Face painting has come a long way since human history began. It is obviously hard to pin point the origin and exactly when face and body painting started, although some claimed that the Native Americans were the ones who initiated this art.
Wikipedia, however offers some insights. From ancient times, it has been used for traditional ceremonies, wars, hunting, religious reasons, and military purposes (such as face camouflage). In the popular culture during the hippie movement of the late 1960s, it was common for young women to decorate their cheeks with flowers at special events. At the same time, there were those who painted peace symbols on their faces at anti-war demonstrations.
In the 1980s, face painting found its way into professional wrestling shows. Popular wrestlers like The Ultimate Warrior, Road Warrior Hawk and Doink the Clown utilized this art to create unique character dressings that literally shook the wrestling world. To date, some WWE superstars are still wearing face paint designs to dramatically increase the visual impact of their characters.
In the last few decades, face painting has been a common sight at carnivals, private parties, street and paid performances and large open-air markets (especially in Europe and the Americas). A part from that, it is also very popular among children at birthday parties, theme parks and seasonal festivals throughout the Western world in particular. Though the majority of face painting activities are targeted at young kids, many grown-ups enjoy being painted as well especially at special events such as charity fund raisers.
I recall that when I was a child, circus performances were fairly common. This group of performers travels from country to country with their herds of animals and large cases of tools and gadgets to entertain the crowds. Those were the times before we had cable television or HBOs. One of the most entertaining performances when watching the circus was when the clown appears to delight the crowds. Most of these professional clowns had to paint their own faces. Fortunately, they had a fairly easy and simple design.
Whatever the origin or the history of face painting is, this beautiful art is here to stay.