Beauty How-To: Basic Contouring And Highlighting

If you’ve ever been photographed with professional lighting versus, well, any other type of lighting, you’ll know how much well-placed shadows and highlights can change the structure on your face. Almost every time I look at a photo of myself, I’m bothered by how unphotogenic I am. “I don’t even look like that!,” I whine, thrusting the picture into the hand of anyone who will take it. “Tell me I don’t look like that.” When I look in the mirror, I’m often (but not always) content with the fundamental way I look: the structure of my face, the definition of my cheekbones, my almond-shaped eyes. My face in photographs makes me sad. I will never forget how sometime in elementary school there was a picture hung on the wall from our class Halloween party. Whenever I looked at it, I noticed a round-faced, unfortunate-looking girl who I didn’t know. She wasn’t in my class. Finally, sometime at the end of the school year, I asked someone who it was. “That’s you!,” they said. Oh.

So as far as I can remember, I have never been photogenic. I actually have a pretty prominent bone structure, but I’m also tragically pale, so in photos my face becomes a washed-out, shapeless white orb. I had addressed the issue by skillfully evading cameras whenever possible, but then I found out about contouring. Contouring is a makeup technique in which you use bronzer or color darker than your skin tone to create and emphasize natural shadows in the face, giving a more defined, angular appearance. Its complementary counterpart is highlighting, which you use in the opposite fashion to enhance the more raised areas of the face where light naturally hits. Proper highlight and contour can completely transform your bone structure. Think you have no cheekbones? Think again. You just need to go about enhancing them correctly.

Once you get the hang of the process, it’s extraordinarily simple and eventually requires basically no thought. I recommend practicing a few times before leaving the house. It’s a little too easy to get heavy-handed with bronzer, leaving you with stripes. The key to contouring is to be very, very light with application and build to your desired strength. It also helps to be in natural or frankly unforgiving lighting that will really show you what you’re doing. I have attempted to contour my face in a softly lit room where it looked muted and beautiful, but when I checked it in the bathroom mirror, it was a total disaster.

To begin, the bronzer you use to contour should be only slightly darker than your skin tone; any more and it’ll be Snooki-style. You can use any kind of formulation you like, though I do recommend a powder for beginners. Your color must be matte! Shimmer looks fake and will not create the desired effect. Like I said, I’m extraordinarily pale and I don’t use bronzer for actual bronzing, only for contouring, so it took me a while to find a color I liked and that looked okay on me. Now I use and love Tarte Matte Waterproof Bronzer, which comes in one universally flattering shade.

First, locate the hollow of your cheekbones. It will be where the shadow naturally falls, diagonally across the side of your face. If you can’t find it, suck in your cheeks in a fish face. The shadow should fall directly in the hollow created by the face. Swirl a big, fluffy brush in your bronzer and trace the diagonal line, beginning at the top of the cheek just below the temple and brushing downward toward your mouth. After a few swipes, a line should begin to build here. If it becomes too opaque, blend it a bit with your fingers — it should look very, very natural, mimicking where the shadow falls. I like to brush a bit of bronzer onto my temples and under my chin as well to make it all look more uniform.

I like to use blush in between my bronzer and highlighter, but if you don’t wear blush or have naturally pink cheeks, you can skip this step. I apply my blush almost directly above where I contour on my cheeks, following that same diagonal line up toward the ear to mimic a natural flush. I blend the edges of the blush into the edges of the bronzer to create a smooth, almost gradient effect. I highlight using a liquid formula because it’s easiest for me, but you can use a cream or powder if you prefer. I use Benefit High Beam, a formula that’s more opalescent than it is shimmery or sparkly, because that’s the finish I prefer. Such a pale-colored formula could give a whitish cast to dark skin; for darker-skinned ladies, I recommend Benefit Sun Beam or a similar product.

It’s important to use highlight very, very sparingly or else you risk looking totally shiny rather than glowy. Dab your formula of choice in the center of your forehead, at the very top of your cheekbone diagonally toward the temple, and right in the cupid’s bow. Don’t blend, because then you’ll carry the highlight over to where it shouldn’t be, just tap it in gently with your finger until it’s absorbed. These spots are where proper natural or studio lighting naturally hits — the purpose of contouring and highlighting is to give a sort of studio-lit aesthetic all the time. I think it really works! I notice how much better I look in photographs since I started using the technique; it tricks not just the eye but also the camera into seeing you in a different light, literally.

(photo from Kevyn Aucoin’s About Face)

Explaining, rather than showing, how to do this can be confusing. There are a number of YouTube videos and photographic tutorials catering to this, if you’re more of a visual person. If you do give the technique a try, let me know how it went for you!