Creating Realistic Geisha Makeup

On more than one occasion I have been asked if I can do "Geisha Makeup." Most people expect the stereotypical Halloween or Hollywood makeup —a white face with pursed black or red lips, a sloppy bun and a garnish of fine chopsticks.

Being a history nut isn't easy. Most people aren't interested in the cultural nuances that make a theme or concept whole. Even in the broader sense, details are easily over-looked. 

I was once on a set where the model was posing with a flute... incorrectly assembled. Yes, it does take a lot of self-control to not yell, "Unhand that abomination!"

What is a Geisha, anyway?

There are only a few websites out there that do the art justice and the rest seem to be duplicates, copy-and-pasted information.

Basically (and I mean seriously simplified), the Geisha is a woman trained in the traditional arts of Japan. She is not a prostitute, she is an entertainer, a dancer, a musician, etc.

In my quest to get a better understanding of the tradition, I found myself reading "Geisha, A Life" by Mineko Iwasaki. The 300 page autobiography of a real Geisha also includes pictures of real Geisha working and performing as well as closeups of their beautiful outfits and hairpins. I highly recommend it, especially over "Memoirs of a Geisha," to anyone who really wants to get a glimpse inside their world.

As much as I would love to go way off topic, l must remember, we are just talking makeup. :D

What does a real Geisha look like?

Her appearance is meant to accentuate that which Japanese culture found attractive, at the time. The nape of the neck, for example, was left un-painted. Her heavy wardrobe was NOT meant to play up her figure and her shoes made each footstep graceful. Yes, the lips were painted small (like a rosebud not a clown) and the teeth were blackened.

By the way-Ohaguro- The Art of Teeth Blackening. 
Why!? Why would anyone do that? 
I can imagine a few reasons for doing this. First, go paint your face white and smile. You're teeth look nasty don't they? Enameling the teeth also gave them a longer life in an era without modern dentistry.

We know that teeth were painted black in other Asian countries like Vietnam. Their society saw it as a coming of age and as a way to protect the teeth.

I once read of a demonstration where the presenter, face whitened and teeth blackened, showed her face illuminated by candlelight to a group of students. In the presentation it became obvious why an artist would go to such makeup extremes. Especially considering the Geisha worked during the night before there were Electric light sources in Japan.

How come the makeup in the images I've found looks a little different from Geisha to Geisha?

Well, it helps to know that Geisha is a term that you wouldn't normally use. You would want to be searching for images of Maiko or Geiko. There's definitely a hierarchy in the Geisha Houses and the makeup helps to differentiate. A Maiko is an apprenticed Geiko (Geisha). When she debuts as a Geiko, she will finally have her lips fully painted on. As her career progresses, her makeup will also evolve. Senior Geiko may wear their hair long instead of up and may even have slightly longer eyebrows. A Geiko over thirty may rarely be spotted wearing her heavy makeup, except for special occasions. Geiko and Maiko face charts

Has anyone ever actually seen a Geisha *cough, ahem* Geiko do her makeup?

How about a really good demonstration and then a step-by-step for achieving a realistic Geisha look? 

*My educated guess is, based on the way in which she uses the red pigment around the eyes and the way she paints her lips, that the artist is a Senior Maiko.

  • The artist begins by applying a wax substance to the face as a setter for the next step, which will be a white rice powder paste. 

  • Rice powder is mixed with water to get the proper application. In the past, lead-based whites were used. When applying rice powder paste, she begins by defining the nape of the neck. Usually in a V or W shape, the video shows a W. Excess moisture is removed with a sponge. The small space between the white makeup base and the hairline is meant to give the illusion of a mask.

I think that I would try using a round cosmetic sponge (the kind sold next to the wedge shaped sponges) to smooth the makeup and remove moisture. The super fine texture would probably be better for smoothing out brush strokes. I've used my face painting sponges for this in the past which is pretty hit or miss.
  • In the video we see a touch of contouring around the bridge of the nose with a red-pigmented powder. Then the brows, which would traditionally be drawn in charcoal, are accentuated with a deep red eye pencil. Later, it appears she comes back to the brows with red powder and gently gives them more definition. 

  • Red is added to the corner of the eyes and blended inwards. Then, the lash line is defined with modern liquid eyeliner.

  • Notice how the lips are drawn smaller but not clownish. Think more Clara Bow than court jester. ;)
If you plan on going for a totally false brow, it may be wise to seal the natural brows and conceal them before applying the white base.

If you have a much darker skin tone, I would suggest "nuding out" the lips before painting them white. In other words, hit the lips with a bit of concealer first.

I plan to do a demo with products found at a typical Halloween store for you guys! In the meantime, I hope this helps.


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