You may really love the Harley Davidson logo tattooed just above your ankle...but you open Friday night as Blanche DuBois and you're afraid it's just not right.

Or, you're singing the witch in Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, and you'd like a nice big wart you can count on to stay put after an hour onstage.

Or perhaps you're a collegian headed for the big game Saturday, and it's vital that the left side of your face be the perfect blue and the right side the correct orange.

Today's makeup products and techniques - too often the underappreciated stepchild of the arts-and-entertainment industry - can solve all these problems and more. Specialists say makeup is making a comeback as more people begin to realize how much tools have improved and how important this age-old craft still is.

"We're seeing much more interest now, with artists wanting to learn and wanting to be creative," comments Gene Flaharty, makeup artist and sales manager at Mehron, Inc. "Actors accept it as part of their careers, and now we see more costume and wig people going back to school."

Bob Kelly of Bob Kelly Cosmetics, Inc., has also observed the growing interest in makeup, and is responding by launching a new 10-day basic makeup school in January 2001. The course will deliver both basic and advanced knowledge to students in all performing specialties. "The average job is not that complex," Kelley says, "but people need the confidence that they can do it themselves."

Performers in general are responsible for their own makeup, Kelly notes, and many are still carrying around outdated assumptions or techniques they learned years ago.

A NEW STAGE ENVIRONMENT Changes in makeup have gone hand in hand with other advances in stagecraft, including lighting. "The old school," Flaharty says, "was that lighting was so poor you needed a lot of makeup. Today the lighting is much more intense, but we also have more capability to adjust and focus the light." Directors are using far fewer gels on lights than before, Flaharty continues, so there's less need for heavy and highly reflective coatings on performers' faces.

"But the washing-out influence is still a factor," he warns. Without proper makeup, "the performer will look really pale, because there's so much candlepower out there."

Sloan Matthews, makeup department supervisor at Kinetic Artistry, agrees that "lighting has something to do with it." But she adds that "pigmentation in makeup is so much better today that you don't need layer on layer. One layer does it."

At Kryolan, national sales and education consultant Tim Santry fears it's too small a step from needing less and lighter makeup to skipping it entirely. "Many designers are afraid of makeup altogether," he says, largely because they're not being taught the basics in school.

But makeup is still needed, even in relatively small performance spaces. "From even 20 feet away, you can lose so much," he notes, citing eyes, eyebrows, and lips as facial features that become increasingly vague with distance but which can be kept clear and communicative with proper makeup.

"You need the performer to be seen, even in a small theatre. It's not that makeup isn't important, but people don't realize how important it still is."

BIG NEWS IN "PANCAKE" The heavy foundation that's traditionally used for theatre makeup is largely a thing of the past today, Matthews goes on. Today performers can select from a broad range of water-based and cream foundations that won't run off with perspiration, stain clothing or irritate tender skin.

If you're portraying the Tin Man of Oz, she notes, "you can paint yourself a beautiful silver and not have it suffocate your skin. That was impossible two years ago and now it's possible."

"Stage pancake in the last 10 years has changed dramatically, and it's now available in a very usable state that looks good and wears well," says Santry. New products offer a higher ratio of pigment to base, so less makeup is needed, he adds.

Flaharty notes recent new Mehron products include a "barrier spray" that can be used beneath a layer of makeup to keep the makeup from being eroded by perspiration, or above it to keep it from running off with water. And such television epics as Baywatch are among the early adopters of Kryolan's DermaColor products, says Santry, because "you can swim in it."

Performers in physically strenuous shows like Cirque du Soleil (as well as dancers and gymnasts appearing in televised competitions) welcome makeup that's impervious to sweat. Others are enthusiastic about a dramatically wider new selection of camouflage makeups, adhesives, and prosthetics. Transforming yourself into Cyrano de Bergerac is easier than ever before, with much lighter and simpler prosthetics and much more skin-friendly adhesives, Matthews says.

And Flaharty has seen a minor boom in tattoo coverage among current film stars worried that their bodily decorations might add a jarring note to a revealing love scene.

Makeup is more versatile and useable than ever before, and wins converts among those who try it, says Matthews. "Every time I get hired and go into a dressing room, I end up with a gaggle of girls saying `Who knew?' People don't realize the versatility of these makeups."

"Nobody appreciates it," agrees Kelly, who cites his own experience designing makeup for Saturday Night Live. "The script is written at the last minute, and then you've got two days to put the whole show together."

Flaharty comments that makeup "is not ignored, but it's usually the last thing thought of. We don't plan it when we do costumes or light. We just go out and buy it and make it work. But makeup can be an integral part of the production if you design it right."

One misunderstood point, he says, frequently arises in school and community theatre productions. "You cannot use over-the-counter makeup on stage," he explains. "Most over-the-counter makeup has five to 10% color in it, but theatrical performance makeup has up to 60% color." Because performers need less of it, he adds, the theatrical product is usually cheaper in the long run.

Learning to do makeup right is the goal of programs like Kelly's new 10 - day course. Others are increasingly seeking out educational opportunities, Matthews says. "It's really up to you. You can print business cards and start working in the business without knowing all that much.

"But it's constantly evolving. You really need to stay on top of it and take responsibility for your own knowledge" she adds.

"The training is out there for professionals," says Santry, "but it needs to get back into the schools."