Getting Started as a Makeup Artist

Makeup artistry is a highly creative and interesting career that allows for artistic freedom and self-expression via a living canvas. This extremely competitive field demands that aspiring artists have plenty of experience, a strong work ethic, and connections to the performing arts/stage or entertainment industry. 

A makeup artist is someone who knows how to use a wide variety of cosmetic techniques and processes to create beautiful scenes on the human body. This work should either enhance a subject's appearance, or in the more extreme sense, create imaginative characters and special effects for film, television, theater, and in photography. Currently, two main industries employ most makeup artists – cosmetic/fashion makeup and theatrical/film makeup. 

Whatever path is chosen, both cosmetic and theatrical makeup artists must learn to how to work with the different lines and angles of the face and body, different lighting conditions, high definition cameras, and in many cases, a design team that may consist of directors, fashion designers and more. Each state has different requirements to become a certified makeup artist. Some require special licensing, while others may only require certain certifications. While a degree is not required for this career path, an education will be beneficial depending on which area of makeup artistry you are interested in pursuing.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, makeup artists in theater and performance make a median wage of $44,310 per year.  Professionals in the field with years of experience and a stellar reputation can make upwards of $115,000.  The motion picture and video industries employ the highest levels of makeup artists, with personal care services, performing arts companies, and radio and television broadcasting companies following closely.  It should also be noted, that you may have to go where the work is, as California, Nevada, and New York employ the most makeup artists in the US. But wages are highest in California, New York, and Georgia.


Learn Essential Methods & Techniques

To become a successful makeup artist, a deep love for cosmetics and a passion to transform an art form is essential. If this is your desire, it is important that you work to learn about and continuously develop formal concepts, methods, theory, and techniques that are relevant to this creative field.

Self-expression with makeup is something that humans have relied on for centuries, and as a makeup artist, you can create meaningful, frightful, clever, dramatic, and imaginative looks with makeup.  The conception process allows makeup artists to come up the ideas that drive each piece of work. These concepts should serve as the underlying purpose or concept behind each finished face or body design. When you have a strong formal concept, you should be able to choose the right colors, application processes, and any accessories needed to enhance that design. As a makeup artist, you should also possess a clear understanding of colors, shapes, the lines of the face and body, texture, and lighting. 

Design methods for each makeup artist may differ, but can be broken down to who you're designing for, what look is needed to portray a certain idea, where are they going, how is the makeup used, and how can you execute each design accurately? During the design process for each new makeup look, you may be required to conduct research, go through an ideation process, create mockups and sketches, and finally, present your finished work.

Makeup artists often work with a design team made up of fashion designers, set dressers, photographers, directors, and more to create concepts and designs. Makeup artists have the option of taking classes to develop their skills or to begin working as a freelancer with friends and connections in the industry.  If you choose to attend college, which is the preferred way to gain a foothold in this industry, you will take a variety of classes, which may include safety, skincare, hygiene, and sanitation; principles of makeup for beauty and fashion; corrective makeup techniques; makeup for broadcast and photography lighting; special effects and film makeup; and application techniques for lips, brows, and all-over body.

Makeup artists must work with different products, tools, textures, colors, shapes, and the human form to create each look. To excel in this field, a good sense of color theory is necessary to create the best color scheme for your clients’ needs. Each makeup artist must have a firm grasp of the basics of color and an understand how lighting affects the appearance of color to the naked eye or through high-definition cameras that are often used within the industry. A solid understanding of color theory will better guarantee that you can make the right judgment call for each creative design, and ultimately, your customer.

With a strong understanding of color theory and the skill it takes to apply makeup to a human canvas, makeup artists can set themselves apart from a makeup applicator. Expert knowledge of different skin types, tool options, makeup products, the lines and shapes of the face, lighting, and application are all needed to succeed.  After all, you may know color and have a grasp on the industry, but if you can’t apply the makeup as requested, then you won't go far in this field.


Gain Experience & Professional Connections

When pursuing a career as a professional makeup artist, it is important for beginners to build a strong portfolio, a personal brand, and industry connections. Building your portfolio, whether it is digital or in print, is a vital first step in building a career as a makeup artist. With a strong portfolio showcasing your work and growth, you are more likely to be accepted for an internship and book work within the industry. Include photos of makeup you've applied while working or volunteering at a local theater group, or on friends and family.  Keep your portfolio fresh and up-to-date, as makeup techniques change, and you will be required to remain innovative and diverse in your skills. 

With modern advancements in communication and technology, it is more important than ever before to begin working on your own personal brand early on in your career. While it is always a good idea to let your finished work speak for your skill level, becoming recognized for your own personal style and flair can also be beneficial for jump-starting your career. Brand identity —whether you are utilizing social media or connections locally— is key to success. 

The professional makeup artistry field is extremely competitive and making connections within the industry via school, internships, or even personal relationships is indispensable to your future. While many new makeup artists are unsure of where to begin making these connections, it is always a good idea to practice by seeking out smaller jobs, possibly on a local or state level, to start building your reputation in the industry.

