How Body Painting Works

painted head
Japanese body-painting artist Hikaru Cho adds the finishing touches to a painting on the head of Ryonosuke Tanaka during Tokyo Designers Week in Tokyo, 2014.

The spotted creature silently weaves its way in and around the partygoers, its tail bobbing ever so slightly. Flecks of gold are sprinkled across its latte-colored skin, creating a shimmery effect when the light hits it just so. That is the most amazing cheetah costume, you think to yourself. And then suddenly the creature is at your side, and you realize it's not a costume. Not really. It's a person whose body has been transformed into that of a cheetah with paint.

Body painting has been around since the beginning of time. Men wiped streaks of paint across their cheeks to prepare for war; women placed dots on their foreheads to indicate they were married; intricate henna designs were painted onto young women's slender hands for decorative purposes. In many cultures, body painting for women morphed into the current practice of slathering on facial cosmetics. For men, it simply disappeared, save for some indigenous peoples in Australia, New Zealand, India, Africa, Japan and the Pacific Islands [sources: Bella Volen, The Pitt Rivers Museum].


Although traditional body painting practices may no longer be in vogue in most of the world, the practice still lives on. It's just been a bit modified. Today we paint our bodies as a form of artistic expression. And just for plain old fun. There are two main types of body painting done today. Face painting and full-body (aka large-scale) painting. The paint applied is temporary and lasts a few hours or a day. Designs can be simple or complex, with more streamlined designs typically reserved for the face, and more complex paintings for the entire body [source: Design Your Way].

Wondering what it would be like to be a body painter or a body paintee? Read on to see if you've got what it takes.


The Origins of Body Painting

hindu face painting
Married women smear vermilion on each other's faces as a part of farewell rituals on the last day of the Hindu Durga puja festival in India.
Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images

When you think of body painting, images of fancifully painted Vegas acrobats, Hollywood starlets or promotional characters may come to mind – the body-painted people we know today. Yet body-painting's origins stretch back nearly to the beginning of mankind. Some researchers say body painting was actually the first form of art. Indeed, historical records show that ancient people from Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia all decorated themselves with colorful "paint." Back then, natural pigments from plants and fruits were used to make paints, typically in red, blue, yellow and white [sources: Face-Painting-Fun,History of Cosmetics].

People decorated themselves with paint for innumerable reasons, especially social and spiritual ones. Weddings, funerals and other rites of passage, such as puberty, were occasions for painting faces or body parts. So was war: Body painting could be part of camouflage or to make the warriors look fiercer. Tattoos, piercings and even scarring served these same purposes. Many religious ceremonies also featured body painting [sources: Bella Volen, History of Cosmetics].


In Western societies, body painting didn't go mainstream until more modern times. Until the mid-20th century, it was mainly used by actors, circus performers or other entertainers. In 1933, makeup pioneer Max Factor shocked attendees at the Chicago World's Fair with a nude model fully covered in body paint. During the turbulent 1960s, artists and hippies were trying to shake up the world, and painting face and body parts in psychedelic patterns was one means of self-expression [source: History of Cosmetics].

Still, the art didn't really catch on with the general public until the infamous Vanity Fair magazine cover of August 1992, which featured actress Demi Moore in a striking outfit created entirely from body paint [source: History of Cosmetics]. By then the public was more tolerant of artistic license, and while the cover caused a stir, it was a positive one. Today body painting is a widely accepted art form, complete with worldwide competitions and Austria's famous World Bodypainting Festival, an annual event attracting tens of thousands.


What's It Like to Have Your Body Painted?

You may think having your body painted is a snap. You just stand there while someone brushes paint all over your body -- how hard can that be? There's actually a little more to it than that. First, a quality body painting job takes a fair amount of time. Don't expect to breeze in and out of the studio in just an hour or two. Since it may take several hours and will likely be a tiring process, make sure you've eaten before you arrive for your session, and that you're well hydrated [source: Model Mayhem].

You'll also need to prep your skin ahead of time. Ladies, make sure you shave your legs and armpits. Men, trim your body hair (face, plus any wild chest or back hair). Don't put any lotion on your skin, either. In fact, make sure your skin is clean and without deodorant, lotion, oils or tanning products. All of these products form barriers on your skin that may make it difficult for the paint to adhere [sources: Model Mayhem, Skin City].


