What is the best way to learn makeup effects?

What is the best way to learn prosthetics and makeup effects?

This is one of the most common questions asked, so I figured a frank and honest post dedicated to it would be worthwhile.

First up, lets be clear.
Makeup courses are not the same as apprenticeships which, sadly, are almost non existent nowadays.  Apprenticeships in a makeup department were not easily found but were long term, studio based affairs.  It meant that a trainee makeup artist spent a long time honing their skills gradually in the job under supervision of a working makeup artist.

Makeup effects were part of the job done by a makeup artist who also learned hair, straight makeup and consequently were just a part of a much more thorough training.  You learned and worked in the real environment and you sank or swam – plain and simple.

Roll the clock forwards and the studio system has changed enough so that full time positions are no longer standard.  Almost everyone is a self-employed freelancer and makeup effects have become so sophisticated that they have separated into a different trade altogether which has spawned new training industries.

Nowadays it essentially boils down to three main categories of training. Education systems obviously vary across the world but the essence of these categories remain essentially the same.

  1. Academic or ‘certified’ qualification level
    (usually longer term)
  2. Private courses & tuition
    (usually short term)
  3. Self taught through books, DVD’s and online sources
    (usually long term & ongoing)

Which is best?  To be honest I think they all are able to do the job – but as you will see, there is a far more important element than where or how to train which has a much greater influence on the outcome of any scheme of education as you will see.  

Without it, all the training in the world means nothing.


1. Academic/Certified Courses

These courses (sometimes up to degree level) usually offer full-time training over a long time period allowing a great range of material to be covered.

  • Usually run by big institutions, they are stable and secure learning environments, and teaching staff are accountable and usually very passionate about the subject. They may have large groups but usually have assisting staff to cope and often get guest lecturers to help support the learning.  Larger institutions are also more likely to have better disability support structures in place.
  • Sometimes prosthetics and makeup effects may be a small part of an otherwise exhaustive training programme with period, hair & wigs as well as fashion and skin care/cosmetology etc.
  • The course content may be associated with a much larger governing body which can make it a slow ship to turn around – can they respond rapidly to developments in materials and techniques?  It all depends on who actually gets to set and update the curriculum, and how much influence or approval they need to make the changes.
  • Also, if you need to travel or relocate to a good school, the longer duration of your travel or accommodation needs to be factored into the equation.  Two or three years of training gives you a lot of time to learn and practice, but you will need to support yourself during this time.  If you work, it will need to be outside of college time and not affect your studies.


2. Private courses & tuition (short term)

Private courses are spared the red tape of larger institutions and can usually move more freely to accommodate newer techniques and materials.

  • They are not usually ‘certified’ by governing bodies and as a result are ships which can turn around much faster and respond to industry changes and developments. 
  • The perceived value of a lack of certification by a governing body can seem like a negative – yet the true measure of your ability will always be the standard of the work rather than a certificate.
  • This doesn’t mean every private course is any good or worth doing – it always pays to research.  Find out who is taking the class, what training or credits they have relevant to the field they specialise in.
  • Speak to current or past students and see what they have to say about their experience and give yourself time to weigh up the facts and feelings you accumulate from your research.  Be clear about what the course offers you and how it will deliver.
  • Private courses are not usually cheap but in exchange can supply intense, short bursts of training which are specific and very concentrated.  A lot can be learned in a short space of time and you will often have good student/tutor ratios and attention.  You also won’t need a long term relocation as with a long course, and you may be able to arrange a payment schedule to pay off the fees.
  • As private courses will succeed or fail on the intake of fee paying students, they need to be competitive and work hard to maintain their reputation.  Like I said, there are good and bad so make sure you visit more than one, get a feel for the places and consider what they can offer you.  
  • Sit in on some of a class if possible and watch how it goes on.  If you are going to be spending substantial amounts of money and time doing a course, it is not unreasonable to test drive the place for half an hour.
  • Lastly, make sure you look into the reputation and longevity of a place.  Research the history of the course or the people running it.  If you cannot find traces of the place or the people on the internet then be wary of how much they can help you.


3. Self Taught (Books, DVD’s & Online)

It has been argued that simply spending the money and time you would spend on a course could be sunk into some materials, a good book or DVD and a couple of months of trial and error instead.

