Soooo, fall is officially just weeks away (!!), which means Día de Los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is right around the proverbial corner on Nov. 1. But, of course, you already knew that, or why else would you be here, amiright? (Note: If your answer has anything to do with “Halloween” or “costume ideas,” please kindly click away, because NOPE.)
“Día De Los Muertos is a day to honor your ancestors and your deceased loved ones and to welcome them back with altars of their favorite things, pictures, candles, and marigolds,” explains Judith Bautista aka Kahlovera, a Mexican-American artist who specializes in Day of the Dead. “You display their favorite foods and tell stories of memories that were tied to that person that passed away.”
Another tradition or way to partake in the holiday is by dressing up in Day of the Dead makeup (which, again, is not a Halloween costume). In light of COVID-19, the celebrations might look a little different this year, but Bautista, who keeps an altar up at her house all year, stresses that Day of the Dead can and should still be celebrated at home. “Festivals are what it’s expanded to, and I love it, but in reality, if you’re mourning and sharing stories, it’s really about you and your family,” Bautista explains. “It’s definitely something you can do at home, and hopefully, with the makeup people will feel encouraged to do it.”
Before jumping into the Day of the Dead makeup look ideas (spoiler: We’ve got tons of gorgeous ones ahead), here’s what Bautista—as well as LA-based designer Lily Martinez, who creates Día De Los Muertos-inspired looks each month—have to share about the holiday and its modern-day celebrations.
What is the Day of the Dead makeup called?
You might hear a few different labels often used to describe Day of the Dead makeup, but there are key distinctions between each of these terms and different origins. Bautista breaks it down:
Calavera: a skull
Sugar skull: a skull made from compressed sugar, usually decorated, and used to adorn the altars
La Catrina: technically the correct term to use when referring to the elaborate, opulent skull makeup look for Día De Los Muertos that commonly features flowers and other rich embellishments
A little history: The Catrina is an iconic figure that comes from a piece of work called La Calavera Catrina by artist José Guadalupe Posada (Catrina was also later included in a mural by Diego Rivera) and features a skeleton woman wearing a dressy hat adorned with flowers. “It was a mockery on people who were trying to look sophisticated,” Bautista explains. “They would dress up and try to look like they were high-class, and his point was even in death, we’re all just skeletons.”
Is it offensive to wear Day of the Dead makeup?
It depends on who you ask—and, honestly, if you have to ask, it’s probably safe to sit this one out. But, both Bautista and Martinez say they actually love to see mixed cultures celebrating the tradition when done respectfully and with knowledge of the meaning and historical background of the holiday. “I feel so strongly that everybody can participate,” Martinez says. “As long as you know the meaning behind it—in honor of the people that you love—it’s such a powerful thing to participate in.”
As Bautista explains, “If you think about the roots of what it really means, it’s a day to honor your deceased loved ones, and there’s nobody who’s impartial to that—anybody can relate to that,” she says. “The big thing is when people don’t respect the culture itself, or they’re interested in tying it into Halloween, and that one is sensitive to me, too. I do Halloween makeup all the time, but I’m very careful not to label one as the other. As a Mexican-American artist, that’s been my biggest mission: to celebrate our culture without letting the roots of it be taken away.”
What do you need for Day of the Dead makeup?
Martinez’s trick for creating a base for your skull that’ll stay put throughout photoshoots or festivals is to use a long-lasting foundation in the lightest shade you can find. If you’re fair, she suggests adding a bit of white face paint to the foundation—buuut not just any face paint. Bautista says to skip the cheap costume store stuff that can crack and melt and instead pick up some water-based makeup.
As for the black detailing, Martinez uses eyeliner and a Mehron water-activated palette to keep the lines sharp and clean. If you want to glam it up and make the black pop, Martinez likes to use glitter eyeshadows and apply gems (or any other small embellishment) with eyelash glue.
DIY Day of the Dead makeup:
If you want to keep your look simple and easy, stick with the fundamental elements of a Day of the Dead makeup. According to Bautista, those include a skull with added flowers, plus a mix of colors, patterns, or shapes based on the person you’re honoring.
While there is room for creative interpretation, keep in mind that these are traditions and celebrations that are rooted in cultural history. Since it is a celebration of life, Bautista also advises against adding any elements to your look that could lean towards horror or gore and blur the lines between Day of the Dead and Halloween. “It’s not about fear or anything scary,” Martinez adds. “It’s about life, but they just happen to be in another space.”
With that in mind, here are a few examples of Day of the Dead makeup to get you inspired.
1. This corn-husk crown look
“For me, it has so many meanings, but primarily it’s the crossroads of my creativity and what I love to do and my culture,” Martinez explains about her Catrina creations. In each look, she incorporates something related to her Mexican culture, like this look that includes a crown of corn husks. “I still want it to be authentic to who I am and still be in touch with the tradition, but modernize it.”
2. This simple Day of the Dead Look
For this look, you don’t need a ton of supplies—you just need a steady hand. This minimal, modern look only requires a few makeup products, like liquid eyeliner, red lipstick, and a little bit of eyeshadow, and of course, the floral crown on top in corresponding colors.
3. This half-face makeup look
If you don’t have the patience required for a whole face makeup, you can get a similar effect with a half-face Day of the Dead makeup look, like the one shown here by Bautista.
4. This love-themed look
This Catrina makeup look by Martinez features pink, hearts, and all themes of love. “When I’m putting on this, I think of the people that are gone,” Martinez explains. “It makes me think of them because that’s what it’s for. It’s not just a costume.”
5. This bejeweled Day of the Dead look
As Bautista explains it, the makeup is a reflection of your own life or an interpretation of someone that you’re honoring, so what colors you use is up to you as the artist. Feel free to incorporate your loved one’s favorite flower or colors in your design.
6. This smokey-eye look
Here’s another simple look you can create with just liner and dark shades from your eyeshadow palette. Start with a smokey eye, then use your liquid liner to draw symmetrical designs around your face.
7. This full-body makeup
When working with white and black paints, things can get muddy quickly without the right techniques. Bautista recommends first contouring with shadows, like powder contour makeup, before defining any heavy lines. “It’s hard to erase and start all over when you use water-based makeup, so I would suggest they do their sockets and cheekbones with powder and later come in with the lines so they feel more confident with their placement,” Bautista explains.
8. This colorful Day of the Dead makeup
Don’t be afraid to change it up from the typical skull design. This makeup look starts with a white base, but instead of blacking out the eye area, the artist used bright, colorful shades to create a stunning eye makeup look that still resembles a skull.
9. This rhinestoned makeup look
This interpretation features rows and rows of roses and rhinestones, and don’t be afraid to carry the theme down into your outfit and accessories too. “A Catrina means you’re supposed to be all decked out, so jewelry would be another thing to dress up your Catrina,” Martinez adds.
10. This marigold Day of the Dead look
For a look like this, swap the light face base makeup with orange face paint and golds tones to create a look that resembles the classic marigold flowers.
11. This flower-petal makeup
Jewels aren’t the only option for embellishing your Day of the Dead makeup look. Martinez says eyelash glue also works great for applying little pieces of paper cut in the shape of flower petals. Or you can skip the glue altogether and paint the flower petal shapes around your eyes with a damp makeup brush and gold shimmer pigment, like the look shown here.
12. This decked-out Day of the Dead look
Bautista’s last bit of advice for creating your Day of the Dead makeup look: “Stay true to the culture but still represent yourself or whoever you’re honoring.”
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