Once the painting starts, you'll have to hold as still as possible so the painter can do a good job. However, don't hesitate to speak up if you need to change positions or sit down. No one can stand perfectly still for hours on end. Also, it's important to remember that while you're posing, don't lock your knees. If you do, this can cause you to pass out[source: Model Mayhem]

Eventually, your body will be fully painted and you can enjoy the results. If your painter used professional-grade body paint, the painting job should last a full day or even more,and will be able to withstand touching, hugs and even having light, soft clothing over it. When it's time to clean up, regular soap and water will easily remove water-based paints, while longer-lasting, alcohol-based paints may require rubbing alcohol to be wiped away. Once you're clean and paint-free, hydrate your skin with a quality lotion [source: Inside Jobs, Skin City].


How Can I Become A Body Painter?

artist body paiting
An artist uses an airbrush pistol to paint a model at the World Bodypainting Festival.
Mathias Kniepeiss/Getty Images

The good news is there are no extensive educational requirements for body painters. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 95 percent of body paint artists haven't gone to college, although 45 percent of those people do have a certificate from completing some type of training program. Many also receive on-the-job experience [source: Inside Jobs].

While there are no set requirements for who can or can't become a body painter, clearly you'll need to have a certain level of artistic ability. This level can vary quite a bit, however. If you plan on marketing yourself as a kiddie face painter for small festivals and birthday parties, you'll only need a basic level of competence; i.e., an ability to paint hearts, stars and suns. But if you're planning to paint entire bodies, which generally means you'll be painting complex patterns and designs, you'll need true artistic savvy. It also helps to be creative, as some clients will count on you to come up with ideas.


You don't need expensive equipment to do body painting. Here are some basic supplies [source: Mason].

  • Brushes; get them at an art store, not a make-up counter
  • Make-up sponges. Select different shapes and sizes. You can even use a car washing sponge to cover bigger areas.
  • Body paint
  • Rubbing alcohol for cleaning brushes and work surfaces
  • Palette; a food storage lid or paper plate will work fine
  • Squeeze bottle with water, for diluting and mixing paints

There are many types of body paint, each with their pros and cons. Water-based paints are easier to rinse off but lack staying power. Alcohol-based paints last longer but are a pain to clean off. Latex paint sets quickly but some models are allergic to it. Popular brands of body paint include Ben Nye and Kryolan. You can also use markers or regular cosmetics (like lipstick) for details [sources: Bradford, Cain].

As far as technique, some painters use airbrushing which is similar to spray painting. This can cover a large area quickly but is expensive. Others will apply the paint only using sponges and brushes. Obviously you'll want to experiment with different techniques before finding what works for you. Apply the light colors first and then move to the dark ones. Keep the design simple initially and give yourself lots of time. It can take three hours to do just a face [source: Cain].

So who hires body painters? Some publications and advertising agencies commission them for photo shoots, and movie studios often hire them to transform actors into, say, neon-green aliens. Body painters may also demonstrate their art at parties or nightclubs, and of course, do private sessions for customers.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Body Painting Works

I'm quite intrigued by the body painting images I've seen while preparing this article. Many are quite masterfully done and/or very clever. Now I'd like to see a live example.

Related Articles

  • Agostino, Christopher. "Is A Painted Body Naked? - Pt. 2: Painting Clothing On vs. Painting On Clothing - Demi Moore Vanity Fair." April 18, 2011. (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Bella Volen. "Body Painting & Body Art History. (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Cain, Robyn Hagan, "A MAC Master Spills the Secrets of Halloween Body Paint." San Francisco Racked. Oct. 8, 201 (Feb. 12, 2015).
  • Campbell, Andy. "Can You Believe This Is Body Paint?" Huffington Post. July 11, 2014. (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Design Your Way. "The art of body painting and best 63 examples." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Face-Painting-Fun. "Cultural Face Painting." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • History of Cosmetics. "Body Painting History." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Inside Jobs. "Body Paint Artist." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Mason, Kevin. "Beginners Guide to Body Painting." The Painted Body. Dec. 18, 2012. (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Model Mayhem. "A model's guide to bodypainting." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • Skin City. "Skin City Body Painting & Events." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • The Pitt Rivers Museum. "Body Painting." (Feb. 2, 2015)
  • World Bodypainting Festival. "Artist Information." (Feb. 2, 2015)