Becoming a Great Mortuary Cosmetologist
Updated: Aug 19
Becoming a great mortuary cosmetologist, like any worthwhile endeavor, requires study and most of all, practice, practice, practice. It is not a matter of buying a new airbrush system or the latest cosmetics, although good equipment and supplies are certainly a must. I like to say in my presentations, “You can buy a brand-new toolkit, but it won’t make you a mechanic.” Likewise, tools and supplies alone will not make you a great cosmetologist.
Mortuary cosmetology is unique, in contrast to beauty or special effects cosmetology, in that our goal is most often to create a natural looking image, free of any noticeable embellishments or injuries. In many respects, I liken the mortuary cosmetologist to a painter of fine portraits. Shape, color, light, shadow, pointillism, etc. all work together to create a life-like image.
In my opinion, one of the most basic and essential elements of great mortuary cosmetology is to start with great embalming. It is difficult, if not often impossible, to create the desired cosmetic effect on a poorly embalmed body. Tissues must be firm and dry, and a good intrinsic coloration should be established during the embalming procedure. To that end, the use of a high-quality fluid dye additive is essential. Always start from the inside out!
A common misconception by many embalmers is that the coloring in most embalming fluids will provide the needed color to the body. This is not generally the case. Most of the coloring used in embalming fluids are non-staining dyes which are simply used to differentiate one fluid from another. Staining dyes, such as Dodge Icterine, Pierce Natural Dye, etc. are examples of dyes that actually add coloration to the body. The color, staining qualities, and concentrations of dyes can vary widely so experimentation is needed to determine the proper amount to add to the fluid mixture.
As an example, I will often use a mixture of 32 ounces of Pierce Triton 28, 16 ounces of One Point, 16 ounces of Water Conditioner, and 16 ounces of Champion Di-San with enough warm water to make three gallons total solution for a “normal” case. This creates a 2.6% formaldehyde concentration. This is what I consider to be the “baseline” concentration for today’s normal cases (If there is such a thing anymore). For this mixture, I add 6 – 8 ounces of Pierce Natural Dye, adjusting the amount depending on the case. This usually creates a very natural looking coloration and a good foundation for any needed cosmetic work. For most male cases and female cases where the deceased usually did not wear makeup, very little else usually needs to be done.
There is one final embalming or perhaps I should say, post-embalming, procedure that I would like to mention. It is a common practice to coat the face and usually the hands with a product like massage cream at the end of the embalming process to protect them from becoming dried. I do not subscribe to the use of massage cream, oils, any products containing silicone sprays or especially petroleum jelly, for this purpose. These products are very difficult to completely remove from the skin and this can have an adverse effect on cosmetics, especially airbrush and alcohol-based cosmetics.
A much better option is Dodge Restorative in a spray bottle. Spray the face and hands liberally and cover lightly with plastic wrap. This will provide superior protection against dehydration yet leaves no residue behind. Simply remove the plastic and clean the face and hands gently with a cloth and warm water. Allow the skin to air dry before cosmetic application.
But what do we do when cosmetics are a necessity instead of an option? When dealing with cases involving trauma, disease, discolorations, etc., we must sharpen our cosmetic skills. My first suggestion is to begin long before the need arises. Study living faces. Note the color variations of skin. No one’s skin is one solid color, but a mixture of various shades, undertones, highlights, and shadows. We all learned about the canon of beauty in mortuary school. While it is good theory to know, you will find that in your day to day work, few, if any, faces will actually conform perfectly to the canon. You must train your eyes and mind to see and recognize these variations as elements of all human faces. There are companies out there who try and sell generic lips and noses for quick replacement in restoration situations. This idea is as ludicrous as asking how high is up, as there are likely nearly as many different sizes and shapes of noses and lips as there are people in the world. My point is, to be a great mortuary cosmetologist, you must study not only color theory, but also facial anatomy; bone structure and morphology, musculature, etc. as well as skin. A good collection of books as a reference source is a must.
To help you recognize color, there is a good, easy to use app for iPhone (it may also be available for Android) called Fleshmaster that allows you to practice and help train your eyes to recognize different dominant and undertone hues in skin. I highly recommend it. Good, recent photos of the deceased are also a necessity.
A quick bit of advice at this point; over-the-counter, drugstore, or even most higher end makeup brands are formulated to be used on warm, live skin. They generally are less than optimal for use on the room temperature skin of a deceased. Even though I know they have been used by many funeral directors and may suffice in a pinch, they are NOT the choice of a professional.
