and that’s what they want. They want strong union members because that makes our union stronger.”

How much do makeup artists make?

makeup artistTrue Touch Lifestyle/Shutterstock

If you’re wondering how much celebrity makeup artists make, the salary is relatively high. According to a 2022 report, movie makeup artists earn an average salary of $124,380. However, the low end for theatrical and performance makeup artists’ salary is around $38,070. On average, makeup artists earn around $30 an hour. Earnings vary depending on the size and scale of the project as well as the number of days worked. 

Makeup artists are represented by IATSE Local 706, also known as the Makeup Artists and Hairstylists Guild, which means that if you’re a union member, you have mandatory minimums for earnings.

How to find makeup artist jobs

Makeup being applied on the set of 'Outer Banks'Curtis Baker/Netflix

Like everything else in the business of show, when it comes to actually finding work as a makeup artist, no two paths are alike. Also, remember that much of it comes down to luck and the connections you make along the way. Here are some helpful tips for getting ahead in the makeup industry. 

  • Try non-industry jobs: Many begin their professional careers outside of the industry as freelance makeup artists or working in retail at makeup counters such as Sephora or MAC before transitioning to production work as makeup assistants and assistant makeup artists. and are good entry resources for gigs.
  • Perfect your portfolio: Portfolios are one of the most crucial components for makeup artists booking work. Online portfolio sites such as Squarespace, Format, Dripbook, and Vimeo allow you to create aesthetically pleasing professional digital portfolios. Your portfolio should showcase your work, skill set, and range, including:
  • Contact info: Be sure your name, phone number, email, and city of residence are visible. 
    • Social proof: Got any top reviews, big-name clients, or a large social media following? Then, it’s time to drop names and numbers as social proof of your cosmetic prowess.
    • Training: List any makeup artist, cosmetology, or esthetician training, licenses, and certifications.
    • Experience: Describe your makeup artistry experience and work history, highlighting your most impressive accomplishments.
    • Photos and videos: Show off your best work with high-resolution photos and videos. Aim for various looks and a comprehensive layout of the different techniques you’ve mastered. If you’re wondering how many looks to include in your makeup artist portfolio, Smith-Tyson says more is better: “You need to have a portfolio of one photo of everything.”
  • Make connections: As with any industry position, once you get to a certain skill level, it’s less about what you know than who you know. “Regardless of whatever path you’re going to take, you have to realize that as soon as you step onto a set, you’re making connections,” says Smith-Tyson. “It’s the same across the board in this industry: Our job is so much more social than it is talent. You gotta hustle, and as soon as you get to the set, you read the room and let your willingness and drive to go forward take you.”

Ready to get to work? Check out Backstage’s casting calls!