It’s hard to imagine that contouring wasn’t always part of every basic makeup look. Nowadays makeup just doesn’t look finished without a subtle cheek contour at the very least. People credit everyone from Kim Kardashian to Rupaul’s Drag Race for making contouring so gosh darn important.
That being said, I truly believe that contouring is more than just a trend, and not just because it has endured for so long. By learning to contour one also gains very important theoretical knowledge about how light and shadow impact the face.
Once you understand the principles of how contouring works you can choose to play around with it, and maybe get inspired by brilliant artists like Promise Tamang and Dain Yoon. So are you ready to get shady?
This article, however, will not teach you how to create optical illusions – I’ll give you the basics, so you can get anything from a gorgeous soft contour to an extreme Instagram makeup look, and once you’ve had some practice you can see where you want to go from there. I’ll give tips for contouring makeup – how to contour different face shapes.
In this article:
- What Is Contouring and How Is It Different from Highlighting and Bronzing?
- How to Contour
- Contouring Based on Features and Face Shape
- Other Useful Contouring Makeup Tips
What Is Contouring and How Is It Different from Highlighting and Bronzing?
Contouring is all about playing with shadows to sculpt bone structure. The job of contouring makeup products is to darken the skin in a way that looks like a shadow, to create the illusion that various parts of the face are a little bit more distant from the eye than is actually true. This, in turn, makes the non-shaded parts stand out a little more.
The area of the face most frequently contoured is just below the cheekbones, although people also contour below the jawline, along the sides of the nose, and along the perimeter of the forehead. Eyeshadow technique, despite also including color, is actually also all about contouring and highlighting.
Speaking of, highlighting is the exact opposite of contouring – naturally, the two are indispensable in a completely makeup look. A highlight attracts light to the face, making the features seem closer to the person looking, as well as overall larger.
The top of the cheekbones is the part of the face most frequently highlighted, followed by the bridge of the nose, the center of the forehead, the inner corner of the eye, and the area just above the cupid’s bow. People have also taken to highlighting just below the contour to make it stand out more, as well as along the jawline to make it look sharper.
Lastly there’s bronzing, which has fallen out of style to a certain extent. The purpose of a bronzer is to make the skin appear sun-kissed and more tanned, so it is applied to the high points of the face where it is now more popular to highlight instead.
Whereas contour makeup products are usually matte with a neutral or cool undertone that passes for shadow, bronzers are usually a little warmer with a hint of orange or red, and they often have a bit of a shimmer.
How to Contour
In this guideline, I’ll outline the steps for a full contouring routine that involves both cream contour and powder contour. Feel free to only opt for one or the other, depending on the kind of makeup look you want. Contouring with both a cream and a powder can look super sculpted, but it’s certainly too heavy for some people.
- Prepare your skin for the perfect makeup look by cleansing, moisturizing, and if necessary, applying a primer.
- Next, apply a cream or liquid concealer to the areas where you will need extra coverage, like under the eyes and around the nostrils.
- If you are opting for a softer cream contour, apply your liquid or cream foundation next. If you’re going for a stronger contour, save foundation for later on in your routine.
- Apply any cream highlights you might want to use along the bridge of the nose, top of the cheekbone, center of the forehead, center of the chin, and above the lips.
- Now it’s time for the real deal: actually contouring with a cream contour product. Using either the pointy edge of a damp makeup blender, a small foundation or concealer brush, or if you’re using a contour stick then just the stick itself, apply the cream contour to your face.
- To define the cheeks, begin applying the contour on the outer part of the face, near the center of the ear, and pull the cream contour down in a rounded line, so it ends in a thinner point. You can play with different kinds of contour shapes and levels of roundedness to achieve different effects.
- To define the nose, apply a thin line of contour on each side of the bridge of the nose. The closer together the two lines of contour start, the more “snatched” your nose will seem.
- As a base for eyeshadow you can also contour your eye area. Apply your contour cream where you intend to put your darker eyeshadow. Traditionally this would be along the outer V of the eye and above the crease, but if you’re going for a smokey eye, apply it all over the lid.
- To shade the forehead, you can apply the contour more messily just along the sides of the forehead, or all the way along the hairline.
- Now it’s time to blend your contour! Blend sharper contours like the nose and cheekbones by gently tapping over them with a damp beauty blender. You will get a more natural look if your beauty blender has a bit of leftover foundation on it. You can be a bit more aggressive in blending the contour on the forehead, which should be looking more diffused.
- Now that your contour is flawless, double check your foundation and see if you need anymore coverage anywhere.
- With everything flawless you’re ready to set your makeup. For a more natural look, set everything with a translucent face powder and either finish the deal, or layer powder contour on top. For a more intense look, set your highlight with a powder highlighter, and set your contour with a contour powder.
- You can use all kinds of brushes to apply your contour powder – each person finds their favorites that work for them. Choose a smaller blush brush, fan brush, or angled contour brush for contouring larger areas of the face like the cheekbones, forehead, and below the jawline. As with a cream contour, begin by applying your powder contour closer to the outer part of the face, and pull the powder inwards.
- For small parts of the face like the nose and eye area, use a small blending brush (better for a more diffused look) or an eyeshadow brush (for a more defined look). Apply your nose contour slowly, by drawing two lines along bridge of your nose.