Get to Know Our Experts

Chris Lanston

  • Title:
    Makeup Artist
  • Company:
    DGReps Agency
  • Where:
    New York, NY and Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    15 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    Unlike many in my profession, I was basically self-taught. I never took a makeup class or went to school. I learned primarily from reading Kevyn Aucoin books and from constant practice until I was satisfied with my results.

    My workdays are always different because as a working artist, I might be on set for half a day or all day for a week straight. Often, I might be called to do a photo shoot for a publication the following day or get hired to do a red carpet event, so I wouldn’t ever say it’s ever average, but I am always enjoying each day as it comes.

    What I like most about my career is being able to give back what I enjoy… It’s easy to get caught up in the lifestyle with celebrities, and it is extremely fun, but to be able to help an average woman find her confidence by showing her the beauty she has is always an unforgettable experience. What I dislike is dealing with so many egos. I’m fine with opinions, but leave the ego at the door.


    First piece of advice

    My first piece of advice is to never take anything personal and to remember to have fun! Keep in mind it’s art, and so know what kind of artist you want to be first. This is the way you can find and develop your signature style.

    No hard and fast rules

    There are no rules to makeup, but always try to learn new tricks and ways of expanding your craft. Never talk back to a mentor or try to outshine the key artist when you are only an assistant. If your work is good, it will be noticed. And always try something you think you are not good at to get better and perhaps discover a new talent.

    Spend time on a portfolio

    If you aspire to a career in NYC or LA, then I would spend time working on a portfolio, and then call a few agencies to see if they might be interested in seeing your book. Another way would be to go to salons and see about assisting or find photographers who need makeup artists.

    Kaylin Johnson

  • Title:
    Makeup Artist
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Austin, TX
  • Experience:
    4 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    I stumbled into makeup almost by accident. I was working full-time as a video game designer, and I happened to attend a seminar by a makeup artist. When I found out that I could do makeup for weddings on the weekends without going to beauty school, it sounded like fun. I begged my friends to let me practice on them, and soon I was reaching out to amateur models and photographers to build a portfolio. I’m a self-taught artist and gained a lot of my experience by working in the field, but I started out reading books and studying online videos.

    In addition to makeup for weddings, independent films, and local fashion shows, I am now a consultant for cosmetic companies. I also have pursued beauty writing through my blog, Kaylin’s Kit, and with books such as The Mercenary Makeup Artist.

    A day on set typically involves driving to the location, getting set up, and doing makeup for your first model or client. For commercial photo shoots, models will often be photographed with multiple looks during one day. So if there’s just one model, you often have some downtime between each makeup look. This is a great time to clean your brushes, eat a snack, or even lend a hand during the shoot. Then I often redo the model’s makeup for the next look. I can usually pick up and go home at this point, but sometimes clients are willing to pay to keep me on for touch-ups during the shoot. A job can take anywhere from half an hour (for one bride) to a full day (for photo shoots with multiple models and/or multiple looks). For larger jobs, there will often be several artists on staff, and that can add a really fun group dynamic.

    I really love being able to transform men and women with makeup. There’s something so special about the power makeup has over us, and the way it can be used to play up our different features. It’s not just about defining someone’s stunning eyes or making dark circles disappear. Makeup can give a bride confidence, help an actress become someone entirely different, or allow a burn victim to draw attention to their beauty, rather than their scars. At the end of the day, that’s what I love most about makeup.

    While high-profile artists spend a lot of their time on set, local artists, like me, often spend a fair amount of time chasing down business. This can be anything from answering emails from brides (asking for my availability and rates) to attending networking events like makeup shows. I also write 1-4 blog posts a week and handle phone and email consultations for makeup companies. Being a lucrative makeup artist is about running a successful small business, and you won’t get paid unless people know about you.


    People skills and professionalism are necessary

    Makeup is like other small businesses, and it requires a lot of people skills. Sometimes people can be just plain rude, such as brides who are under a lot of stress. Early morning call times, cranky clients, and rush hour traffic can be frustrating. Be prepared for this.

    I’ve seen artists fail because they simply can’t handle the responsibility. If you can’t be early to an appointment–whether it’s at 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., then don’t commit. A makeup artist is one of the first people on the scene, and a professional will never hold up a shoot. If you can communicate well via email, handle frustrating situations gracefully, and generally conduct yourself diplomatically, then there is definitely a place in this field for you. Makeup skills are important, but interpersonal skills are far more important to your success.

    Be conscious of expiration dates

    Getting started in makeup artistry doesn’t have to be expensive, but it would’ve been nice to know how quickly my kit would expire. I dove in headfirst and bought almost a whole makeup kit at once, and then everything started to expire at the same time. I didn’t have a large volume of clients my first year, and I had to throw out some liquid makeup that I’d never opened simply because it expired. It would’ve been better to be more conservative in my purchases, especially those made for specific photo shoots. For example, I bought $80 worth of face paint for a shoot that never happened.

