By the 1840s most theatre stages in the western world had adopted gas lighting in preference to candles or oil lamps. Gas was brighter, made the stage more visible and could be dimmed with taps through a gas table. The brighter gaslight was not without its problems; it showed up shoddy costumes, sets, and theatre interiors, and made many existing stage techniques unusable. Actors were also flooded with light which for some was very unsatisfactory.
Our modern stage system, however, is opposed to the exhibition of facial expression. There is such a flood of light, and the face is so bathed in effulgence, from above and below, that there is little relief. There are no shadows. The eye is distracted by the general garishness. As it is said, “you cannot see the wood for the trees,” so here you cannot see the face for the light. Now, under the old dispensation, there was a better system: the light was furnished by four [candle] chandeliers, which hung over the actors’ faces; the rest of the stage was in comparative shadow mystery, and the figures and faces stood out with a sort of brilliancy. Thus it will be seen how the eye was concentrated on the central objects, because it had nothing else to attract or distract it.
As brighter lighting became more and more common, actors were forced to change the way they dressed, acted and used make-up. Unfortunately, the old powder make-up did not cope well with the new lighting conditions – which washed colour from the face – but there was no viable alternative until commercial greasepaint became available in the 1870s. Although some actors stayed with powder after greasepaint was introduced, by the 1890s – when major theatres had installed even brighter electrical lighting – greasepaint became an essential component of an actor’s toolkit.
The use of greasy substances in western theatrical make-up goes back to at least the eighteenth century when W. R. Chetwood (1749) described the use of ivory-black mixed into grease for blackening the face; it was removed with fresh butter. ‘The Oxford Companion to the Theatre’ suggests that when gas lighting was introduced, a number of actors mixed powered mineral pigments with some form of grease to produce a type of grease-based make-up. For example, Fitzgerald (1901) describes how the actor Herman Vezin [1829-1910] “mixed a lot of colour with melted tallow in Philadelphia in 1857”. William (‘Willy’) Clarkson [1861-1934] (an infamous London wigmaker) also suggested that Vezin was “if not the first, [then] one of the first to make up with grease” on the London stage. However, it would be Ludwig Leichner’s name that would become most closely associated with greasepaint.
Being both an opera singer and a student of chemistry, Leichner was in an ideal situation to advance the cause of stage make-up. After developing a viable product, he established a commercial powder and make-up business in Berlin in 1873 to make it, and within a short time was selling his products internationally.
The greasepaint Leichner developed had a greater covering power and intensity of colour than the old powder make-up and gave actors more control over how it was applied. Skin tones, shadows and highlights were easier to create so, when correctly applied, greasepaint enabled actors’ faces to look more natural, have a more even complexion and be more expressive in the brighter light; in short, they looked more lifelike. The make-up was also largely unaffected by perspiration.
The old method of making up was not by any means so effective as the preparation of the present day—the face being treated to a coating of violet powder, the hare’s foot and rouge were called in to throw up the complexion, the chin and cheek bones being very liberally treated to colour. It will be seen at once that this method needed reformation, for it is impossible to give the whole of the face a natural hue with violet powder, and though carmine was employed to heighten effects, the face must have had a patchy appearance.
Another difficulty, and a very serious one, was the perspiration of the flesh becoming, after a little exertion, palpable through the make-up. This frequently resulted in one colour running into another, hence a most ludicrous expression. It is almost (even now) impossible to effectually patch up a make-up after it has been once laid on the face, and the old method necessitates the actor making up afresh after he has strutted and fretted through a few scenes.
Leichner’s greasepaint came in a range of colours numbered for easy reference, starting with No. 1 as the lightest. The sticks came in two sizes; longer, thicker forms to tint the skin and shorter thinner ones (known as liners) that were used for age lines, veins, eyebrows and other features.
As a pharmacy student Leichner would have known how to mix grease and wax to make hair cosmetics or pomatums and it is more than likely that his greasepaint is derived from them. Pomatums were used to control, colour, add gloss and perfume hair; a typical formula being given below:
To one pound of lard and half a pound of mutton suet, add two ounces of rose water; and, when getting cool, put in six drops of otto of roses. Mix well and put in pots before getting cold. Jasmin, Violet, Orange, and all other pomatums are made with the same quantity of scented waters, and one drachm of each essence. Beat up well with a wooden spoon before potting. Keep the lard three days in cold water before using.
Some forms of pomatum were made as flattened sticks and sold wrapped in ornamental paper. Known as hard, roll or stick pomatums, they were used by men to keep hair, beards and moustaches in place and to add gloss. Cooley includes some recipes for these, although he considers their habitual use ‘dirty and discreditable’.
