Updated: May 27
The lips/mouth are definitely a focal point of the face. While it is generally considered that there are from 7 to 10 basic lip shapes, you will find that there are limitless variations on these foundational types. That is the reason we don't create or recommend generic prosthetic lips that some companies sell. There are just too many variations in lips and they are too integral to appearance, along with the eyes and nose, for there to be a one or two sizes fits all solution. We can create custom lips using our special encapsulated gelatin compound if we are supplied with photos from different angles and several measurements that we require. Call us if this is something you need. Our post today, however, will concentrate on creating natural lip coloration.
While most embalmers understand the basics of positioning the lips, correctly coloring the lips, especially in situations where a natural color is required, is a whole other ballgame. I'm often asked, "What is a good male lip color?" That is like asking how high is the sky. There are limitless variations among every human being and, even color variations on the same set of lips!
In this post I am going to share some advice on creating perfect, natural looking lips. Many women wear lipstick as a natural part of their daily routine, so coloring their lips is easy; just use their color of lipstick. When it comes to creating a natural lip color, many other factors have to be considered.
The first, as always, is start from the inside out. A good quality fluid dye can replace much of the natural coloring of the lips and the skin in general. A good quality dye like Pierce Natural or Cosmo Dyes can get you several steps ahead in the color game.
We have to remember any time we think of colors, we also have to consider light and shadow. These elements have a tremendous affect on how we see color. In the mortuary setting we must remember that most people are not used to seeing someone lying on their back. This position changes the way light strikes the surface of the face and changes the color and position of the natural shadows and highlights that we are used to seeing. It is important to compensate for these changes.
In regards to basic color, remember that the skin is thinner on the lips and mouth so the blood is closer to the surface, making these areas appear slightly redder than other skin areas in a normal, healthy individual. The upper lip, when a person is in the normal upright position, is usually more shadowed than the lower lip, and it casts a slight shadow on the top of the lower lip, as seen in the photo below.
You can see how a change in the position and type of lighting will affect the perception of the colors of the lips. Smearing on a bit of pink lip wax or "natural male" lip color and calling it good is NOT an acceptable lip treatment for a professional embalmer.
As a side note, petroleum jelly, silicone, or massage creams on the lips, or anywhere on the skin for that matter, will NOT add moisture. These products are known as occlusives, so while they can help trap moisture, they can't add moisture that isn't there. A much more effective way to keep the lips, and the entire face, moist and even hydrate dried skin while not interfering with cosmetic application is to use Pierce Restoratone sprayed heavily onto the face after embalming and covering lightly with plastic wrap. For dehydrated skin, apply a layer of cotton or Webril, saturate with the Restoratone, and cover lightly with plastic. This can restore some pretty dehydrated skin to a much more natural condition after a day or so. Light tissue building from the inside of the lips can help "plump" lips that have dehydrated slightly and flattened or lost their correct shape. Just be very careful to not overdo the tissue building. Once its done, its very difficult to correct "over-building". Another big mistake I see made often is using dry cotton or Webril inside the mouth to adjust contour. This will act as a "wick" and draw moisture from the lips and mouth tissue. A better alternative is a mortuary putty, but many find it too messy. The next best option is to simply wet the cotton or Webril with Restoratone before using it to fill out mouth areas. This will prevent it from causing dehydration.
Back to color, light and shadow. When someone is lying on their back, the shadows will generally shift somewhat, depending on the angle of the lighting, this can make the lips appear "flatter" than normal because the natural shadows and highlights tend to "blend" into one, creating that mannequin-like appearance. Obviously the answer is to replace the shadows and highlights in a very subtle manner to re-establish the look that people are used to seeing; the sitting or standing position.
I generally use the Skin Illustrator Complexion Palette for my lip colors in a very light wash, intermingling colors to get the right base shade. They will not rub off or be moved so the family can touch, kiss, etc. without worry. They also give the appearance of being "in" the skin naturally; not sitting "on" the skin like lipstick.
For a starting point on Caucasian lips, a good warming color may be needed as a "base" if the dye did not fully restore the base color. I suggest a very light wash of a mix of Dusty Rose and Light Mauve as a starting point. Don't just "paint" on a solid coat. Use a small brush, like the and mottle the "wash" on.
Since the upper lip is normally slightly more shadowed than the lower lip, try adding in a touch of Dark Mauve, again, in a very light "wash". For the "cooler" shadow areas, try adding a touch of Cool Tone. Sometimes lips may need to be just a touch more toward the brown or brownish yellow in certain areas. A touch of the Pastel Yellow or Warm Ochre may work here. Again, all colors should be built very gradually using a very light wash of color. Don't just paint the lips with solid colors. Pay attention to the variations in shades that are apparent in human lips. After you are satisfied with the color, a very light application of a softened moisturizing chap stick can be applied to give a slightly moist appearance that is natural on most lips.
Natural lip colors of African American or darker skin tones are just as complex as Caucasian lip tones. For darker skin tones, Midnight Brown from the Skin Illustrator Dark Palette is a good starting point for the upper lip gradually fading with a touch of Dark Mauve. The lower lip may have a very slightly lighter tone as light varies. Often a touch of Cool Tone will work in the shadow areas along the line of closure. Lighter African American skin tones may require Midnight Brown be mixed with a bit of Rice Paper and perhaps a touch of Pastel Yellow.
The closure area will likely need a touch of Dusty Rose and Light or Dark Mauve. The important thing to remember is that no human beings lips are all one color. I cringe when I see colored lip wax coated on in one continuous "spread", obliterating all the natural creases and lines, all while imparting that mannequin-like solid color. The creamy type lip palettes that most chemical companies sell are just as bad. At least when applied in a solid color manner.
In summary, always remember the following:
Everyone's lips are unique in shape and color.
Lips are not one solid color, but a pointillism commingling of a number of shades that our eyes "blend".
Don't obliterate the line of closure with wax. Again, this creates a mannequin-like appearance.
Varying edge lines adds life to the mouth. Some lines are soft and "lost" while others are more definite.
Lighting and positioning have a tremendous effect on the way we interpret colors, highlights, and shadows.
Learn to study faces; the lips, nose, mouth, eyes, skin. You must develop an "eye" for shade, tint, and value of color. It takes practice and effort to be good at it.
Good reference material can be a great help. I highly recommend two great books:
These two books have been of immeasurable help to me in my quest to become the best mortuary cosmetics specialist I can possibly be. I highly recommend that you have them and study them.
In closing, I want to thank my daughter, Taija, who is the Artistic Director for NecroMetics, for creating the lip drawings for this article. Until next time, keep practicing, studying, and dedicating yourself to being the best at our great profession. Remember, you can make a huge impression for good and healing on the families you serve or you can take the easy way and do a mediocre, way we've always done it, attitude and watch as families turn away from viewing and miss the tremendous salubrious benefits it can bring to their hearts. It's all up to you.
Shane A.S. Ritchie, CFSP is the President of NecroMetics®, a three-state licensed embalmer, funeral director, post-mortem reconstruction specialist, and a SPFX cosmetics enthusiast. He has written many articles for nearly every major funeral profession publication and is a public speaker and educator on topics of embalming, restoration, and mortuary SPFX cosmetics. He may be reached at email@example.com