5 Things to Know Before Doing Day of the Dead Makeup
When someone books Mexican-American face-painter Judith Bautista (a.k.a. Kahlovera) to do traditional Catrina [skull] makeup for Halloween, she doesn’t get offended. “Most people just want to look like cool skulls for the night, and I take the opportunity to share a bit of my culture with them. I explain that it’s a symbol of Dia De Los Muertos, a completely different holiday.” Namely, the Day of the Dead, celebrated as a national holiday in Mexico and less formally in parts of Latin America on the first two days of November. “I don’t mind people getting dressed up Dia De Los Muertos-style for Halloween, but if you’re going to do it, it would be good to know what you’re dressing up as,” she says. Touché.
Don’t confuse Dia de los Muertos with Halloween.
With roots in ancient Aztec rituals, Dia de los Muertos starts on the first of November (corresponding with All Saints Day and All Souls Day, when the boundary between the worlds of the living and dead is believed to be thinnest). But the holiday has nothing to do with scares or hauntings—it’s a joyful statement of death acceptance and a moment to honor loved ones who died. “You’re celebrating that person like you would a birthday, with all the things they loved most,” says Bautista. Families make altars called ofrendas (offerings) decorated with marigolds, ornate sugar skulls, photos, and the deceased’s favorite possessions. Gifts are brought to loved ones’ graves, where everyone has a little party—playing grandma’s favorite music, sipping her favorite coffee, telling stories and sharing laughs.
Bone up on your history.
A calaca is a skeleton, a calavera is a skull, and a calavera de azucar is a sugar skull (which is a frosted, skull-shaped treat made from sugar paste and decorated with colorful patterns). The most popular calavera of all is “La Calavera Catrina”, a high-society skeleton lady dressed in a fancy floral hat, from a 1910 etching by Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. The print was meant as political satire, showing that the tailored European clothes and snooty attitudes favored by upper-class indigenous Mexicans at the time didn’t matter—we’re all equal in death. She has become the most iconic symbol of Dia de los Muertos. (Odds are you’re not doing sugar skull makeup; you’re actually painting your face like a Catrina.)
Calaveras aren’t supposed to be scary.
“I work with children at an afterschool program in Los Angeles, and I’ve always celebrated Dia De Los Muertos with them. We’d go all out, and I’d face paint my students. When I became the program coordinator, I made sure all of the kids joined in and learned the meaning of Dia De Los Muertos. I really wanted to differentiate it from Halloween—it’s not the same holiday,” says Bautista.
Some parents who weren’t familiar with the holiday were hesitant at first. “They said, ‘What’s going on? What are they doing over there, witchcraft?’ But it can help children with their fears. When the kids say, ‘That’s scary.’ I ask, ‘What about a skeleton is scary? You’re a skeleton and I’m a skeleton. We’re all skeletons. It’s just another phase of our lives to become skeletons.’ There’s nothing scary about that, and we shouldn’t make kids scared of it,” she says. “I think it’s romantic to dedicate a day to whoever you’re missing. Who wouldn’t want to partake in such a sweet holiday?”
Avoid greasepaint from the Halloween store.
That’s for clowns, not Calaveras. It’s gooey, and never seems to set, so Bautista prefers water-based theatrical makeup. For foundation, she uses Mehron Paradise AQ foundation in white, which she activates with water and applies with a kabuki brush (“Apply in a circular motion from the center of the face out,” she says); For drawing black lines, she uses a thin brush dipped in Wolfe Water Based Makeup. “After it sets, you can apply your usual makeup over it, which you can’t do with greasepaint,” says Bautista, who uses blush and eyeliner on her skeletal beauties, as well as gemstones, sequins, and cosmetic glitter stuck on with lash glue.
Don’t overthink it.
You already know how to highlight your bone structure! “When you contour with regular makeup, you’re shaping the cheekbones—now, instead of bronzer, use black powder eye shadow. When you do your usual eye shadow, you’re following the shape of your eye socket—so fill it in with pencil or shadow,” she says. “For the nose, draw an upside down triangle or heart. That’s not hard to do.” If you’re feeling timid, don’t make any thick, bold lines until you’ve finished contouring. “You can retouch the shadows until you’re happy with the shape, and use them as a guide,” she says.
If all else fails, half-ass it.
Symmetry is a challenge, even for pros. If you can’t get both sides to match up perfectly, just paint half your face like a skull and the other half like the living, breathing glamazon you are. Life’s too short, am I right?