Throughout the history of the big and the small screen, make-up has set the mood for many a character. And the most-used effect is probably the one most often taken for granted: dirt and distress.

No realistic character make-up is complete if it doesn’t match its particular surroundings. Where would a pirate, a cowboy, a coal miner, a shipwreck survivor or a battle-worn soldier be without the proper layer of dirt, soot or grime?

This article is one part of a two-part guide to creating dirt effects (the other part appears in Issue 91 of Make-Up Artist magazine). It will cover application techniques for ready-made materials, plus how to create your own dirt and schmutz.

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Josh Holloway from Lost
Josh Holloway from Lost

Today, the most common form of stay-in-place dirt is created with alcohol-based tattoo colors. (Skin Illustrator and the Reel Creations Reel Color Wheel Palettes (below) are two of the most popular.) Whether in liquid form or from a pre-dried palette activated with 99-percent isopropyl alcohol, these products offer an easy choice of colors and applications.

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Skin Illustrator palette
Skin Illustrator palette

You can use a medium-to-large powder brush to dab on several shades of brown and black quickly and easily. One drawback, however, is the alcohol vapors around the nose and eyes. To minimize this, I like to use pre-torn make-up sponges on the face. I tear a wedge in half and pick away at the torn edge to give it a crater-like surface. I also like the spring-loaded alcohol dispensers for dabbing and wetting my sponge as I dab it onto my color palette. With a little practice, the right amount of alcohol on the sponge picks up the right amount of color and transfers a nice broken texture to the skin.

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Reel Creations palette
Reel Creations palette

Use a blank palette or the lid of your color palette to test your pattern as you proceed. You can also pre-paint the deep lines and hollows on the neck, ears, forehead and crows’ feet with a brush first. As you stipple on the other layers, you can soften and break up those lines to create a more natural, ground-in look. I also add a layer of sunburn or redness on the forehead and around the eyes and nose as I have my actors squint and raise their eyebrows. Following this basic technique helps create a patina on your final make-up.

Dirt  Alert by Steve LaPorte: Dirt Alert palette
Dirt Alert palette
Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Ben Nye Clean Grease and Clean  Dirt
Ben Nye Clean Grease and Clean Dirt

Another quick way to apply grime is to keep a sprayer handy with a good generic dirt color. I like to take a well-mixed dark-brown tattoo color and add it 50/50 with 99-percent isopropyl alcohol into a two- to four-ounce pump sprayer. On set, you can run in and spray whatever needs coverage, reminding your actor to smear it around to break it up. A bunched-up Wet One comes in handy to further move the color around. Reel Creations’ L.S. Dirt is also a great ready-made sprayable dirt, and PPI has recently introduced a grime spray in several shades. I also carry at least three dirt-colored crème colors, since some actors cannot tolerate alcohol on the face. With the same type of ripped sponges, you can easily get the same dirt patina using the crème colors. I have a small, circular tri-color palette in my FaceMaker Series that I call Dirt Alert (above) which is just for this purpose. Other ready-made products are Ben Nye’s Clean Dirt and Clean Grease (left) and PPI’s Dirtworks, a nice selection of dry powders.

In a pinch I’ve also taken dark brown Fuller’s Earth powder and added it to any inexpensive hair spray. Add a little isopropyl myristate to keep the pump sprayer from clogging. This can also be diluted with 99-percent isopropyl alcohol. This also helps thin the hairspray resin to prevent clogs and facilitate the flow of liquid.

In Cast Away, Dan Striepeke and his team mixed Gantrez, Fuller’s Earth powder and sunblock gel to give Tom Hanks his dirty, tanned look. K-Y Jelly and Fuller’s Earth makes another dirty mix that, when streaked on the skin, will dry with a slight sheen. To further this effect on Windtalkers, I used a similar mixture of Fuller’s and methocel. When it dries, this mix flakes off and leaves a nice patchy look.

Methocel is a food additive in powder form that slowly thickens to a clear slime when it’s added to water (it’s the same stuff used in Ghostbusters). If you mix methocel slime and non-toxic tempera paint with Sea Breeze and thin the mixture with water, you’ll have a nice street grime. I made up a lot of this mixture for my friend Ve Neill on The Soloist to dirty up the background homeless characters. The nice thing about this water-based mix is that it is easier to remove than the alcohol-based products, yet stays in place pretty well. Expect to touch it up a little more often, however.

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Schmere, Fuller's Earth
Schmere, Fuller’s Earth

On Lost Boys, Neill and I added glycerin to dark-brown Fuller’s Earth powder (right) to make a thick paste that we applied with a water-dampened sponge to the hands, fingernails, necks and faces of the surf-punk victims.

To make your make-up three-dimensional, add some fine coffee grounds, peat moss or rubber dust to the neck and selected areas that might show up well on camera. (If you use peat moss, be sure to microwave it for a minute or two to sterilize it.)

