Contouring & Highlighting 101

06 August 2012

Okay, so let's get right down to it. There's this makeup technique that has been around for ages in the industry but is fairly new when it comes to regular people like us. And it's getting a lot of buzz. Why? Because this is one of the ultimate secrets - sculpting your face. It's a method of making your face look amazing in pictures which, being a 2-D medium are, by default, flat. But it can also be used in everyday life! It's one of the questions I get asked a lot and it's one of those things people seem to be a bit wary of (which, fair enough, if done wrong, you can look crazy!)

I've always known that I was never super happy w/ how my face looks in photos. I'm Asian (obviously, haha) so my face is flatter and I also have monolids. In photos, I can look pretty damn flat, even though in real life, I do have cheekbones and eye sockets. When I first discovered contouring, I was thrilled. In fact, I went super crazy and probably looked utterly absurd for the longest time (streaks of bronzer right down my face anyone?) But this is something that everyone can do. And, yeah, there are a million tutorials on this, but I'm throwing my hat into the ring also, okay? Haha, enough rambling, right?

This is picture-heavy and will still be pretty long, so let's get this show on the road!


Favorite Bronzers -- Favorite Blushes -- Favorite Highlighters

Skip the rambling and jump to the point. :)

So there is some actual theory behind this. Think about that fashion rule you've always been told - black makes you look slimmer. Why is this? Darker colors, or in this case, shadowing, tricks your eye into thinking what it is seeing is receding. Whereas highlighted areas are going to pop forward (if you're like me, you know that struggle w/ white pants OMG!) It's the shadowing that gives shape to what you're seeing.

Think about Egyptian art - very stylized, very line-centric, and completely 2-D. Now think about something like the Mona Lisa - it's the shadows that add the depth and the shape. But you don't have to be an artist to know this. In fact, chances are, you've had the theory behind contouring down for years and just never really thought about it!

Let's talk about eye makeup for a second. You've all seen quads and trios of eyeshadow and you probably own a bunch that follow this format.


Whether they're high end or drugstore, they usually follow this order. A lot of the times they're even labelled things like "lid", "crease", "brow bone", etc. Standard eye makeup procedure and one that is generally followed everyday by most people is that you put a medium color on your lid, add a deeper color in your crease/eye socket for definition, and then highlight along your brow bone to make your brow pop. See? You've been contouring for years most likely!

Another popular shadow method is to sandwich; that is to put a dark shadow in the outer corner and the inner corner and then a lighter shadow blended in the middle. When this method is used, it's often stated to make your eye look more 3-D. The light middle shade pops forward while the darker colors in the corners recede.

For me, contouring and highlighting go hand in hand. It's not impossible to get away w/ doing one or other because the contrast will still be there, but I think for the best effect, it's best to do both. And a lot of brands are discovering that people are getting into this. Drugstores are starting to make products specifically for this purpose! I like the idea behind the Revlon palette the best because the e.l.f. Studio one and the L'Oréal one don't include a highlighting product (however, that Revlon product is not a good purchase - it's expensive and there is hardly any pigmentation.)


If you're looking for an all-in-one product, I suggest a palette such as this one:


This palette has several benefits - it's pretty cheap, you get a lot of product in each pan, the quality of the powder is pretty decent, and finally it is entirely matte. (You can find these all over eBay or you can get them at Coastal Scents. They do come in different shades on eBay though, so keep that in mind. I purchased mine from Coastal Scents for reference.)

Why should you prefer matte bronzers? Because shimmer is going to draw the eye to it. And since the whole point of contouring is to create shadows and make certain areas fall back or recede from the eye, adding shimmer defeats the purpose. It's the same reason why they suggest you stay away from shimmery blushes or highlights if you have wrinkles or large pores - the shimmer is going to make them look all the more apparent because the eye will be drawn to the shimmer. I also prefer a more matte highlighter or at least one that is just a sheen or a glow rather than an actual shimmer/glittery effect for the same reason.

Back to the top.

Okay, but let's get down to the REAL parts, right? Where the F#@%?! do you apply the products? The most common method of contouring is to sculpt cheekbones. Which means, since you want your cheekbones to jump forward (not literally, although that is a strange mental image) and you don't want to apply the contour OVER your cheekbones (sunken eyes are usually not on anyone's "hot" list LBR), suck in your cheeks. The infamous "fish face" everyone hears about.


Where the natural shadow falls in the hollows of your cheeks is where your bronzer should go. Obviously you don't want to draw a line from your temples to the corners of your mouth - I take two fingers and place them at the corner of my mouth and stop there...roughly around the pupil of my eye. I have a pretty round face so I also blend the contour down the sides of my face as well. And then along my jawline and blend into my neck.

Another popular place to contour is your nose. I tend to only do this if I'm taking blogging pictures because otherwise I'm just too lazy to blend and you WILL look ridiculous if you don't blend in your nose contour well. W/ the cheeks you could attempt to tell people you're pulling off an ~avant garde~! look or something, haha. If you think your forehead is too large, apply the contour to the edges of your face and blend into your hairline.

You don't tend to see this AS much and it can look somewhat wackadoodle in real life (I know because I've shamelessly gone out like this before) but if you want to add more dimension to your eye/nose area, if you blend a matte shadow a shade or two darker than your skin tone from inner third or so of your brow and down into your nose, it can add some definition. I'm actually fond of doing this, especially since I wear glasses and it can flatten everything out anyway. Lady Gaga incorporates this into her makeup a lot of the time.


One of Lady Gaga's promo pictures for the MAC Viva Glam program. She uses this type of contouring a lot though.

Blending is the key - if you get lazy and don't blend, it will be BLATANTLY apparent. Trust me, I've gone to work half asleep not realizing that I have two orangy-brown streaks down my face and it is not pretty! If you're worried about contouring looking too harsh or unnatural, you could try using a pressed powder in a shade two or so darker than your skin coloring instead of an actual bronzer. Or use a cream product, which can blend into the skin instead of sitting on top like powders can do.

Now to add the highlight! Your highlighting products are going to go on the raised parts of your face - AKA where the light hits. General areas are center of the forehead, cheekbones, nose bridge, cupid's bow, and the raised part of your chin.

Realistically, adding just a contour or just a highlight will create contrast but I think it's the combination of both that really help everything stand out. This post has been ridiculously long, and I will give you e-Cookies if you managed to read this WHOLE thing. I'm pretty sure (or at least I hope!) I covered all relevant topics and stuff. Finally, a couple of ridiculous looking reference pictures.






TBH, I think Kevyn Aucoin did it best, haha. Although I do look bloody ridiculous, so hopefully it was worth it for the LOLs?

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