Career Advice From a Professional Stage Makeup Artist

Makeup artist applying makeup

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What does it take to become a makeup artist for the theater? Well, when seeking career advice, it’s best to contact an expert.

Judi Lewin has worked as a professional hair and makeup artist for over thirty-five years. We caught up with her during a film shoot to ask her some important questions about her career. Although she has been working in the movie and television industry, we asked her if she would talk about her extensive career as a makeup designer for the legitimate stage.

Getting Started

While living in her hometown of Toronto, Judi had a natural talent for makeup. Whether she was applying her makeup skills on herself or her friends, she had a knack for making people look their best. It wasn’t long before many of her “theater friends” requested her help. Soon, she found herself transforming the faces—and hairstyles—of actors.

Her first professional experiences took place at local theaters in Toronto, with her earliest productions being community theater musicals, such as A Chorus Line, My Fair Lady, and Annie. Her love for her craft motivated her to take on show after show and, after a couple of years of amateur productions, she began to work on a professional basis.

Judi has since worked in such theaters as the Canadian Opera Company, the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera, and the Pasadena Playhouse. Recently, she worked as the Key Makeup Designer for the new show, Happy Days—A New Musical, which was based upon the classic hit television show.


After accepting a job from a director, Judi reads through the script. After reading it through, she reads it a second time and makes notes, listing the characters and paying close attention to the setting. Then, she works with the director to find out “what specifically the director wants to see.” She does everything she can to learn about the director’s vision in advance before she begins the design process.

Judi explained that in smaller, lower-budgeted productions, the director’s input might be all that she requires. However, the bigger the show, the more likely producers, executives, and others will want to express their opinion—and that’s when the business of the makeup artist can really get complicated.

Do Your Research

Judi recommends that up-and-coming makeup designers constantly gather historical images—this means finding photographs, illustrations, and other images from any era in the past to serve as inspiration or source material. Also, try to find information and visual material from and about as many different countries and cultures as possible. By gathering these images from the internet, old books, and second-hand stores, a makeup artist will increase their knowledge of different looks, eras, and lifestyles, from “aristocracy to someone who lives in the slums.”

Working with Actors

It is common for actors to feel insecure—sometimes about their looks, but sometimes about their performance. Occasionally, Judi has worked with a few prima donnas, but she has a weapon against rudeness. “Kill them with kindness,” she says. “Be lovely and polite.”

She also mentioned that because so much time is spent together, actors often reveal personal details to their makeup artists. Her rule about that is, “Nothing leaves the makeup room.”

Career Advice

According to Judi, here are two reliable ways to become a professional makeup artist:

  • Attend a Makeup School (She recommends The Makeup Designory in Burbank, California and New York City).
  • Intern with a professional who works in both theater and television (That way the intern will learn two very different techniques).
  • Familiarize yourself with various makeup brands and cosmetics moguls, such as Elizabeth Arden, Helena Rubinstein, and Max Factor.

Benefits of the Theater

One of the reasons Judi loves working in live theater so much is simply because it’s alive! “In theater, things need to happen now!” Her stage experience is a sharp contrast to her film work, in which the general rule is to work on the makeup until it is perfect. During a musical, the makeup artist has a limited amount of time to get things right—this makes the experience both challenging and fun. The excitement of live theater invigorates Judi Lewin and her fellow artists.