Contouring: The Products, The Tools, The Color Theory

So pretty much everyone has done a contouring tutorial or video. Wayne Goss has done not one, not two, but three different videos. Jane Pratt’s beauty site has published a couple of contouring articles.  As of late, the internet has been blowing up with glam_her_booth’s impressive contouring transformation, which has been reposted on various sites about a bajillion times.

Everyone should check out Tylor Kirsten (glam_her_booth) on Instagram, because she’s crazy talented.

So why should I bother with my own tutorial? It’s not going to be as pretty as Wayne’s and it certainly won’t be as dramatic as Tylor’s. Well, I’m gonna do what I do best: throw some science in this bitch. We’re gonna talk about color theory, we’re gonna talk about product formulations, and we’re gonna have an all-around good time. Let’s dive in.

First, let’s visit the opposite of contouring–war paint. The objective of war paint is to flatten the dimensions of your face. At a quick glace, a war-painted human face will appear neither human nor face-like because the features have been distorted. Cheekbones, nose, chin, and forehead are all darkened with paint to make these bony protrusions recede. Contouring employs the same rationale, using light and dark paints to manipulate the eye into seeing depth and shadow where little or none exists. Light shades exaggerate the jawline, cheekbones, crest and apex of the nose, brow bone, and cupid’s bow. Dark shades create shadow in the hollows of the cheeks and under the jaw while slimming the sides of the nose.

Let’s take an exaggerated look at the shadows of the face:

Contour shade only. For demonstration purposes, I’ve used a dark concealer and a very heavy hand on the areas I would normally contour. Concealer, foundation, or powder at least 3 shades darker than your natural skin tone are all viable options for contouring.

First, a dark shade is used along the hairline from temple to temple to create dimension. I also applied my darker shade under my jawline, above and on either side of my chin, and down my neck. This visually slims the neck, refines the point of the chin, and draws focus to the jawbone.

The majority of the contouring shade, however, is not super-visible in this frontal shot. I swept my contouring product under my cheekbones, starting from the middle of my ear and continuing in a downward slope until the line reached the edge of my iris (about 1/3 of the way across the eye). Finally, I applied parallel lines of the contouring shade along either side of the crest of my nose, flaring outward towards the eyebrows at the bridge. I connected the lines at the tip of my nose and (this step is completely optional and may not work on all face and nose shapes) added a perpendicular line a little less than 1/2 inch above the tip. This helps to visually refine the tip and make the nose look “perkier.”

That pretty much covers the contouring side of things. Now that we’ve exaggerated shadows, we also want to add highlight to create a multi-dimensional face:

Highlight shade only. Sorry for the image quality. I’m not a fan of filters in makeup shots because I feel that they misrepresent the products, processes, and final results. However, I needed to increase contrast for didactic purposes.

Here, we want to center of the face and the bonier features to shine through. Cheekbones, jawbone, brow bone, chin, the center of the forehead and the crest of the nose are the major areas we want to illuminate. Additionally, the area under the lower lip and the cupid’s bow have been highlighted to draw focus to the mouth.

To highlight cheekbones, I began under the center of my nose and drew a line over my cheekbone, up to the top of my ear. The area between my eye, my nose, and that line was filled. I mirrored these lines just above my jawbone. I then added a stripe of highlighter above and below each brow, as well as down my nose. I then added highlighter in the shape of an inverted triangle to both my forehead and chin.

The products added in the above photos are not what I generally use for highlighting and contouring. They were dramatic enough for photographs, but I tend to go a bit subtler with my shade selection. For reference, here is an action shot:


In the above photo, I am using Benefit Eye Bright pencil as my highlighting shade. For contour, I applied a cool-toned drugstore powder foundation about 3 or 4 shades darker than my skin tone with a flat-top contour brush. I blended my highlight with a damp wedge sponge, then went over my whole face with a clean, dense powder brush to further blend. I then applied translucent powder to set.

Before and after! On the left, I am wearing tinted moisturizer and brow powder. On the left, in addition to contouring, I have applied mascara (CoverGirl Clump Crusher) and tinted lip balm (Revlon ColorBurst in Tutti Frutti).

All in all, this transformation took about 8 minutes. Like I said, this is a subtle take on contouring. My cheekbones appear higher and my chin and nose are slimmer in the “after” shot, but I’m not unrecognizable. I think I’m a pretty awesome person, so I still want to look like “me.”

What to look for in contouring products: 

For your contouring shade, you want to avoid two things: shimmer and warmth. Shadows, by their very nature, are neutral-to-cool in tone and definitively un-sparkly (this is why Edward Cullen doesn’t glimmer on cloudy days). For this reason, bronzers rarely make good contouring products (with the exception of matte bronzers like Benefit’s Hoola or The Balm’s Bahama Mama, though these shades aren’t well-suited for contouring on pale skin). Cool, matte tones mimic the shade and texture of shadows on the skin, thus making the contour more believable. Warm, shimmery tones are obvious and kind of just make skin look dirty and dingy.

Aside from these two restrictions, you can go nuts in terms of product formulation. Powder, liquid foundation, or concealer can all be used for contouring, though my favorites tend to be cream foundation or powders. Depending on the product you use, you may choose a different method for blending. Sponges tend to work best on cream and liquid formulations, while brushes are better suited to powder contours. A personal favorite of mine is  NYX Blush in Taupe applied with the Sonia Kashuk Angled Contour Brush (the blush was previously discussed on this blog as a dupe for MAC sculpting powder).

A NOTE ON BLENDING: Always use a clean brush to blend, so as to avoid adding more product and looking like a clown.

For highlighting, a cream or powder with a pearly finish (not too glittery, this isn’t a middle school dance circa 2000) will do the trick. Matte pencils such as Benefit Eye Bright or NYX Jumbo Pencil in Milk will also work on very pale skin. I prefer cream highlighters for their dewy finish and ease of blending. If using a powder, apply carefully and be aware that there may be some fall-off from your brush. The L’Oreal Magic Lumi Highlighting Pen is sheer, shimmery, and available in four shades that will work for all but ultra-pale and ultra-dark skin tones.

If using a creamy formula for contour or highlight, be sure to finish by locking it down with a transluscent powder and big, fluffy brush.

Appropriate tools by product type:

Face contour application and blending:

  • Cream: contour brush, damp wedge sponge or beauty blender
  • Powder: contour brush or angled blush brush.

Face highlight application and blending:

  • Cream or pencil: fingertips, damp wedge sponge or beauty blender
  • Powder: fan brush or small, domed face brush with loosely packed bristles.

Application and blending on the nose:

  • Cream contour or highlight: fingertips or cream eye shadow brush
  • Powder contour or highlight:  fluffy, domed eye shadow brush

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