How to Look Like Your Favorite ‘Alien’
We have all seen them at conventions. Those people in the amazing cosplays, but what makes them REALLY stand out, is their skin. Blue, Red, Green, even Purple! What does it take to become something non-human? At 2016’s Gameon Expo in Mesa Arizona, I had the chance to attend a panel on that very subject. Our guide/teacher/panelist was Amber Brite. Those of you in the AZ con scene (and maybe a few con’s in neighboring states) surely have heard about Amber Brite.
She is intelligent, talented, funny, and well versed in body paint do’s and don’t’s. Opening her panel with her background, we learned that among many other characters, she has cosplayed Mystique, various Sith, and Dranei. Due to unfortunate technical issues (the convention center’s equipment was ten years old-ish and thus not compatible with her flash drive), she was unable to show us any photos. Her knowledge and communication skills though, made up for that issue.
There is a learning curve with body paint that is pretty steep. She said it takes awhile to find that sweet spot where you actually feel like you know what you are doing. Part of that process is learning which paint works best for you, and how to best use that paint.
There are multiple types of paints: Water based, alcohol based, cream, hybrid, and oil based.
First up is water based. These paints are usually easy to find (Michael’s, Easley’s Costume shop in Phoenix, etc) and they have a really good color selection. While providing good coverage (for things like tattoos and scars) they come off very easily. Water activates the paint, but also removes it. In the heat of Arizona, sweat happens. Before you know it your elaborate paint job is running off your arms, legs, and face. Now’ there are setting powders and sprays, but they can only do so much. Amber’s experience has been less than ideal after about four hours.
Next is alcohol based. Amber swears by this type. This type of paint usually has to be ordered, unless you are lucky enough to live in a very large city with costume shops operating almost year round thanks to film, television, and stage acting. They do have a smaller color selection than water based paints, and are more translucent, but they will stay intact all day. At a convention she stayed in Twilek cosplay for four days, only having to touch up her paint once in awhile. While alcohol (of the drug store topical type) activates and removes the paint, it is also bad for the skin. Amber’s solution: use coconut oil to remove the paint. It clears it up easily and moisturizes the skin! Her only caution was that people with sensitive skin might have problems with the paint and/or the coconut oil.
Because alcohol based paints provide less coverage than water based paints, she recommends using a tattoo cover up first then applying alcohol based paint over that. So for those of us with tat’s that won’t work for various characters, there is a fix. Keep in mind that with any body paint job, time will fly faster than you think. Make sure to give yourself extra time when getting ready.
Cream paints. Think of Joker and his heavy makeup. That’s what cream based paints do. They provide great coverage, but because they are a cream Amber said they never fully dry (and that’s based on experience in Arizona. In other states results may vary). This leads to easily smudged work, and leaving ‘souvenirs’ in various places. On the up side, because the paint doesn’t dry, it’s not as harsh on the skin.
Acrylic paints were not advised. Pax paint, specifically, will “Stay forever”. Eventually it will scrub off, but going to work with unusually colored hands or face could be a problem. These paints are great for prosthetics though. Consult the packaging for specifics on usage.
Knowing what kind of paint to use is the first step. Applying it is the next. When she started, Amber used makeup brushes, and sponges. Now she uses an airbrush because the brushes and sponges make it difficult to get even coverage. Also it takes a while to learn just how much paint to apply. Her expert advice “You need enough paint to cover, but not so much paint to lift the underlayer”. Precise huh? The reason is that what works for one person may not work for some one else. Experimentation is really the only way to learn what will work for each person’s costuming needs.
If you have to reapply or fix a mistake, brushes and sponges make it difficult to blend the paint back in. She said you could end up with a light patch surrounded by a darker ring caused by the layering of the paint. In either case, don’t try painting your self the first time the day of the con. Practice ahead of time.
Her airbrush has a wide nozzle, which allows her (with her husband’s help) to apply four coats of paint in about twenty minutes. Keep in mind, this is after extensive practice, and developing a routine that she described as a dance. There are less expensive airbrush kits out there. Take some time, do some research. There is nothing wrong with getting a cheaper model to begin with, and then up grading a few years down the road.
While there are specific paints designed (and premixed) for airbrushes, it is possible to use other paints – however always make sure you know your paints well, follow instructions on the brush, and keep everything clean. Other wise there could be a weird reaction between two different types of paint, the brush could clog if paint dries in it, etc.
With body paint and application tools out of the way, the next step into becoming a non-human involves prosthetics. There are three main types (or at least the most common). They are latex, foam latex, and silicone. Unless you have an allergy to latex Amber’s advice is to avoid silicone, mostly for financial reasons. Foam latex is good, but due to it’s spongy nature, it will absorb sweat and anything else, leaving it kind of gross. This results in the piece being non-reusable. For pieces coming into direct contact with the skin she sticks with latex. Speaking of sticking, adhesives: spirit gum, liquid eye lash glue, and liquid latex are usually cheap and found in costume shops. Prosth-aid is a great adhesive, being medical grade. She highly recommends getting the Prosth-aid adhesive remover as well, since this adhesive really sticks. In her experience, it’s great for prosthetics in places of flexion, like the face.
Blending the edges between skin and prosthetic is always a concern. Liquid latex (or eyelash glue – which she says is basically a clear liquid latex) works well, and can be found almost anywhere. Practice blending the edges of ears, noses, and horns before moving on to the bigger pieces.
Another feature that differentiates humans from, say Dranei, are the feet. Digitigrade stilts can make the difference. The people she knows who use these stilts, have started by cutting off the heel of a pair of high heels, and gluing a hoof piece onto the remaining shoe. Two big warnings: 1, practice walking, a lot, especially guys. 2, use something stronger than a regular glue. Epoxy or Defcon were her suggestions, as long as they have a high PSI rating they should work. Not only would it be embarrassing to fall as one’s ‘foot’ crumbles to pieces, it would also be highly dangerous to the person falling, and possibly people nearby who may have no idea what is happening.
Thanks to youtube, I am sure there are tons of videos that will help walk people through the steps of constructing digitigrade stilts.
The last topic Amber Brite covered was Molds and Casting. Not every non-human race has wildly colored skin, or differently articulated legs. Ears, noses, and horns can set a character apart from the human race!
In a nut shell, there are three steps to a basic molding: 1, make a positive (usually a sculpture of the piece wanted), 2, make a mold (the negative version of the piece wanted, 3, cast it. Easy right? Well let’s get a little more specific.
Making the positive can be as simple as using an oil based clay (this material doesn’t dry out, which would cause it to shrink, and crack, plus it’s re-usable) to create the object. A styrofoam head coated in several layers of wood glue works well as a base for sculpting ears, noses, and horns. Once the piece (or pieces) is done, use a heap plaster of paris (she suggested Home Depot), or Ultra-Cal. She refered to it as “plaster of paris if it took itself seriously”, for molds that will be used a lot. Reynolds Advanced materials has Ultra-Cal available. Use the plaster of paris to create the mold. Once that is dry (follow instructions on the material packaging), remove the mold. Before casting anything, Amber recommended coating the interior of the mold with clear coat. This will help the casting material separate from the mold later. Once the clear coat is dry (it may take several layers) it is safe to “slush in the latex”. From this point, wait until the latex is set (again read those product instructions).
Her closing words were cautious, “Keep in mind you will mess up quite a bit at first”. So don’t give up. I for one am looking forward to making my own set of elven ears.
Thanks to Amber Brite for taking time to share this information with us. Stay tuned for a more detailed look at Amber Brite and her work as well!