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How to Use Stage Makeup to Create Bruises and Cuts

Posted on: May 1, 2020

By Daniel C Townsend, author of Foundation of Stage Makeup

We all know the feeling of waiting in your seat for a theatre show to begin. Staring at the iconic red curtains expectantly, overpriced ice-cream tub in hand, the excitement palpable in the air. The sense of realness and immediacy sets the theatre apart from other mediums, and is evident in everything from the live stunts to the special effects (sfx) makeup. CGI isn’t an option in the theatre, and indeed, isn’t always the best option in film, as I’m sure any viewer of Cats (2019) would agree. For that reason, the skills of a theatrical makeup artist will always be in demand for theatre productions, films and tv shows.

Stage makeup can work magic - ageing a character 40 years, transforming actors into fantastical creatures, or creating all manner of gory injuries. Using makeup to create wounds and injuries is known as trauma makeup, and this blog post will take you through how to create two areas of trauma makeup – bruises and cuts.

Trauma Makeup

What is Trauma Makeup?

Trauma makeup refers to creating a bruise, wound or other type of injury on the skin. The skills needed for trauma makeup range from careful application of colour, for example in creating a bruise, to using gelatin or liquid latex to make protrusions or prosthetics. Creating these injuries is one of the most basic and in-demand skills for a stage makeup artist, so read on to learn how to create bruises, cuts, scars, or burns realistic enough to make onlookers squirm.

Bruise Makeup

Key Factors to Consider Before Applying Bruise Makeup

Let’s start with one of the most common injuries you’ll come across: bruises. The art of creating a believable bruise lies in knowing the answers to the following questions.

How did the bruise occur?

Knowing what caused the bruise will of course lead you to the shape you’re trying to create, whether that’s having been punched in the eye with a fist or strangled with rope. If the individual was injured in a fight, the weapon used should also be considered - whether it was blunt and flat or more pointed. Or alternately, if the bruises were caused from being thrown through the air for example, consider which parts of the body would make impact and likely been bruised.

Where is the bruise on the body?

The colour and size of the bruise will vary depending on which part of the body has been affected. When it comes to the face, the cheek bones and chin are often bruised, whereas bruises to the fleshy part of the cheeks are rare. The eye area can be easily bruised, and black eyes have pockets of dark purple and red in the early stages, whereas bruises to the arms or back would contain more violets and blues.

How long ago did it happen?

What makes trauma effects so fascinating is that they have a life cycle, meaning the bruise will look different depending on whether it’s fresh, or a few days/weeks old and healing. No two bruises will ever look exactly alike, so when applying them it’s important to make each one look unique. This can be achieved by making them asymmetrical, with different pockets of intensity. Carefully considering the above questions before getting started will help elevate your work to a higher standard.

Stage Makeup

Guide to Trauma Makeup for Theatre and Film

For a guide to creating bruises, cuts, scars, burns and facial extrusions, download our selection of relevant chapters on Special Effects Makeup. These have been selected from various books to provide a handy guide to professional makeup artists looking to enhance their skills.

Download Your Free Guide to Trauma Makeup


Theatre Makeup

How to Create a Realistic Bruise using Theatre Makeup

The following directions work no matter the skin tone, with the only alteration being that for darker skin tones you would substitute the yellow mentioned for a deep golden tone.

Fresh bruises: what sets them apart? 

Fresh bruises contain the most intense colours. Start by using a sponge or your finger to apply a thin layer of yellow cream to the area intended to look bruised. Next, dab a layer of violet cream mixed with navy cream on top. You can be creative here to make the bruise look interesting, as asymmetry will help make it more realistic. Lastly, apply pockets of maroon to the area that would have had the worst impact. A stipple sponge is a great tool here to create the look of broken blood vessels, which would be particularly prevalent around the eyes.

Mid-range bruises call for a blend between fresh and healing

Mid-range bruises are a combination of the bold, fresh bruise colours and the more subtle colours of a healing bruise. Yellow and brown colours start to appear when the bruise is healing, and the maroons and navy colours will vanish. The brown tones shouldn’t be dark, but more like subtle shadows. Add in a few light areas of navy or violet amongst the brown and yellow areas. Remember not to saturate the bruise - keep it relatively light in colour.

The final stages of a bruise

Healing bruises contain much softer colours. A bruise that’s nearly healed will contain only fading browns and yellows. It is important though, to ensure that bruises in this state can still be seen on stage. Start by applying a heavy layer of yellow cream makeup, then contour the colour to add depth to the fading wound. Apply brown spots throughout but remember to blend these well to end up with a realistic fading bruise.

Watch a Video Tutorial on Using Trauma Stage Makeup

Stage Makeup

How to Create Cuts and Abrasions Using Stage Makeup

Stage makeup artists are often required to create wounds where the skin has been sliced open using a sharp object. The trick to making cuts look believable is inconsistency – if cuts are too straight, they will look fake. When deciding where to place your cut, we recommend choosing a curved surface, such as the nose, cheeks or lips. We’ve broken the process down into 6 simple steps, so grab your fake blood and let’s get started.

Step 1: Irritation colour

When irritated, skin turns reddish pink. So to begin, apply a light coat of pink cream makeup to the area where the cut will be. It should be spread out from the area slightly, but not by too much.

Step 2: Shadow colour

Using a sharp black or dark brown eyeliner pencil, draw the shape of the cut. For stage makeup, you should ensure that the cuts have a bold outline, so they can be easily seen by the audience. When drawing the cut, we recommend making it uneven and jagged – as even for a straight cut, the edges should be jagged to make it look as though the actor has been haphazardly slashed at. These black lines will act as a shadow tone as well as the cuts outline.

Step 3: Red colour

The area in the middle of the black lines is where the cut is open, and the tissue exposed. Apply a blood red colour to the inside of cut, keeping it confined within this area.

Step 4: Blending

Contour on a wound is important in adding realism. Taking a small brush, blend areas of the black line away from the wound. Don’t do it all the way around and vary the amount of blending, as the key to making the wound look real is inconsistency.

Step 5: Highlight

Apply a small amount of highlight to the outside edges of the black line. This creates the impression that the skin is raised around the edge of the laceration, giving the cut dimension.

Step 6: Blood

If the intent is to create a fresh cut, take a small brush and apply small drops of fake blood to the middle of the wound. You should also consider how the blood would drip or travel from the wound to the ground and mark this path with smears or droplets. That’s it for the basics of creating bruises or cuts, but for a more detailed guide to creating these effects, plus creating scars, burns and facial extrusions, download our selection of relevant chapters on Special Effects Makeup. These have been selected from various books to provide a handy guide to makeup artists looking to enhance their skills.

This article was cited from Foundation of Stage Makeup, by Daniel C Townsend.


Discover More Techniques in Applying SFX Makeup

Foundations of Stage Makeup

If you enjoyed reading this article, Foundations of Stage Makeup contains further tips and step-by-step instructions for creating realistic-looking trauma makeup for the stage, including taking you through how to create burns, scars and protrusions.

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