A Canvass of Face Painting

A Canvass of Face Painting

Face Painting History

From a historical perspective, face painting is less an art than an ancient craft. Dating to the paleolithic period, it was often used to identify tribal chiefs, shamans and witch doctors as well as highlight the differences between genders, social class and even military rank. 

Face painting has a vast tradition, but for what reasons was it employed in the first place? The answer lies among factors that commonly drive cultures including sexual attraction, camouflage for hunting, incitement of fear and even religious celebration.

Face painting is common in most regions of the world, and most share basic characteristics such as pigment selection, which is driven based on available resources such as plants, earth, naturally occurring chemical compounds and even insect secretions. Woad (a blue dye), charcoal (black), lime (white), ochre (red and yellow clay), henna (black dye) and annatto (orange-red) rare common raw materials used for this purpose. 

Many colors have universal meanings and symbolism: Red, the color of blood, is emblematic of life. It also signifies anger or evil. It’s also the primary color with the longest possible wavelength perceptible to the human eye which surely contributes to its universal appeal. 

Yellow suggests a man has lived his life and will fight to the finish. Gold signifies innocence and restraint. Black, oddly enough, is the color of  living and often worn by native Americans when engaged in battle. White is accepted the world over as the color of peace, and green stands for nobility and goodness. 

Persia and the Middle-East

As hunter-gathering societies became more sedentary, body art grew more refined. By the time of the first civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, women of social status began adapting the art of face painting. Make-up used by wealthy ancient Egyptians contained green malachite eye-shadow, black kohl around the eyes, egg-white face masks and carmine or red ochre for cheeks, lips and eyebrows.


Tribes of sub-Saharan Africa like the Maasai, the Xhosa and Nuba are known for a variety of designs and purposes to indicate status and function including gender identification, age distinction and differences between tribes. 

Some south African tribes used face painting to mark rites of passage. As young men of the Masaai undergo rituals of initiation into manhood, the women shave off their hair and paint their heads red. In the Xhosa tradition, boys entering adolescence undergo a ritual in which they’re separated from the tribe in order to embrace a mentor; once finished they’re painted red. Among the Pondo, spiritual leaders paint their faces and bodies white because it establishes a mystical connection with their ancestors.

In the Nuban tradition particular colors indicate age; and each is limited to that particular age group. For example, pre-adolescent boys wear red and white, and black is permitted only for those who have reached a certain maturity. Use of the wrong color is prohibited and potentially incurs punishment.   

The Phondos of the sub-region of Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, dust their skin with local red clay while observing the origin of the tribe priestess known as Umgidi. The practice marks the development of a sick woman into a diviner and the pattern marks the link between the lady and her ancestors.

The Wodaabe of south Africa are known for elaborate beauty pageants; and in a seeming role reversal, heavily decorated men compete for the attention of women by painting their faces with white clay, highlighted by black eyeliner made of egret bones. They also utilize swirling symmetrical patterns of red, yellow, black and white.

Oceana/Pacific Islanders

Central Australian Aborigines created a unique system of communication through body painting and cryptic symbols. Like other cultures they primarily painted in recognition of spiritual matters, although they also painted for artistic expression. In many instances the Aborigines believe they are completely transformed into sprit ancestors. 


In China, opera and other forms of drama were a leading proponent of face painting. As the limitation of masks was recognized they were replaced by face painting because the masks didn’t provide the ability to show facial expression or emotion. Originally only red, black and white were used and the earliest examples were simple and crude, but soon more complex designs became the norm.

Japanese Geisha’s are exemplified by the image of a girlish, heavily made-up young woman known as a maiko. But as Geisha’s age they take on a more somber, and less made-up appearance, usually embellished with white-only face paint.

The Americas

Pre-Columbian American history is filled with examples of face and body painting as well as tattooing. Indigenous people of the Amazon believe body painting gives them the power to transform as a demonstration of humanity.

Nearly all Native North Americans employed some form of face and body painting as sacred acts of distinction and cultural heritage. Designs are unique to each tribe but used for similar rituals such as dancing, hunting and war. The styles and application are similar to those used worldwide. Face painting is particularly significant among the prairie peoples such as the Ponca and Osage of Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri.


In Western societies body and face painting were long confined to the realm of actors or circus performers. But as tribal customs influenced many of the developments in art, beginning in the early 20th century face and body painting found its way into the mainstream. Since the 1960s more liberal attitudes towards self-expression, nudity and artistic license has led to a growth of body painting as an art form unto itself.

Today face painting, which more commonly takes the form of makeup, is worn by women the world over and is primarily designed to highlight and enhance physical beauty and act as an expression of personality. The runaway popularity of cosmetics cannot be overstated and in the United States alone the industry generates an annual return of more than $60 billion dollars and shows little sign of decline.

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