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So, You Want to Do Día de los Muertos Makeup?

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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 Día 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; the upcoming holiday will take place on Tuesday, November 1 to Wednesday, November 2, 2022. “I don’t mind people getting dressed up Día 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. (This type of makeup is sometimes known as “sugar skull makeup,” though this is a misnomer we’ll clarify a bit further down.)

Although the traditional catrina makeup may resemble the skull-like effects popular every Halloween on the surface level, the origins of the former are completely different, and should be acknowledged before embarking on a Día de los Muertos-inspired makeup look. “La Calavera, or sugar skull painting, has become a symbol from the start to celebrate Día de Los Muertos, which is a way to celebrate our loved ones that have died,” says content creator Yasmin Maya. “This is meant to show them in a positive way by decorating our sugar skulls with bright colors and patterns, and while anyone can join the celebration, it’s more about honoring and recognizing your loved ones who have died, rather than as Halloween makeup.”

Here, we spoke to three beauty experts who celebrate Día de los Muertos on what you should know before wearing catrina makeup.

Meet the experts:

In this story:

What’s the difference between and Halloween? Hint: Everything.

First of all, Día de los Muertos and Halloween are two different holidays.

With roots in ancient Aztec rituals, Día de los Muertos starts on the first of November (corresponding with All Saints Day, when the boundary between the worlds of the living and the 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 have 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.

“My family celebrates by adding photos of all of our loved ones that have passed to our altar, along with their favorite food, drinks, and treasured items and at night, we pray for them,” says Maya. “We leave candles turned on and use marigolds to guide their spirits to visit us. We also paint sugar skulls, but instead of our faces, we use candy sugar skulls.”


What is a “sugar skull”?

Time to bone up on your history, folks.

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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 Día de los Muertos. (Odds are you’re not doing sugar skull makeup; you’re actually painting your face like a Catrina.)

Additionally, the little details within your calavera makeup and the accessories you pair it with serve as subtle nods to your family’s own specific history. Latinx folks aren’t a monolith — every individual, family, and community celebrates differently. “Every detail in our catrinas represents a tradition we have had for generations,” says makeup artist and content creator Rosy McMichael. “The colorful strokes represent our rich culture, the specific accessories used remind us of our abuelitas, and the clothing could be from many eras. The catrina is a celebration, and these details represent that.”


What is calavera makeup supposed to look like?

Let’s dispel an all-too-frequent misconception and be clear on something: Calaveras are not supposed to be scary.

“I work with children at an after-school program in Los Angeles, and I’ve always celebrated Día 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 Día 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?”


So, how can you create your own makeup look for Día de los Muertos?

Tip 1: 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.


When it comes to adding color and additional details. McMichael recommends the NYX SFX Creme Colors, as they’re easy to blend and are long-lasting, as well as the Wolfe FX Hydrocolor formulas. “They’re professional products, but very affordable and are commonly used for body painting.” she says. “Begin with the lighter colors, add in the depth with the darker colors, then use the brighter hues to add colorful details like swirls, flowers, and teeth.” McMichael also loves adding rhinestones as a final, extra-dimensional touch.


Tip 2: Use makeup techniques you already know.

Don’t overthink things: 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 upside down 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.

To ensure the effect is symmetrical, McMichael advises to work each side of your face simultaneously, starting with the larger shapes, then incorporating the smaller details once the base of the look is set. “Don’t do too many steps at once on a single side of your face,” she says. “Not only does this take longer, but you’ll get a better result if you work in baby steps and repeat them on the other side.”


Tip 3: If all else fails, meet the look halfway.

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. “I have done this look many times, and it’s one of my favorites,” says McMichael. “It’s easy, fun, and you don’t have to worry about symmetry.”

Pro tip: To ensure each side flows nicely, McMichael recommends pulling tones from the details of your calavera and incorporating a similar color story into the rest of your makeup. “The colors will pop nicely, and will look cohesive with the other side,” she adds.


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