  • It may take longer, you’ll make mistakes and you may lose heart but you will also find out whether you really love it or not.
  • Would this act as a true substitute for a paid course?  It depends on your personality and how you learn best.
  • Far more important than what method of learning you use is your motivation for wanting to do it in the first place.  Simply put, you need to love doing it, and enjoy the processes – not just the end result.  

Without that inbuilt desire to do it, then being presented with the skills and techniques will not actually make any training worthwhile at all.

Like any career, there is the ‘on paper’ route but this must be supported by a realistic and knowledgeable approach to the industry to which it pertains.  By far, the best candidates I have seen are always people who just got their hands dirty and tried something.

Apprenticeships were granted and you were grateful to be on them – your position within it kept you on your toes as poor effort on your part meant you were out…just like a real job.  When people pay to do a course, there can be a feeling of attendee entitlement which isn’t conducive to the good work ethic essential for any professional career.

You see, there are plenty of people in the world who attend a course of some kind and expect the knowledge to pour itself into their heads which will make everyone beat a path to their door.  

That just isn’t a realistic expectation.

You can be ‘certified’ and ‘qualified’ by a governing body and still be utterly unemployable.  After all, it is not so much about being generically ‘creative’ or ‘artistic’ so much as being able to consistently function within a commercial industry.

  • Making prosthetics can be messy, smelly and often takes place in industrial units or workshops far from the supposed glamour of a makeup trailer.  If this kind of environment doesn’t float your boat then be warned.  
  • Makeup applications often start very early in the morning, can take many hours to do and may require you to get a to a freezing cold field in the middle of nowhere if that is the shooting location.

None of this is evident in the finished makeup, much in the way a delicious meal doesn’t reveal the skill, preparation, cooking and washing up afterwards.

And like a chef, you need to love food and cooking in order to do it well. You wouldn’t wait until you owned a restaurant before you started cooking – you would just do it all the time because it’s what you loved.

Many successful makeup effects artists working now are largely self taught, and this probably has more to do the pioneering ‘have a go’ spirit required to do that kind of work.

I think this single factor alone is the deciding element as to whether ANY kind of training will actually be worthwhile.  People who really love it will just start doing it simply for it’s own sake.  Because they loved it, they rode out the failures, practiced all they could, looked for all the information they could and gradually improved.

Over time they then built on that enthusiasm and plugged very specific gaps in their knowledge which they knew needed filling because they understood what was missing, and could then more easily seek it out from either a book, DVD, forum, person or course.

I care passionately about makeup effects (and so do those that actually do it) and I make no secret of it. The simple truth is that is no one right way – and even if there was (which there isn’t) it doesn’t necessarily mean that it would turn you into Rick Baker* or that you will be employable.

If there is someone who has been experimenting, practicing and trying stuff out for years then it is fair to say that they will be much more likely to succeed in the long run – and frankly they deserve to.  They will also be much more likely to appeal to workshop bosses who are themselves self motivated and obsessed individuals who worked hard to get to where they are.

If this isn’t a long run for you, then understand that there are plenty of people for whom it is and that gives them an edge that an expensive course simply cannot create.

*(Incidentally, if you have never heard of Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Steve Johnson, Rob Bottin, KNB, Caglione & Drexler, John Chambers, Steve Wang, Screaming Mad George, Kevin Haney, Stan Winston, Greg Cannom, Nick Dudman, Stuart Freeborn, Todd Masters, Matthew Mungle, Conor O’Sullivan, Mike Elizalde, Mark Shostrom, Christien Tinsley, Christopher Tucker, the Westmores, Gordon Smith or Neill Gorton (to name but a few) then I suggest a little research is required before spending a single penny on anything).

 All material, images and text © Stuart Bray 2011

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18 Responses to What is the best way to learn makeup effects?

  1. Stuart, that is soooo true. You really hit the nail on the head with this.

  2. Xander Cross says:

    I find this article to be a good one. I think more people should consider the long term of things and how long they are willing or have been willing to do things. I grew up around my fathers bronze foundry and have always been around artists (primarily sculptors) and learned a great deal just by watching them. That said, I am learning prosthetic work the same way, by watching, absorbing and trial and error. I really appreciate you guys that share your knowledge and tell it how it is basically. thank you for all your help.

  3. John Lewis says:

    Your article hit home. I had just finished reading Stage Makeup By Richard Corson and there was some sfx makeup but not much detail, it’s a start and I can use it in my small library, any how thanks for the print.

