Sugar Skull Face Painting, a tutorial

On October 29, 2019, Librarian Vicki Lázaro showed us how she paints faces to look like sugar skulls for Día de Muertos. Here are the supplies she uses and the steps she recommends, so you can follow along and try it yourself. This face paint will stay on all night and not stain clothing.

What is a sugar skull? It is a skull made of sugar for Día de Muertos celebrations that is decorated with colorful royal icing, colored foil, sequins, or beads. In Mexico they are called 'calaveritas de azucar' or 'Alfeñiques.' Vicki likes for her brushwork to show, as a way of honoring the skull’s sugary, hand-decorated origins. 

Today’s face-painting is also influenced by the calaveras of Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913), especially his “Catrina” engravings showing a female skeleton wearing a hat or flower crown.

The Mexican calaveras are not intended to be frightening symbols of death because they are representative of friends and family who have died. The foreheads may be painted with the names of people living or deceased, and symbols of life’s fragility (plants, butterflies, spider webs, or flowers). Sometimes the dual nature of life and death is symbolized by only painting half the face with a skull, leaving the other half full of beauty and health.

When asked about the issue of cultural appropriation, Jalisco-born Lázaro told us she believes that people of non-Mexican descent can join in celebrations of Día de Muertos, as long as they are respectful of what for many is a sacred tradition. In her view, intent and context are key. The cultural celebration of Día de Muertos, (celebrated November 1 & 2), is not a Mexican version of Halloween. It is a celebration of life and of those who came before us who have helped shape us into who we are today. We reminisce, we compare family traits, enjoy our families' favorite music and appreciate the fact we are still alive. As Vicki was applying Shawn’s makeup she asked Shawn about her Irish heritage and the things that her Irish grandmother loved.


  • cosmetic wedges
  • white, black, and colored face paint (water-based Snazaroo paint recommended)
  • children’s paintbrushes and one medium flat one
  • waterproof black eyeliner (she uses Wet & Wild h20 proof)
  • q-tips
  • cosmetic-grade glitter -- it should be as soft on the skin as talcum powder;
    do NOT use craft glitter
  • water

How to paint the face

  1. Pull hair off the face; make sure skin is moisturized
  2. Wet the cakes of white and black paint by adding small drops of water
  3. Use a medium, flat brush to paint white all over the face, except for circles around the eyes and a triangle on the nose.
  4. Apply black paint around the eyes and add a triangle or upside-down heart on the nose with a small brush.
  5. Dampen a cosmetic wedge or brush to blend the black paint around the eyes into the white paint.
  6. Use the same wedge under the cheekbones and at temples to add shadowing contours.
  7. Add black paint to a small brush and outline the face. You can draw an oval that looks like the edges of a mask or use scrolling lines, as you see in the photos here. You can also use the black eyeliner to paint this.
  8. Use the waterproof black eyeliner to paint the lines for the teeth. That way you can snack and drink without ruining the mouth. It’s fun to make one tooth gold or black.
  9. Draw designs like swirls, spirals, spider webs, flowers, hearts, and crosses to the face. Write the name of a deceased family member on the forehead if you want.

How to add color and glitter

  1. Use bright face paint to fill in your designs, like a coloring book. Layering or blending different colors can make a cool effect, too.
  2. Shake some cosmetic glitter onto your hand or a small mixing dish, and add a drop or two of water. Mix.
  3. Use a q-tip to apply the glitter with a rolling, not a painting motion, so you don’t disturb the paint beneath.
  4. Vicki used red glitter on the eye-flowers, and clear hologram glitter on the other colors.
  5. Not shown here, but if you want to add sequins or jewels, you can stick them on with eyelash glue. Vicki also loves to add huge yellow or red fake eyelashes.

You’re done!
Photo credits: Patricia Katchur, Lisa Bunker, and Vicki Lázaro. Our model is Shawn!