On the other hand, much of the cosmetics sold by mortuary suppliers is very old technology based on the greasepaints used in theatrical makeups that were intended to be exaggerated to be viewed at a distance. They are often thick, pasty, and generally look very “caked-on”. Avoid them also.
As for equipment, there are a number of things I recommend. First, a good airbrush system is a must. There are many on the market and several sold by mortuary suppliers. I suggest foregoing these and choosing a system that has been proven by professional makeup artists. My favorite airbrush is the Iwata HP-CS. It is probably the most used airbrush in the professional makeup world. For a compressor, I recommend the Iwata Silver Jet. A pressure setting of around 8 – 10 pounds is usually a good parameter for basic cosmetic work.
Airbrush cosmetics come in a variety of formulas. For general foundation cosmetics for a non-trauma case, a water-based cosmetic, such as the Kryolan Air Stream line is the best I have tested and comes in many shades. Colors can be intermixed to get just the right shades. When properly applied, the coverage is sheer and slightly smoothing; allowing some of the skins natural markings to show through while evening out the complexion. This is good for ladies who normally wore some makeup.
Remember, it takes practice to become good at applying foundation with an airbrush. Practice on paper first, keeping your strokes smooth and even. Then practice on a friend until you get a “feel” for the tool and develop the mind-muscle coordination it takes to work smoothly. Keep the brush about eight inches from the skin and keep it moving in small circles as you push down and slightly pull back on the trigger with your index finger. Don’t just “blast” the airbrush wide-open. If you notice any wetness, you are either moving too slowly or applying too much cosmetic at once. Remember: practice, practice, practice.
But what about those cases with trauma or discolorations? For these we need to enter the world of Hollywood high definition special effects makeup. Just layering on normal makeup will do nothing more than give you that “caked-on”, artificial look that we want to avoid. There are special products available to approach problems that will create a much more natural look.
However; our first rule of trauma repair must always be that our objective is to take a condition that is either unrecognizable or unacceptable, and through our work, create a condition that is more acceptable and more recognizable. Not to be confused with perfection! This is very important to remember. We always strive for perfection but, due to the conditions with which we are faced, may not be able to fully achieve it. Our goal is realized when the casket stays open for viewing, regardless of what we think we might have done better. Leonardo da Vinci said, “Art is never finished, it is only abandoned.” If the family accepts our work, we have done our job. Make every case an opportunity to learn and improve your skills.
The details of how to correct every conceivable restoration condition is well beyond the scope of this article, however, I will cover some of the more common conditions and make suggestions on products and procedures to remedy them.
First, I want to offer my opinion on a common product and procedure that is often tried in mortuary cosmetics. That is the theory of color cancellation. You may remember from your mortuary school restorative art class that, in theory, complimentary colors, that is colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel, tend to “cancel” each other. This idea has been used in cosmetics by using say a mint green cosmetic in an attempt to cover a reddish discoloration. You will often see these “color correctors” in violet, mint green, etc. The only problem with this is that it mainly works when the two colors are actually combined or mixed together. It is much less effective when one is painted over the other. The only time I recommend this technique is when working with a jaundiced body and then only by adding much additional red dye to your embalming mixture.
Newer, better products such as NecroPax™ can completely hide any discoloration, does not looked “caked-on” when properly applied, is completely waterproof and will not rub off. Even if the family kisses, touches, holds the hands, etc. Because it is based on an acrylic polymer surgical glue, it also seals abrasions and razor burn so they will not return (water-based airbrush or regular cosmetics will absorb into the defect and show again within several hours). It also seals skin slip when applied after the skin has been sealed and glued down with super glue. While it can be applied with an airbrush if thinned (I don’t recommend using it in your expensive Iwata airbrush), the usual method is to sponge light coats with a cosmetic wedge, allowing it to dry between coats. A hairdryer set on the COOL setting will speed things up. Generally, three or four very light coats will cover anything from a tattoo to a bruise. Once finished, powder the repair to remove the tackiness. At that point you can either use the NecroPax™ as your foundation or apply airbrush foundation over it to obtain the best color. Powder to remove the tackiness of the NecroPAX™
In trauma cases I recommend alcohol-based airbrush cosmetics. The brand I use is Skin Illustrator made by Premier Products. They are the industry standard for special effects airbrush makeup. I like them for trauma repair because they contain extra pigment that is useful in covering defects. They are also very resistant to water and rubbing off. You must thoroughly clean your airbrush with 99% alcohol or NecroActivator™ after every use.