Hard Pomatum; Roll Pomatum; Stick Pomatum
Prepared beef-suet (hard) 1 pound; Beeswax (pure, bright) 2½ ounces; Gum-benzoin (in a course powder) 1 drachm.
Melt them together, at a gentle heat, stir well, and, after a little repose, pour off the clear portion. To the latter when it has cooled a little, add of
Oil of lavender 1 fluid drachm; Oil of cassia 15 drops; Essence of ambergris 15 drops.
Just before the mass concretes, pour it into moulds of paper or tin foil, and when these have become quite cold and hard, cover them with ornamental wrappers. Very fine. Has a slight yellowish colour.
Coloured forms (coloured cosmetiques) which were used to cover grey hair came in a range of shades to enable colour matching. According to Cooley (1866) the pigment was mixed with the semi-liquid lard and white wax ‘Cosmetic Blanc’ base.
Cosmetique Blanc.— Take of
Lard (good, hard) 5 parts; White wax (pure) 2 parts;
Melt them together, and otherwise proceed as noticed above.
Cosmetique Brun.—The preceding, coloured with any harmless brown pigment; as with levigated umber (raw and burnt), for “plain brown,” and levigated terra di Sienna or Spanish brown for “auburn” and “chestnut.” A “golden brown,” for very light hair, may be given by strongly impregnating the melted fat with annotta, and then adding a little burnt terra di Sienna.
Cosmetique Noir.—Hard pomatum (cosmetique blanc) coloured with 1-4th or 1-5th of its weight of the best levigated ivory-black. The way to ensure a perfect mixture of the pigments is to triturate them with a little of the melted fat in a warm marble-mortar, before adding them to the rest.
There are clear similarities between these coloured stick pomatums and stick greasepaints both in their composition and the way they were packaged. Leichner’s stick greasepaint therefore comes from a long-standing tradition. This is not to belittle his invention which, it could be argued, was one of the more important developments in the history of make-up in the nineteenth century.
See also: Water Cosmetique
Some authors refer to greasepaint as a modified form of wig-paste or joining paste – a product used to conceal the join of a wig. The reason for this is probably due to Carl Baudin of the Leipzeiger Stadt-Theatre, Germany. He commercialised a flesh-coloured paste made of zinc, ochre and lard – which makes it a type of greasepaint – that he had developed to conceal the joint between his wig and forehead.
The prepared chalk, fuller’s earth, powdered blue, rouge, carmine, burnt cork, camel’s-hair brush, hare’s-foot, and one or two dry paints which in the old days formed the stock-in-trade, no longer suffice for present requirements; elaborate grease paints have completely supplanted them, except, perhaps, in the portable theatre.
These grease paints are identical with the composition which formerly went by the name of ‘wig-paste’ whose sole function was to secure an actor’s wig to his forehead and conceal the joining. The flesh-coloured grease paint still performs the same duty; but, like all the other tints—the ‘light-red’ and ‘dark-red,’ employed for heightening the complexion after a paler groundwork has been laid on, excepted—it is known by a number (3), and sold in sticks. Chemists almost everywhere now deal in grease paints.
Stick greasepaints are produced by mixing dry pigments into a fat/wax base. They are not difficult to make and so the idea was widely copied.
Base: A wide variety of fats and waxes could be used in the base including lard, suet, tallow, cocoa-butter, almond oil, castor oil, beeswax, spermaceti, lanolin, paraffin and ceresine. Cheaper greasepaints used less expensive ingredients like lard, tallow and suet that were liable to go rancid within a few months without appropriate preservatives. Poucher recommends that up to 10% of the base be made of beeswax and/or lanolin, to make the greasepaint tacky so that powder will adhere to it.
A B C D E F Almond oil – – 72 – – – Lard, benzoated – 15 – – – 56 Cocoa-butter – – – 80 80 – Beeswax, white – – 14 – 6 3½ Spermaceti – – 14 – – – Lanolin, anhydrous 5 – – – – – Liquid Paraffin 70 60 – – – 26½ Ceresine 25 25 – 20 14 14½
It was important that the sticks resisted breaking or crumbling and spread easily when applied on the skin. The melting point could therefore not be too high or too low; Poucher warns that if it is below 37°C (blood temperature) the greasepaint will become “fatty after application, and the result will be an unsightly mess necessitating the continuous use of powder” (Poucher, 1930. p. 533). Needless to say it was not always possible to meet all conditions of use and actors often needed to warm the sticks before using them in cold dressing rooms.