    Don’t be disillusioned

    Some people get disillusioned with this industry because they go in expecting to work with celebrities and supermodels. There are a few makeup artists who do, but those are the exceptions. Most of us earn our income through weddings, and most wedding looks are pretty similar. There is some creativity involved in this career, but ultimately you serve the vision of others: the director, the photographer, the bride, or the model. If you love inventive looks and crazy colors, there may still be a place in this field for you, but you might not get paid for that type of work until you’ve clawed your way to the top of the industry.

    Don’t quit your day job

    I also recommend that you don’t quit your day job. Many of the most lucrative jobs, such as weddings, are often on the weekends. It’s a lot easier to learn when you aren’t desperate to make ends meet. You’ll make a better impression on clients and you’ll be more likely to have some extra cash for your makeup kit. If you reach a point where you’re flooded with work, then that’s a good time to start thinking about a more permanent career change.

    You have many options to master your craft

    There are many different ways to master makeup skills, from books to online videos to beauty schools. Techniques are widely published on beauty websites, so study up and practice often –both on yourself and on your friends (using their makeup, of course). I am self-taught because I felt I could tailor my studies to what I most needed to succeed, from bridal makeup to looks that would hold up to professional lighting. However, the most difficult part of being self-taught is designing your own plan. I recently wrote a book, The Mercenary Makeup Artist: Breaking into the Business with Style, to help aspiring artists. I wanted to create a step-by-step path that anyone could follow, from finding great educational resources to making a portfolio and getting your first job. It is critical for you to treat yourself as a business and to conduct yourself as a professional.

    One of the best ways to learn is by getting on set. Once you’ve mastered some of the basics, like a great foundation application and some popular looks, reach out to artists in your area to see if you can assist them. Many artists would be glad for some free help. Just be prepared to do the thankless tasks. Even if you think the work is beneath you, the opportunity to observe a mentor in action is priceless. No matter how much I studied, I always learned the most in the field. It’s hard to replace the pressure of a real photo shoot, where time is just as important as quality.

    Mimi Chapman

  • Title:
  • Company:
  • Where:
    Atlanta, GA
  • Experience:
    1 year in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    My educational background is in Biology and Epidemiology. However, I started my career in the makeup industry approximately 1 year ago and am a self-taught makeup artist. The growth in just those 365 days has been tremendous! I went full force into this industry, researching and studying with some of the most notable artists in the field. I spent countless hours reading books, watching tutorials, and practicing looks. I attended classes, seminars and conferences to learn the basics of makeup application. In addition, I sacrificed the necessary funds to ensure I had quality products for my clients.

    My average workday starts a few days before a job. In preparation for each client, I must ensure that all of my products and brushes are cleaned and sanitized. I survey my collection to make sure I have all the products I need as well as make any last-minute purchases for items that I am low on. If I am traveling to a client, I pack up a large kit that includes almost every item at my studio. I always want to be prepared for additional services that weren’t requested at the time of booking. Clients that book appointments also have the option of traveling to my in-home studio to receive makeup services. I prep this area for each client and schedule all appointments in hour and a half intervals.

    I love the reaction a client has at the end of their session! It is such a rewarding feeling to see someone leave your chair with an increased amount of self-esteem and self-confidence. Many clients are unsure of what to expect at the end of the session and the glow in their eyes when they look in the mirror is indescribable! As with many professions, the preparation needed to prepare for an appointment takes a lot of time, especially when you are traveling to a client. Many hours are spent cleaning, sanitizing, packing and loading your products and equipment, so cancellations are an inconvenience and one of my pet peeves.


    Be cost efficient

    At the start of my career and during my research of the industry, I went out and purchased almost every item I had seen someone use in a video or during a demonstration. I quickly learned that this was not the most feasible and cost efficient way to maintain a makeup business. Although I did not know this initially, I learned that you do not have to have a specific product to create a specific look. There are so many items out there that are duplicates for other items. If you want to use blue eye shadow, you don’t have to go out and buy the same blue eye shadow that you saw a makeup artist use in a class or on a video. Learning what products achieve the look you want and save you money is a skill every makeup artist should grasp. Many items in my kit are exact duplicates of other items that cost more money.

    You have to practice

    For the beginning artist, my advice might sound cliché, but practice, practice, practice! When I started in this industry, I did looks on myself every day. I tried things I saw in videos and noted areas I needed to work on. I practiced different methods to perform a skill so that I knew a hundred ways to do the same things. I did looks on family members and friends to learn how to work with different complexions, face shapes and flaws. I tried many different products and found cheaper versions of expensive products. Lastly, I made sure to attend classes and conferences to get the insight from pro makeup artists and experts.

    Step out on faith

    Also, you have to just step out on faith! Don’t take offense to criticism and critiques, because it can only help you. Understand that makeup artistry has different genres, so if you are not good at glam makeup, try fantasy makeup or Special FX. More importantly, make sure you have gained the skills needed to classify yourself as a makeup artist.

    Makeup Artist Infographic