    • Stuart says:

      Hey John

      The Corson book (7th edition I think) was something I read cover to cover and coveted. I soaked up every word like it was gospel and I think that my thirst to want to know was what kept me going.


  4. Steve Winchester says:

    Hi Stuart

    I’ve just read this and being someone who is (finally) getting into make up fx seriously it has been very helpful.

    I’d always had an interest in SFX, which I put down to seeing Star Wars aged 5. Always found myself drawn towards the ILM Creature Shop and the work they were putting into creating their characters etc.
    I got interested in make up fx a bit more back in 1990, when I saw Nightbreed and the amount of work Bob Keen and Geoff Portass put in.
    But I still remained a ‘generalist’, making short films (some with fx), doing an animation degree, working for a digital fx post production house in London but never deciding on exactly where my passion lay.
    Until the start of this year.
    That was when I took the decision to pay for a course, which I’m still doing as it’s a home learning course and I’m working it around my full time job.
    It’s been a bit of a learning curve, (I’ve not sculpted anything for about 20 years) and not everything in the booklet has been straightforward.
    Because of this I went in search of other material and I’m not just saying this, but your youtube vids on sculpting and texturing have been totally invaluable to me.
    Due to deadlines and financial constraints I’m having to cut the odd corner, but not to the extent that the pieces should suffer… I hope.

    My only regret is not deciding on this sooner.
    I’ve worked on two sculpts simultaneously over the last few months, and although they are fairly basic, and by no means ‘perfect’, I’m happy with them… and I’m sure when the ‘subjects’ wear them for Halloween (which was the idea) then people will hopefully enjoy the work as much as I did making them.
    Halloween has always been my favourite celebration of the year, I’ve always made an effort (in a fancy dress, cheap costume kind of way) but from this year onwards I think people will expect something more than that! haha

    Anyway, thanks for this blog, and for your video tutorials… long may they continue!



  5. dennis roberts says:

    Good reading Stuart. I just jumped in and got my hands dirty and have been doing it for four years now and look foward to doing it as long as i can. Many thanks for all your help. grandpa

  6. Ra says:

    Hi Stu
    It’s nice to hear from you again and i hope your well .

    Here, here! well said you hit the nail on the head your 100% accurate in your statement above and im talking out of past experiences.

    Ha where do i start theirs no disputing that your passionate about what you do by a long shot.

    You have always have provided people like me with passing on the basic fundamentals and dispensing in depth knowledge from your own experiences and profession.

    I can’t say i have come across anyone else as dedicated as you in terms of actually really wanting to help and care about what they do and it not all being about ££££ which thier is a lot of those types out thier believe me i know.

    The advice and guidance you give is second to non and in addition to that you don’t charge a bean for advice or guidance apart from your eCourses which is understandable.

    Having done 2 of your workshops i got to say i imensely enjoyed attending the 2 one day workshops.

    You do not just abandon anyone who has attended one of your courses and your always thier for those who have not attended either.

    I am planning to at some stage to attend the 3 day workshop as i want to gain more hands on experience with a worthy master in his field.

    A bad word can’t be said about you your truly a genuine guy i take my hat off to you well done for posting another honest blog.

    I look forward to attending your workshop again ,Have a Fab Weekend !…..Ra

  7. Liz says:

    Hey, Stuart!
    So true, so true.
    I have ended up working in the cleaner, not so smelly make-up world in (mostly) smart locations; but I have to say, sitting around in a garden shed, wearing protective overalls, sculpting noses and ears and mixing gelatine was one of the most satisfying jobs I have experienced in this nutso industry.
    I wish I could do more messy, smelly work, but you have to take the work that’s on offer if you wanna get ahead right?
    Hope you’re doing well – do you still have that garden shed or have you upgraded??

    • Stuart says:

      Hey Liz!!!

      Yup, upgraded to a bigger shed, but I also pass on work to friends too so I don’t need to get too big a space which costs money when I do other things. Ben is still busy doing movies and I loved that Cannes job!


      • Liz says:

        Cannes was cool. Thanks again for the opportunity and thanks for all the priceless help and advice you offer via this website.
        I loved your course and hope I can do another one at some point…
        Keep up the good work.