Colour: The colours used in greasepaint consisted of a white base for covering power and various pigments to produce the range of shades. Typical ingredients used in the white base included zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, chalk, kaolin, talc and bismuth subnitrate.
No. 1638 Zinc oxide. 750 Kaolin. 50 Precipitated chalk—heavy. 200 1000
No. 1638 Zinc oxide. 700 Bismuth subnitrate. 200 Talc. 100 1000
Colours added to the white base were made to formulas that included pigments such as carmine, ochre, lakes and lampblack.
No. 6 Yellowish Flesh Yellow ochre 10.8 Armenian bole 1.2 White base 88.0
6½ Japanese Dark ochre 12 Burnt umber 4 Burnt sienna 2 White base 82
As with all coloured cosmetics, quality control was essential to ensure that colours and consistency did not vary between batches.
With the introduction of motion pictures, many stage actors began to work in films as well. Unfortunately, early film stocks were not sensitive to the full colour spectrum and this created a number of make-up problems. If actors did not wear make-up they looked dark and dirty but if they did they often appeared to have a white, mask-like look. Although greasepaint and powder continued to be used on movie studio lots, the way it was used underwent a number of changes.
See also: Early Movie Make-up
Greasepaint was also made as a cream and was referred to as cream-paint or ‘flesh cream’ by some. It was produced in a more limited range of tints and initially sold in jars – tube forms were introduced by Max Factor. Cream greasepaint had one major advantage over stick forms: it could be applied more easily when large amounts were needed as, for example, in clown make-up. It also reduced the damaging drag on the skin that can occur when using sticks, which perhaps explains its popularity with many actresses.
These are of a softer consistency than the grease-paints. They are put up in jars, instead of sticks, and are more generally used by women. The effect produced is practically the same as that resulting from grease-paint. The different shades are white, flesh, pink, brunette, deep brunette for dark complexions, also Creole, Gypsy, Indian and other shades, which may be made to order.
In 1914, Max Factor developed a cream greasepaint supposedly developed for the burgeoning motion picture industry. Describing as a ‘flexible greasepaint’ it was later marketed commercially as Supreme Greasepaint. Produced in twelve graduated shades, it was initially produced in pots, but was later sold in collapsible tubes which Factor considered to be more convenient and sanitary (Basten, 2008, p. 46). It could be applied more quickly and covered as well as, if not better than, stick greasepaint, even though it was laid on more thinly. Max Factor also used cream greasepaint as the base for his Panchromatic Make-up, introduced in 1928.
See also: Panchromatic Make-up
Before applying greasepaint, the skin is first prepared by working in an oily or greasy material. This makes it easier to work the greasepaint and remove it after the performance. The commonest materials used for this purpose were cocoa-butter, Vaseline (paraffin) and cold cream. The early stagers generally recommend theatrical cold cream, as other oils and paraffin were widely believed to stimulate hair growth.
See also: Eyelash Growers
Once the excess oil had been blotted from the face, the flesh-tinted ground colours were applied, followed by the highlights, shadows and other facial features depending on whether the make-up was straight, aged or character. Lips and eyes would need their own treatments. The make-up was usually finished off with powder to tone down colour and reduce shine.
Greasepaint was removed by smearing the face with some form of oily or greasy material such as cold cream or liquid paraffin and then wiping it off with a towel or tissue paper. The face was then washed with soap and water and/or wiped with astringent to remove any remaining grease.
Greasepaint did have one major drawback when compared to powder make-up. It was harder on the skin, particularly when worn for extended periods in long theatre runs. Its use was often accompanied by pimples and rashes particularly in those individuals that were susceptible to skin breakouts.
For many women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, greasepaint was their first introduction to make-up. It found its way into private homes through its use in amateur dramatics and tableau vivants (poses plastiques) – both popular activities in Victorian and Edwardian society but largely restricted to the middle and upper classes – and was also used by professional photographers to make-up their clients before they took studio portraits – an activity that extended to all levels of society.
Greasepaint was not designed as a general make-up. It did not replaced face powder and rouge but was used by some women as a lipstick, mascara or eyeshadow when such things were not widely available. For example, in a 1959 interview, seventy-six-year-old actress Estelle Winwood described how she used greasepaint as a lipstick.
I remember, … it was in New York in 1916 and I was young and pretty then … I use to paint my lips with Leichner’s No. 2 stage makeup. It was used in the Theatre for rouging your cheeks you know—and it was considered very terrible for wearing it offstage.
For young actresses the temptation to use greasepaint off the stage must have been very strong and when they did so they stretched the boundaries of what was considered acceptable. Where they led others followed.
Updated: 27th April 2015
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