Beauty Breakdown: Facial Contouring 101

What is this “contouring” that makeup artists and celebrities speak of? I see it all the time — that subtle shadow right under their cheekbones, lifting their faces, enhancing their features, and overall making them look more beautiful than they already are. How in the world do you do it, and what products do you use? — Clueless About Contouring

Contouring done properly is one of the most important makeup lessons to be learned out of the entire lexicon. Every celebrity makeup artist does it on every celebrity. We never see our favorite stars hit the red carpet without it. You may recognize it from this classic image, forever imprinted in our hearts and minds…

If there’s one thing Kim knows, it’s this: when it comes to flattering your face and making you look like yourself but better in ways you didn’t think were possible, contouring is right up there with filling in and shaping your brows. It’s transformative, especially for people who have rounder, softer faces without much definition — a bit of shading can change your face game altogether. It makes you look slimmer, higher-cheekboned, and more like a 17-year-old Russian runway model. And really, contouring is actually quite simple once you get the gist of it.

However! Contouring done incorrectly? It is, as they say in the French, a shitshow. Too muddy, too orange, too dark, just too much… oh, there are so very many ways it can go wrong, and you can end up looking like an extra on the set of Jersey Shore. Just cruisin’ the boardwalk. But hey, I don’t want to discourage you! Here are some examples of good contouring vs. bad contouring.

See what I mean? The objective is for it not to be obvious. Think subtle. The concept behind the whole thing is really just to add shadows in the places where shadows naturally fall, and light in the places where light naturally falls. Makes total sense once you think about it, but the right tools and application are key. First, you should look for your ideal contouring product and shade. It should be about two shades darker than your skin tone and your regular foundation or powder. Matte bronzer (not sparkly, not shimmery, not glowy!) is a great product to use as contour, but fair and light skin tones should be really careful of warmth. Read: orange. If you’re fair (I am), then you know how easily things can take a turn for the orange. This is why it’s so important to use a cool, neutral shade, which is hard to find in most bronzers. As strange as it sounds, a contouring shade should be more grey/taupe, whatever you want to call it, than a rich brown shade. The perfect example of this is Chanel Notorious, a lavender-grey shade that is ideal for contouring on all skin tones. It sold out in a matter of hours after it was released, but you can see it on the runway models (including one almost unrecognizable Miranda Kerr!) here…

Cool, right? Finding your right shade is really a process of trial and error, and you should most definitely swatch in the store wherever you choose to look for one. You will not find a contouring shade for pale skin in the drugstore, unless it’s eyeshadow and you use it on your cheeks, so do not go there. Do not go there. On the lower end of the pricing spectrum, MAC has a ton of great blushes for contouring: Harmony, a muted rose-beige brown, is super-subtle and perfect for fair and light skin, and Blunt, a muted golden brown, is great for medium to dark skin. They also offer a range of shades designated specifically for contouring, called the Sculpting Powder Pro Palette, which you’re obviously supposed to buy a palette for but whatever, just buy those babies loose. If you’re really ready to cash in on contouring (and I would recommend doing so; it’s not a trendy eyeshadow, or a bright lipstick, it will change the way you and others see your face!), Kevyn Aucoin Beauty The Sculpting Powder is the only way to go. It comes in one universal grey/taupe shade that, applied with a light hand, is perfect for even my skin, which is as white as white gets. It’s the closest I’ve found to that Chanel powder I showed you above. Other people (rich people) love Tom Ford Shade & Illuminate, which comes with both a contouring shade and a highlighting in one handy, gorgeous, gilded, mirrored, expensive compact. Sigh.

And on to your brush! An angled brush makes the whole process that much easier, because all you have to do is place it at the top of your cheekbones and angle it down for the perfect line. Hence, angled. I like Real Techniques because they’re affordable and great quality. What more could you need? But because I’m me, and everything I love and need is $1,000 and French and only available on special order and just, like, totally out-of-this-world ridiculous, I am going to recommend the Illamasqua Blush Up Brush. I saw Illamasqua’s product development guy and overall makeup messiah David Horne demonstrate it in person before the release and I fell in luuuuuuurve. It has a really unique egg shape that just fits so perfectly beneath the cheekbone, it’s like it was born there. Do you need it? Technically, probably not. Do you want it? Oh my god, yes, you want it.

Once you have a solid brush, and a shade that works for you, you’ve completed, like, 80% of the battle. Congratulations! Now all there is to it is just to put it on your face. Sweep your brush through the powder, making sure the bristles are coated with pigment but that it isn’t too much. Just a little bit will do — you can always add more, and it’s so much easier to build up color than to get rid of it. Place the brush at the top of your cheekbones, just below the temple — feel around for your cheekbone if you need to, but the top of your ear is always a good place to start — and then angle it downwards toward your mouth. Follow the invisible diagonal line from the top of your cheekbone to the center of your cheek parallel to your jaw. The most color deposited should be where the brush first lands and fade down from there. It should look like a shadow, albeit a very defined one, which you now need to blend. Keep using your brush without adding pigment, or you can use a cosmetic sponge, or even your fingers. Just blend, blend, blend, not so much that the line disappears but to the point where there are no harsh edges or, well, obvious areas. (Hell, if you’re super-scared about this whole deal, use a neutral rosy blush like Tarte Amazonian Clay 12-Hour Blush in Exposed for the softest of all contouring looks. It still works, it just doesn’t have the same impact.)

I usually just leave my contouring to the cheekbones, because it can get a bit dodgy once you start to put it elsewhere. If you’re brave enough to venture outward, try placing the tiniest bit on each side of the bridge of your nose, and under your chin and around your jawline. Really, you can define anything and make it look realistic as long as you just remember to blend, blend, blend. Tons of blending. Then you can finish it all up with blush on the apples of your cheeks as you usually would. For an especially subtle look with a lot of definition, use the same angled brush to place the blush just above the line you’ve contoured.

Tell me: have you tried contouring before? Are you going to try it now? Would you be more apt to try it if there were a video of the application? Even if it’s a shaky iPhone video of my decidedly non-celebrity face? I know it can be difficult to understand the technical aspects when it’s all in writing, so if you’d appreciate me showing you in another form, let me know. I am here to please. Most of the time.

Is there a celebrity beauty look you want to steal? A new product you want to learn how to use? Don’t know which foundation, moisturizer, volumizing spray, or novelty eye glitter to invest in? Want to see how many Momofuku birthday cake truffles I can fit in my mouth at once? If you’ve got a beauty question, concern, or demand, any at all, hit me up on my videophone. I mean, uh, my email. Or Twitter! [email protected] or @frigidbardot — make it ring, or rain, or something like that, babes!