For filling defects in soft tissue restoration, nothing beats NecroDerm™ Wax Replacer Compound. It takes a bit of practice but once you get used to it, you will never use wax again. You apply it to the defect with a pallet knife and smooth it to the desired shape using a finger dipped in water. Dry it with a hairdryer set on the COOL setting and re-apply if needed to get things just right. Once you are certain the repair is the way you want it, take a can of canned air, the type used to blow dust off of electronics, turn it upside down and spray the area with the propellant to freeze the NecroDerm™. This causes the polymers to lock tightly together and causes the NecroDerm™ to become like firm rubber. Unlike wax, the repair will not be damaged by touching, kissing, etc. Seal it with a few coats of NecroPax™ and your repair is finished. One special note, for deeper repairs I advise filling the defect first with a clay like NecroClay™. Coat the interior of the defect with super glue, allow to dry or spray with Tech Bond Accelerator, and fill the defect to within about 1/8 of an inch with the clay. Smooth to the correct shape and apply a light coat of NecroTack™ adhesive over the clay and about ¼ of an inch past the surface of the defect. Wait until the NecroTack™ dries clear and continue to the NecroDerm™ procedure. For larger areas, the best method is to use NecroDerm™ Prosthetic Skin Sheets which I will cover in a separate article.
Lastly, I would like to describe methods for creating the pointillism and shadows that are inherent in all skin. Adding the correct pointillism, along with shadowing, can make the difference between a body that looks truly lifelike and one that “just doesn’t look quite like themselves”.
Consider that, for the most part, we only see people in an upright position. Unless they are our intimate partner or relative, we seldom, if ever, see someone lying on their back. This creates an interesting problem for the mortuary cosmetologist. When a body is viewed on its back, the light strikes the face at a more direct angle. This displaces the shadows that we normally see but don’t necessarily consciously recognize. This is the main reason you sometimes hear people say things like “he/she just doesn’t look like himself/herself”. Of course, much depends on the lighting in the viewing area. If the lighting can be adjusted to correctly create the shadows under the upper eye orbits, under the chin and neck area, along the sides of the face, under the nose, etc., then cosmetic replication may not be needed. In most instances, however, I have noticed that at least some properly placed subtle shadowing can be of great benefit. Just use an airbrush shade that is several shades darker than your foundation color and very delicately apply the shadowing to the spots on the face where they would normally be if the person were upright. The key here is subtlety. Apply just enough to very slightly darken the shadowed areas while blending smoothly into the base color. Too much and you will wind up with an odd, cartoonish effect.
Pointillism is the final key to a realistic and lifelike restoration cosmetic job. This is probably one of the biggest secrets of special effects makeup. While the airbrush can be used to spatter, I find this more useful for things like freckles or age spots. The best product to add pointillism is an alcohol activated pallet such as the Skin Illustrator Starter Pallet. There are literally hundreds of pallets out there, but the SI Starter Pallet will cover the needs of most any mortuary cosmetologist.
The idea of pointillism is that the color of the skin is actually comprised of extremely tiny dots of multiple colors which our eyes blend into the various shades we see. This is the same principle that the airbrush uses on a micro scale in a single color. The main use of the alcohol activated pallet is to reinstate some of those tiny dots of color, mainly the reds, and to replicate the pores of the skin.
To use the Skin Illustrator Starter Pallet, place several drops of the NecroActivator™ into the desired color and several more drops in the lid. Wet your trimmed chip brush, toothbrush, or spatter brush with NecroActivator™ and dip it into the color. Move this to the lid and mix. The color should be a very light wash. We are not painting here. Just adding a washy hint of color to the brush. Hold the brush about ten inches from the desired area and flip through the bristles with the index finger of your other hand. If done properly, the result should be a very fine, light spray. Almost unnoticeable. Start with the red and add it in this manner to the warm areas of the face; the cheeks, chin, nose, forehead or anywhere that your photos guide you. Again, the key here is subtlety. The color should be so light as to be barely there. With your photos as a guide, add in any other missing colors in the same manner. Should you get a spot that is too much, quickly lightly dab with a tissue. Obviously, like airbrushing. This technique requires practice, practice, practice but it can make a huge difference in the finished work. Practice on sheets of paper to get a feel for the color, the pressure, and the distance required for a convincing look. Once dry, these will not rub off.
I hope this article gives you a good overview of what is now possible in the world of mortuary cosmetics. Please email with any questions and welcome to 21st century mortuary cosmetology the NecroMetics® way!
Guest Blogger: Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP
Embalmer, Funeral Director, Writer, Speaker, Makeup Artist