To keep it in place, spray PPI’s Blue Marble Selr on a palette, wet a powder brush, dip it in the particles and dab it on the skin. As the Blue Marble dries, it’ll help hold the grit in place. Keep adding ’til you’re happy, then give the make-up a final spray and let dry to set. Blue Marble is a water-based setting spray that won’t disturb any of your make-up and is better for the face than alcohol-based setting sprays. Reel Creations makes a similar setting spray called Reel Blue Aqua Sealer.

Another cool look is the presence of sweat streaks down the face. You can easily add these by softly removing strategic areas of the dirty base with a Q-Tip in a drip pattern. I then drip water on these areas and add a little Fuller’s Earth powder with a puff blower/atomizer to finalize the dirty, drippy, sweaty look.

If you have a large cast or lots of background to prepare in a short time, use a water-based mixture in a consistency that can be applied through a spray bottle, hand-pump garden sprayer or large Hudson sprayer.

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Windtalkers' Adam Beach
Windtalkers’ Adam Beach

In 1999, on the film Windtalkers, we filmed on Oahu, Hawaii, and I had a fairly small crew to process 400 background American and Japanese soldiers for several weeks. (On some days that number increased to 750.) The task was monumental and we had only two and a half hours to do it every day (three and a half for the 750).

I had seen a documentary on the making of Braveheart, in which the background players actually lined up and moved down a line of large shallow pans filled with various mixtures of muddy water, sludge and blood. As quick and efficient as it may have seemed, I noticed that they were all sharing a common mixture. That’s fine if you’re the first guy through but pretty bad after 100 have used the same trough.

I had to devise a hygienic way to give everyone a dirty, battle-worn look and protect them from the sun. Overnight I mixed up an alcohol-based dirt formula using the Cast Away idea of sunblock gel, Fuller’s and Gantrez. The alcohol base quickly became a problem, as it burned any scrapes on the skin and the vapors irritated the eyes, not to mention almost asphyxiating the actors. Fortunately, we had a few days’ break before another big background day.

I had only a small amount of Gantrez, and large volumes of 99-percent isopropyl alcohol—although available—could be volatile, so I used a water-based formula. I went to the local art-supply stores and bought all of the black and brown non-toxic tempera paint I could find. A trip to Lowe’s for some five-gallon buckets and large garden sprayers and I was ready for action. Over the weekend, before Monday’s big call, I worked on a formula and produced 20 gallons of watery sludge that I nicknamed Island Stain. Although I only produce it on special occasions, and it has gone through several refinements, I still use it today. Jeff Dawn used it on The Rundown and I used it on all six seasons of Lost.

For large-scale application, I fill several Hudson sprayers with Island Stain and proceed as follows:

Dirt Alert by Steve LaPorte: Lost's Dominic Monaghan
Lost‘s Dominic Monaghan

Set up tables with mirrors and print up an easy-to-follow checklist of the make-up procedure; post it on the lower portion of each mirror. Demonstrate the procedure in advance with the background as a group. Then line up your actors and send them through this procedure:

  • Step up to the mirrors and apply sunblock, helping each other if necessary. (Big bottles of no-name SPF 45 sunblock are available at the local K-Mart or Costco.)
  • Form a circle (almost like a football huddle) to have hands and arms sprayed by make-up artists manning a sprayer.
  • Wipe faces and necks as the other make-up artists sponge any missed areas and show where to smear the dirt.
  • After another make-up artist armed with a dirt bag (a sport sock filled with Fuller’s Earth powder) has shaken the bag on the neck and face, pat the dirt into place.

The point of this method is to avoid cross-contamination. Having the actors do most of the rubbing and smearing on themselves allows the make-up artists to move around quickly and fine-tune everyone’s application as it’s going on. Remember to wear gloves or you’ll never have clean hands again.

When we did this, the actors enjoyed getting into the act; after a while, they kept a check on each other, making sure no one got through without their fair share of battle wear. The make-up artists handled any quick bloodwork using a spatula and crumpled paper towel. A little water spray in the right places also leaves sweat trails down the face. Spray-sport sunblock is a great way to maintain a sweaty look; it’s not water-based, so inlays on top of the dirt and blood to create a nice shiny, sun-protected look without washing away your work.

We also had a couple of glitter guns filled with Fuller’s to add more dust where needed. Glitter guns are handy little devices with turning handles on boxes that blow whatever powder you load into them with great accuracy. For cleanup, we set up tables with baby wipes, hand cleanser and lots of paper towels next to some potable water in washing stations provided by production. Once everyone was trained on how to go through the works and clean themselves up, it all went pretty smoothly.

Another way I like to fine-tune a dirty look is to spray what I call L.S. and B where needed in a speckled pattern by pressing down my small pump sprayer only halfway. This causes it to spit out the color, creating a nice splotchy pattern. L.S. and B is a mix of Reel Creations L.S. Dirt and dark-brown tattoo color (the ‘B’ is for brown) diluted with 99-percent isopropyl alcohol.

Lastly, observation is one tool you can’t purchase but always have with you. Look around and find the characters in all the people you see. Their faces could be references for your next make-up challenge.

Editor’s note: The other part of this two-part article is available in Make-Up Artist magazine’s Issue 91 July/August issue, available on newsstands and at For more on this technique, you can also visit