Halloween Face Painting 101: The Six Step Butterfly

Face paint might be the laziest of costumes– having your costume be entirely reliant on face paint takes little to no pre-planning. And it’s super cheap. See all this? I bought all this for thirty dollars. You can paint quite a few faces with these supplies.

And I didn’t even use all this ish!

The concerns I usually hear surrounding face paint usually have to do with artistic ability. People think you actually have to be able to draw in order to paint faces. I am here to tell you that this is DEFINITELY not the case. I myself am an accomplished stick figure artist. But I majored in theatre, which is basically a major in face paint. Also, I had a brief stint as a clown, but we won’t get into that. I assure you that all it takes to paint a good face is a little imagination and a bit of reverting back to the second grade. The techniques talked about here are going to be necessary no matter what design you decide you want, but I’m going to share with you my go-to face, the face that is easy for beginners, the face that is perfect for when you’re invited to a party by a cute girl with two hours notice. This is the butterfly face.

Before You Begin

Make a roadmap. Don’t just jump right into the brushes, take the time to make a plan on paper. It doesn’t have to be detailed, to scale or in color. It just needs to point you in the right direction and show you where you’re gonna start and end lines. If you’re in a rush, this is especially important. It will save you time later, when you realize you’ve run out of room on your forehead where you were carefully printing the words Rubyfruit Jungle because you were going as your bookshelves and all of a sudden you’re in your hairline and it’s a huge disaster and you have to start all over again from the beginning. Even if you don’t do this part in color, you may want to at least make notes about what colors you’re thinking. That way, you’re not chasing your girlfriend around your room screaming, “What color pretty pretty butterfly do you want to be?” with a paintbrush in your hand regretting you hadn’t planned a little better. You know, not like that happened or anything.

Make sure you have all your makeup handy. For this face, you will need:

a makeup applicator sponge
a fine tipped makeup brush (get a cheapo from A.C. Moore or Michaels if you don’t have a fine tipped makeup brush already)
a pouf for powdering
a fluffy makeup brush (the kind one would use for blush)
a cake of white grease paint
a black makeup pencil (black paint and your trusty brush will also do, but is more difficult)
three contrasting colors (I recommend two bright and one dark)
paper towels
translucent powder


Also, begin with the end in mind. This face paint eventually has to come off. And you will learn the hard way that you have done such a good job putting it on that it does not want to come off, not even for your extra strength facial cleanser. The paint will eventually come out. You’ll have to scrub with your normal facial cleanser, but it will come out. If you’ve got a couple bucks or you’re going to be painting more than one person’s face, do yourself a favor and throw down for some good ole greasy Ponds cold cream. Life will be easier.


 Step One: The Base Layer+

“Okay honey. Blend into the wall for me. Great job.”

The golden rule is cover, then exaggerate. Use the applicator sponge to apply a layer of white grease paint, brushing up and out and never in and down. You want to erase all your human facial features with a base layer of paint: eyebrows, lips and all. Even if you plan to use them in your design, you still want to cover them first. Why? I’m not sure, this is just the rule I’ve always been taught. But I think it has something to do with a) not letting your traditional shapes stifle your creativity, b) not letting your facial features get in the way if you plan to erase them altogether and c) having each stroke look polished and professional, the same way you use primer on walls when you don’t want the other color  to show through. Go down a bit on your neck so the transition from paint to not paint looks a little less severe.

The exaggeration part comes into play when you’ve got characters in mind with human facial features. A clown is a prime example. Cover your own eyebrows first, then paint on huge exaggerated ones. In fact, clowns, whether you find them funny or scary, are also a good first paint because they let you practice all the face painting basics. There’re also about a billion different interpretations of clowns, so they’re especially fun. But back to the butterfly.


Step Two: The Outline

Don’t worry about symmetry. I didn’t.

