Film Makeup of the Silent Era

One of the greatest inspirations for makeup artists is film history, be it the glamorous looks of the fifties or the more natural looks of the later 20th century.

When we look back to the silent era, makeup from the 1910s and early 1920s looks intensely dramatic and often ghoulish. You might think the makeup style of pale skin and dark and almost black lips and heavily-lined eyes from the silent films of the era had to do with accentuating facial expression and creating contrast, but it had more to do with technical limitations than it did creative choices. This is because the type of film used was orthochromatic, or blue-sensitive.

Orthochromatic film was used universally until 1922 and did not fall out of use completely until the 1930s. Blue colors registered as white on orthochromatic film, and red and yellow registered as black with varying shades of gray falling between those colors rather than indicating any degree of darkness or lightness in reality.

This created a unique and difficult challenge for film industry makeup artists of the day. They used heavily layered pink and white grease paint to get a reasonable skin tone. The eyes weren’t visible with this masklike foundation and blue-eyed actors weren’t even employed because their eyes would not register at all. Makeup artists used heavily applied red shadow around the eyes to make the eyes stand out. The signature look was completed with red lipstick which registered on film as black.

It made for an intensely dramatic face on film that looked almost nothing like what it looked like in real life. The film image though is what remains and still gives inspiration today.Greta Garbo

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