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Don’t we love gritty TV dramas with our favourite actors not looking their best! In fact, when we see them glammed up for the Oscars and BAFTAs, it’s often because they’ve been looking the complete opposite on screen.

In this blog we’ll show you how to make an actor look ill and down-trodden. These techniques are often referred to as dirty down’ make-up. It’s less about injuries and wounds, and more about breaking down the skin to take on the characteristics of appearing tired or, at the other extreme, drugged and dangerously unwell.

Think of any film or TV drama and such a character is likely to make an appearance – from Trainspotting to Les Miserables. And of course soaps such as Coronation Street and Eastenders regularly feature story lines where the characters look less than their best.

Make an actor look ill – gradually and subtly

For her demonstration, Brushstroke tutor Paula Cahill (a regular make-up artist on Eastenders) took student Amy Lay from her normal glowy and healthy appearance to decidedly unwell.

Paula, like all professional make-up artists has an incredible knowledge of how to make an actor look ill. This is key because, as a make-up artist, you need to interpret a character’s look from script to face. Paula knows what someone with a hangover would look like as opposed to someone taking drugs and living on the street. In some cases the differences can be subtle requiring a light, but precise, touch to meet the demands of HD (high definition) resolution.

Right from the word go, Paula emphasises the importance of “starting with less” and building up your look instead of the other way round – it being so much easier to add and enhance rather than reduce and risk ruining previous stages of your make-up.

Paula gradually building up the appearance of tiredness around Amy’s eyes.

It’s not all about product – use your actor’s colouring too

To make an actor look ill you’ll find their own colouration will be a great help. There’ll be aspects of their complexion that, when treated differently, can help you ‘dirty’ or break down their skin. Amy had a bit redness round her nose so Paula simply enhanced it.

“I’m stippling on some red – not in perfect circles just breaking up Amy’s complexion to create a slight graze. Again, the intensity depends on your actor’s colouring.”

Paula also took advantage of the naturally darker areas around Amy’s eyes. “I’m breaking up the edges, adding some intense areas and some softer ones. Again, taking care not to go in too heavy – we aren’t creating a black eye.”

Next, along the upper lash line, Paula used more red – this time as a sort of eyeliner to break up the evenness. “I’m not using loads and I’m not trying to do the perfect eyeliner – just making it uneven and heavier in some areas.”

Spotting some tiny veins under Amy’s eyes, Paula added a few more and then disturbed her eyebrows. Then, moving on to Amy’s hair, Paula just spent some time messing it up – you could also add a little grease to make it hang limp.

Amy has a low-key ‘run down’ look: tired eyes, pinkness round the nose, and a cold sore

Adding some extras effects to make an actor look ill

Now Paula really stepped up the graphic nature of this breakdown make-up demonstration! First, she added a spot – just a bit of redness rather than a pustule.

“Now let’s ‘muddy’ her up a little bit,” says Paula gleefully. This can be anything from a streak of dirt (for a mechanic or gardener role) or general grime for a character living on the streets.

One again, it’s a matter of building the dirt up bit by bit, using greasepaint on a stippling sponge or blending brush. Maybe applying it a little stronger in some areas. If you put it on too heavy in the first place, and have to remove it, you’re likely to end up getting rid of the colour you’ve built up underneath.

Then the ‘dirty’ effect needs to be extended to the ears, up into the hairline and probably the hands.

For hands, Paula recommends using something waterproof. This will help make the effect longer lasting when actors keep putting their hands into pockets and bags. Put the greasepaint around the cuticle and under the nail, rubbing it in.

If an actor has false nails you might be able to incorporate them into the look – but only by chipping and tearing them (a conversation to have in advance!).

Does what it says on the jar…

Paula does love her work!

Turning shiny white teeth into unhealthy brown ones

Paula’s really got into her stride now. Amy’s face is moving on rapidly from run down into the realms of looking extremely unwell. So now her teeth need to look the part.

Enamel* is the best way to stain an actor’s own teeth unless custom-made false ones are being used.

“Using a cotton bud, put the enamel on every tooth – not just the upper set. Take care not to get it on the lips. It will dry fairly quickly and then last a couple of hours. Be prepared to repair the colour so there’s no white showing through, especially for close-ups.”

To remove the stain, it should be possible to simply brush it off. Otherwise wipe the teeth clean with a small amount of surgical spirit.

*Warning: don’t use enamel if your actor has veneers because it can get underneath and start to stain them permanently. Instead, use dental wax to colour the teeth.

Nicotine stains carefully applied on every tooth

Successfully putting Paula’s tuition into practice

Top tips to make an actor look ill

These are Paula’s top tips to make an actor look ill:

  1. Research and understand the different ways to make an actor look ill. From ‘ordinary’ tired and hung-over to drugged and seriously unwell. What are the characteristics of each ‘look’, how do you achieve authenticity on (HD) screen?
  2. Know your products and how they’ll help you achieve your look. Which are your most useful colours, when should you use waterproof products, which products stain longer than others (important if your actor needs to look gorgeous in the next scene)?
  3. Look after your products. Open air will dry them out and make blending difficult.
  4. Build up your look starting with less and adding as required. The other way round might mean starting all over again.
  5. Take advantage of your client’s colouring to help you achieve a more natural look. Accentuate any dark areas under their eyes, or pinkness around the nose.
  6. Think about your actor’s welfare by making sure they won’t react badly to any of your products.

Training to make an actor look ill is included on both our 2 year BTEC and 9 month ITEC courses.

2 Year
Makeup & Hair

BTEC, Level 3 Diploma

Our most thorough training to prepare you for a career as an artist in TV, film, stage and fashion.

SFX Prosthetics

Wounds, scars, bald caps and prosthetics – welcome to the world of special effects make-up.

9 Month
MakeUp & Hair

ITEC Level 3 Diploma

The ideal course for those wanting to change career or work round family commitments.