  8. Dave fox says:

    HI Stu, wow in-depth and to the point as always, i have to be honest and say that i always wondered why oh why have i not been asked to be able to work or help, or even make tea for the big boys in film, thinking that i deserved it.
    And that i had done this course and that course so that give’s me the right.
    but as time went on and i realized that with every passing week or month or year how much better i was getting just messing around, building things for fun, and looking back at stuff i had made previously, and seeing how much i had come on, and was always now looking forward for new courses and other peoples work to help guide me to better myself… and my work..
    I don’t know if i will ever work for the big boys or even make tea for them, but i don’t care because i am just enjoying the journey.
    P.S. dude your courses and online viral vids on all thing’s make up and prosthetic are the most in depth and easy to follow i have ever come across, and thank you for being at around to help when i have be quite lost and confused. Dave

  9. Tommy Pietch says:

    Hey Stu, I found this article to be a very accurate breakdown on the possible paths one can take to learn and become successful as an SFX artist. I myself am a completely self taught artist, and over the past 2 years my skills have developed expedentially because I learned first hand how to screw up and as a result has taught me one of the most valuable skills; how to think on your feet. With your tutorials, books, dvds and the fire in my belly to breathe life into my creation, I have gone from a confused kid struggling in his kitchen with a quart of pros-aide dumped on the floor, to a now nationally recognized young artist working out of my own studio. In fact with the drive I have from being self-taught I managed to become a final contestant in competition at San Diego Comic Con 2011 for the final slot on the syfy channels reality show Face/Off season 2. Alas I came in a close second for the show, but the experience was incredible and really opened my eyes to my future as a makeup artist. I know Ill be ion the next season and from now to next spring I’ll continue learning on my own and with your tutorials. Thanks for everything boss. You have truly helped a young kid get his feet wet.

    • Stuart says:

      Cheers Tommy

      The feedback I am getting is so nice. I think I touched a nerve with all you folks who just try and get your hands dirty. There is so much to be said for that yet in colleges particularly there seems a reluctance to take chances and any sign of discomfort or any delay in gratification is met with resistance.

      It’s true you need your OWN fire – not pay for someone to light one for you. You can find fuel for it, but the sparks have to be yours.

      Looking forward to hearing more about you!

  10. Nat Reynolds says:

    Stuart, as someone who has recently discovered that costume/makeup FX is what I really want to do, I completely agree with what you say here.

    I LOVE making things, I love sculpting and seeing something come alive, I even enjoy molding. I’ll admit, I don’t like casting large costume pieces like Bat cowls and such but over all, I’d say the creation of the piece is much more fulfilling than having it in the end.

    Its the journey, not the destination.

    Granted I’m only just getting my feet wet with actual makeup and appliances but I know that even if I never make it as a hired artist (as much as that’s my dream) I will ALWAYS create things and love doing it, because its just a part of me ever since getting my first block of clay, pathetic little plastic tools and a foam head.

    If I can carve out a living for it, then even better.


    PS. Your vids and articles all ROCK! Thank you for all the effort in teaching us newbies a thing or two 😉

  11. Dana Parker says:

    I’m one of those self-taught artists who’s learned a lot through trial & error and books. You’re right about needing to be passionate about learning. I enjoy the challenge of teaching myself, and I personally think it makes a better artist all around. As a student in any capacity, it’s the trial & error that perfects your skills. Thanks for always offering such great, honest insight!

  12. Paul Reilly says:

    Hi Stuart,

    This is a very interesting article and very inspirational. I have never taken any courses as yet (I do intend to do yours soon) and all my knowledge is self taught and from what I have gleaned from books, video’s and from people such as yourself, who are patient enough and kind enough to both share their knowledge and lend a hand/make suggestion when approached. I have been playing with monster make up since I was twelve and now I am 45 and it is only now that I have thought about getting into this full time with my studio, but I have plugged away at bits and pieces in all those years, because I love it, it fascinates me and I just get so much pleasure out of the whole process, from sculpting, to moulding to painting and finally applying the appliance, mask, etc. It’s really great to read that above any bits of paper saying you can do this or that, that enthusiasm is the most paramount ability. (of course next to imagination and some kind of basic sculpting ability!!) I think like yourself and others who do this work (myself included) there has to be passion for doing it.

    Thanks this is a great article.

    Take care.


  13. raymond mcarthur says:

    Great article stuar. As youstated with courses run by big institutions I’ve found through personal experience that as you said its a long proces with a wide subject area covering theatre beauty and fashion make-up with theire sfx and prosthetics areas being a very small part of the overall course and some techniques and materials being dated however all the lecturers whom I have explained my concerns to have always told me ‘we give you the first building blocks its up to you how much more you want to teach yourself’

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