I did not believe this when it was first taught to me, but here it is. You must always have an outline. I repeat. Always do an outline. It can be in the same color that you plan to place inside your outline if you want it to eventually look invisible. Or you can do it in black or a contrasting color like I did here. Follow your on-paper road map for this part. This is where your roadmap will tell you things like, oh, I should start this line right above the eyebrow. Which is, in fact, what we’re going to do. Go ahead and grab that black makeup pencil. Using the natural curve of the eyebrow on your right side, start your outline just above the eyebrow on your forehead. End coming up to the corner of your lip. Repeat on the left side. Use the part where your nose meets your forehead to dictate where the antennae get placed. Don’t worry too much about symmetry: butterflies are just about never perfectly symmetrical. Instead, be more concerned about whether or not your start and end points line up on each side. That’s what people will actually notice.


Step Three: The Color

You know that look your cat gives you when you try to put your A-Camp bandanna on him? My girlfriend was giving me that look. But she’s such a pretty butterfly!

Using your two bright colors, fill in the outline on the top-half of your face first. Right where the wings bend in, begin using your second color. Use the paper towel to wipe your brush clean before you dip into your second color. Never use your fingers to wipe your brush clean, because this increases the liklihood that you’ll do something silly, like place a blue covered finger smack over the white base layer and wind up with a huge finger print you’d be hard pressed to fix. Blend the colors where they meet as much as you like–I am a big fan of blending colors. Fill in the top bits of the antennae. Or hell, throw out all these directions and get funky with the colors. Just make yourself a pretty pretty butterfly. Just don’t forget to make your nose into the butterfly’s body. I used brown, but you can use black or even dark blue. Go from the ends of your antennae down the nose and all the way into your lips. Use the bottom of your lips to make a nice natural shape for the butterfly behind.


Step Four: The Outline. Again

Always go over the outline again. I fucked up her left cheek. Can you tell? No, because going over the outline again both gives your paint a bolder look and lets you cover up any errors you may have made. Like that time I fucked up her left cheek.


Step Five: Make It Gay With Glitter

Isn’t she a pretty butterfly, everyone?!

I wouldn’t be writing this on a gay website if I hadn’t included something supah supah gay. And aside from choosing Autostraddle purple as one of my colors, I figured another way to do this was to fancy this ish up drag queen style with glitter. I usually use a powdered glitter because it won’t make your paint run, but gel glitter will do in a pinch. Just be careful as you apply it that you aren’t making your paint slide off your face. Stick that glitter wherever you please–I like keeping it within the outline of the butterfly, but I also never colored outside the lines as a child. Glitter as your heart tells you to, it’s fucking Halloween! Just throw some glitter on it!


Step Six: Finish it Off With Powder+

You will always need powder. Always. Powder keeps you from looking like a hot mess half way through the party, because without powder that face paint is just gonna melt off your face the second you start to schvitz. For every face you can dream up, you’re gonna close with these steps. When you’re wearing make up as a human, you’re gonna use a powder that’s close to your skin tone. Because we’re using fun bright colors in most cases, we’re gonna use clear powder. And always use more powder than you thought you’d need. Press a puff into the powder and then actually press it into your face. Don’t swipe, just a good press will do it. Keep repeating it ’till floured like a cake pan. And it’s okay if you can see the powder residue on yours/your best friend’s/your girlfriend’s face after you’re done powdering. In fact, that’s how you know you’ve done it right. Take a fluffy make up brush and brush the excess powder off your face, re-revealing the beautiful design underneath. Now you won’t melt like the Wicked Witch of the West. Fly like the little queer butterfly you are, straight to that gay party. And put some glitter on it! 

This could be you being sexy at a queer Halloween party with minimal pre-planning.

These basics of face painting can be applied to just about anything you dream up, so please, don’t color inside in the lines if you don’t want to. Go forth and have fun with face paint.

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 544 articles for us.


  1. – I know what you mean! In the summer, my caeitivrty hibernates waiting for the heat to go away and then POW! Any and every craft store/isle is not safe. I’ve stayed up way too many nights just thinking about different ideas. I’m loving the white, sparkle and silver pumpkins. Gotta give each season it’s glam. :)September 29, 2011 3:47 pm

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