When it comes to highlighting and contouring, there's a fine (sometimes bronzer-caked) line between enhancing your features and painting on an entirely new face, not to mention it can be intimidating to look at a powder or cream several shades darker than you skin tone and be told it can somehow create a natural-looking shadow effect, as opposed to looking like dirt smudges. We get it — contouring and highlighting techniques don’t come naturally to most of us. But luckily, over the last decade, as the techniques that were once mastered only by makeup professionals have become more popular — and even part of many mainstream, everyday makeup routines — they've also become demystified. Products made specifically for creating a sculpted, defined look are now available at every price point, and there's no shortage of beauty-vlogger YouTube tutorials to help guide your blending brush and make the most of your facial structure, right down to your specific face shape and features. But before you go digging through umpteen videos, start right here. We spoke to makeup artists Ashleigh Ciucci, Troy Surratt, and Molly Roncal — all of whom can contour and highlight in their sleep — to reveal the basics you need to know for bringing out your cheekbones, reshaping your nose, and subtly sculpting your face whenever you feel like it.
Old-school contouring — the technique of using shading to enhance and define facial features — used to mean layers upon layers (upon layers) of dark, dramatic makeup, harsh angles, and pretty much everything worn by the cast of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Erase those images from your mind (if you can). The 21st-century version is all about enhancing cheekbones, shaping your face, and tricking the eye in a believable way. Simply put: "It's no longer about carving a line into your cheek," says makeup artist Ashleigh Ciucci.
You only need two: a matte shading cream or powder and a highlighter. "I like to contour with a cream because you can pat it on with your fingers and it has a natural finish that doesn't look like makeup," says Ciucci. (We like the Honest Beauty Contour + Highlight Kit, shown). Or if you're more comfortable with powder, choose a sheer formula, like Benefit Cosmetics Dallas powder, which "gives a softer contour," she says. While the formula you use is up to you, make sure you're consistent. That means using all cream or all powder products, from your foundation to your blush. Layering different textures can cause a caked-on effect, and it won't blend as seamlessly, says Ciucci.
Anything that stands out too much against skin is going to look obvious. "If you're fair, use a contouring cream or powder that's one shade darker than your skin tone," says Ciucci. In keeping with the idea of shadows, look for formulas with a grayish cast, like Kevyn Aucoin The Sculpting Contour Powder, and stay away from anything too red or orange, like most bronzers.
Highlighter should be "almost the color of your skin, with just a hint of shine," says makeup artist Polly Osmond. Avoid anything with noticeable sparkles, which can look chalky or just plain unnatural. Ciucci likes working with liquid highlighter formulas, like Nars Illuminator in Copacabana (a glistening light pink, shown here) for fair skin or Laguna (a shimmery golden brown) for dark skin. "These formulas mimic your skin's texture so it just looks more believable," she says. If you have fair skin, a pearly shade works well, but those with medium and dark complexions need a warmer golden highlighter for a glow that looks natural, not pasty, says Ciucci.
Using creams? Use your fingers. They warm the makeup so it melts and blends more seamlessly into your skin. If you're working with powder, Ciucci recommends the Smashbox Fan Brush. "Because there are so few bristles and they're so soft, you're less likely to overdo it. The shape of the brush also lets you really control the placement," she says.
Want instant cheekbones? Suck in your cheeks ("It's the best way to find the hollows," says makeup artist Troy Surratt). Then, working from the tops of the hollows inward, shade along — and just beneath — the sunken area, stopping about an inch from the corner of your mouth, then blend well with your finger or a sponge. To slim your nose, blend two lines of the shading cream or powder from the start of your brows down the sides of the bridge of your nose with a small shadow brush.
Highlighting is especially important when you're contouring because it brings the light back into your face, says Ciucci. But once again, you don't want to overdo it. "Most people slap on too much highlighter and look like the Tin Man," says makeup artist Mally Roncal. Her technique: "I lightly coat my pointer, middle, and ring fingers with highlighter, and then rub them against the same fingers on the other hand," she says. "Tap your fingers up and down your cheekbones, and then dab whatever's left over on your brow bones, the center of your chin, and just one tap on the tip of your nose," she says.
Not all of the rules of highlighting and contouring are universal; it's also important to keep your face shape in mind. If you have a round face, contouring under your cheekbones can make it appear smaller. But if you have a narrow face, it could make it look even longer. Instead, "shade along the top of the forehead and a bit on the chin," says Ciucci. This technique softens angular features and creates a more rounded effect.
"Blending is the most important thing," says Ciucci. Even if you've gone overboard, blending with a sponge, like the Beautyblender, can reign it in. Or if you used powder, run a fluffy brush with natural fibers over the finished look in a circular buffing motion. "It's important to hold your brush really softly. Holding the brush toward the end of the handle will give you a softer, more seamless finish," says Ciucci.
"Adding bright blush would give you that retro stripe," says Surratt. But leaving cheeks completely colorless can have a flattening, zombie effect. "Stick with a creamy soft peach or pink if you have fair skin, or soft plum for darker complexions," says Ciucci. Blend a cream formula, like Stila Convertible Color, on the apples of your cheeks for a natural (but not doll-like) flush.
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