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A Brief History of Face Painting

Updated on March 16, 2009

When we think about face painting today, we usually think about the colorful images that are drawn onto a child’s face at places like the fair or the circus. However, that wasn’t always what face painting was all about. Face painting dates back thousands of years across many different cultures and has been used for a wide variety of purposes that weren’t just all for fun and play. The history of face painting includes painting faces for reasons of camouflage, religious purposes, entertainment, inclusion in sports and as a statement about society. It’s a really interesting history that most of us aren’t aware of even though we all know what face painting is.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of face painting:

Face Painting for Camouflage

People have used face paint as a means of camouflaging themselves since ancient times. This was done for hunting as well as for fighting military battles. People would paint their faces using natural substances to make it so that their skin would blend in with the natural environment around them. This was good for hunting because it meant that the animals would be less likely to notice the hunters. Hunters today may still use face paint for this same reason. Likewise, people fighting battles in wartime have used face paint to hide themselves in the natural environment so that they could sneak up on their enemies more easily without being seen.

Face Painting for Religious or Spiritual Purposes

Historically, there were times when face painting was used for various religious ceremonies. One strong example of this comes from a look at the history of Native American tribes in the United States. Many tribes believed that face painting with specific colors had special meanings and could be used as a spiritual tool. For example, it was believed by some that wearing green face paint beneath the eyes would give the wearer of that face paint special powers that enabled him to see excellently during the night.

Native American people, as well as tribal people in other parts of the world, have often used face painting as a part of the adornment they engage in before participating in rituals that honor the gods or ask requests of them. This type of spiritual practice is just one more example of how one group of people has used face painting for religious purposes. Many other examples abound throughout history and across different types of cultures and religious groups.

Face Painting for Entertainment

Face painting became common in historical times as part of the world of live entertainment. Many different groups of people got involved with elaborate face painting for the purposes of creating or enhancing a costume that was used in some type of arts performance. The opera is a great example of a place where face painting was widely used throughout history to add to the costumes of those participating in the opera for the enjoyment of those who were attending the opera. Another similar example is that of the geishas of Japan who painted their faces beautifully when entertaining their gentlemen callers.

Face Painting for Inclusion in Sports

Face painting has long been a part of the history of sports. You may want to think about the sport of football and the face paint that is associated with that game. Alternatively, you may want to think about how face paint has been used in wrestling to assist in creating the personas of the people who participate in that sport. Today, it is not only the participants in sports that engage in face painting but also the fans. Just attend any college sports game and you will see dozens or even hundreds of fans with their faces painted to support the team that is playing there that day.

Face Painting as a Statement on Society

Face painting was a part of the history of war and entertainment and spirituality for a long time. However, it eventually fell out of favor as something that people did in modern society. For much of the early twentieth century, you just didn’t see a whole lot of face painting except in the form of make-up that was used in the theatre and entertainment industry. However, that changed in the 1960’s with the hippie movement. Many women during this era began to paint their faces and the faces of their women friends with symbols that showed their allegiance to the movement. These were typically symbols such as peace signs that were designed to show that they were protesting against the war. As such, face painting was able to be used during this time as a statement about the war and the society that was allowing the war to happen. Although it was a fun thing with cute symbols like we may see painted on children’s faces today, it was also something that was related to the greater society.

Face Painting for Children

It wasn’t until about the 1980’s that we started to widespread use of face painting as a way for kids to enjoy themselves. During this time, face painting became a child’s thing, the thing that we think of it as being today. It is something that is typically seen at fairs and amusement parks and markets and festivals, places that are all-ages and where children may be enticed to get their parents to pay for fun designs to be painted on their faces. This is most common today in Europe and North America although it can be found elsewhere throughout the world as well.



Submit a Comment
  • profile image


    7 years ago

    hey i love this

  • travellvr profile image


    8 years ago from Ngledok, Mantingan, Indonesia

    so cute :)

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    you forgot to mention juggalos...

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    I remember how much fun it was to watch face painting artists when I was a kid. It was delightful to learn more about the history of the craft--thanks!

  • anderson_weli profile image


    8 years ago

    Very artistic craft.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    Very good blog, thanks for sharing

  • Lisa Hess profile image

    Lisa Hess 

    9 years ago from

    young tattoos of sorts. Really fun.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    This is a highly interesting blog. Even though I'm into face painting myself, I haven't delved into it's history so this is really great information to share!

  • profile image


    9 years ago from CT, USA

    face painting, finger painting are somethings that my kids enjoy a lot. Like the earlier commenter had mentioned, kids never want to remove the paint from the face for the whole day. great hub. thanks

  • profile image


    9 years ago from

    Great Hub. I am amazed at my children's fascination with face painting. I am not sure I have ever really given much thought behind the purpose or the history.


  • smellypunks profile image


    10 years ago

    I am no expert but having done some face painting at parties I have come to enjoy it and the kids love it.

  • packerpack profile image

    Om Prakash Singh 

    10 years ago from India, Calcutta

    Yea so many uses of face painting. I have seen models in a fashion show doing that. Most of the times I like it but sometimes I find them weird. I remember my little cousin winning first prize in face painting and so he kept his face painted for more then a day. He said he looked better that way! Funny.....Nice Hub!


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