- For a more natural look, blend out your larger contour with a slightly larger blush brush or a translucent powder brush.
- For the smaller contours or for a generally stronger contour, use a smaller blending brush, and carefully blend out the edges of your contour.
- Once you’re happy with the results, finish off your makeup with blush, powder highlighter, mascara, eyeshadow, eyebrow filler, and some lipstick or gloss. Voila!
Contouring Based on Features and Face Shape
In this section, I’ll talk about how to achieve a particular look with each feature, rather than talking about the best contouring for each face shape. This is because I think what looks best on each person is totally subjective.
Not everyone who has a rounder face necessarily wants to contour it to look more oval – in fact, they might want to emphasize the roundness of their cheeks with their contouring technique! Go feature by feature and figure out how you would like to utilize contouring to change your face.
Contouring the Cheeks
I suspect 90% of people who contour only bother to do it to bring out their cheekbones. This contour technique instantly slims the face and adds a bit of sophistication to a look.
The best place to begin your contour is right by the center of the ear, where the tragus is. You can go a little bit higher if you think the lower part of your face is too short and you want to lengthen it, but I wouldn’t go any lower.
From that outer part of the face you can bring the contour out to below the apples of the cheek or a little bit before them.
To round out your cheekbones a little bit, you can actually bring the contour up a little at the end, so it’ll hug your cheek and emphasize its roundness – this is a great choice for those who feel like their cheekbones are not very prominent or who feel like they don’t really have an “apple” to their cheeks.
If you already have prominent cheekbones you can skip the contouring. If you’re opting for a more “masculine” look, instead of bringing that contour up at the end to round out the cheek bones, do the opposite – bring it down in a straight line. This will create the illusion of a very masculine face shape.
Contouring the Forehead
There are two main ways to contour the forehead. One way, which makes the forehead appear shorter, is by darkening its perimeter, particularly along the hairline.
The second way is by only contouring the sides of the forehead, and highlighting the center. This contouring technique is great if you want to elongate your face. If you already have a narrow forehead (very common for people with diamond shaped faces), you want to skip contouring your forehead altogether.
Contouring the Nose
The simplest way of contouring the nose is by darkening the edges of the bridge of the nose. The closer you draw the two lines together, the slimmer your nose will look.
This method alone is starting to become a little dated, so unless you’re going to use a very light contour shade and to blend it a lot, I recommend avoiding it.
What people are starting to do is either draw a small line of contour just above the upturned part of the nose (about parallel with where the curve of the nostrils starts), or even drawing a circle of contour around that part of the nose. This gives the illusion of a more upturned or button nose.
For a more pinched nose, have your nose contour end in a V at the upturned part, either with or without that extra line of contour above it.
Contouring the Jawline
I’m not a huge fan of the jawline contour in real life, but I gotta admit it is completely sickening in photos. You can really play around with carving out your jawline however you like.
If you want to make your jawline look slimmer and more rounded, apply the contour in a rounded shape from just behind the ear, a little up over the jawbone, and down again below the chin.
If you’re just going for a bit of definition and dimension, don’t go over the jawbone, instead keeping your contour right below it.
Contouring Below the Chin
This is an old contouring technique for anyone who wants to camouflage loose skin under the chin. While this technique works in photos, it rarely hits the mark in real life, so blend well. Simply apply the contour right below the chin to carve out that shape.
Contouring by Face Shape
- Diamond Face Shape: Start contouring below the cheekbones toward the chin, keeping the middle of the forehead, the center of the chin and the under-eye area for highlighting.
- Heart Face Shape: You want to contour the sides of your forehead near the hairline, the tip of your chin, below the cheekbones, while keeping highlighting for the middle of the forehead, the center of the chin and under the eyes.
- Oblong Face Shape: Contouring makeup should be applied to the area below the cheekbones, underneath the chin and the hairline. Brighten up your look by highlighting the under-eye area.
- Oval Face Shape: Those with oval faces should contour the sides of the forehead and below the cheekbones. Apply highlighter in the middle of the forehead and under the eyes.
- Round Face Shape: Use contouring makeup on the sides of the forehead, along the jawline and below the cheekbones, while highlighting the center of the chin, the middle of the forehead and the under-eye area.
- Square Face Shape: Contour the sides of your forehead, below the jawbone, and below the cheekbones. Highlighter should be applied to the middle of the forehead, the center of the chin and under the eyes.
Other Useful Contouring Makeup Tips
- Have fun with your contour! Experiment with different styles and shapes to see what kind of effects you can achieve with your face. You can watch different tutorials on Youtube from makeup artists and drag queens to get inspired.
- You don’t have to use a dedicated product to contour. You can try using a taupe blush or eyeshadow, or a face powder that is a few shades darker than your skin tone for powder contouring. Concealers and foundations a few shades darker than your skin will work beautifully for cream contouring.
- For ultra-sharp contour, especially along the cheekbone, use a business card as a guide from below.
- For creative and fantasy makeup looks, try contouring with unusual darker shades like blue, purple, green, or grey. This will be perfect for any kind of sci-fi or fantasy Halloween costume!
- If your skin is already quite dark, you might find that highlighting your skin will have a higher impact than contouring. Experiment with both techniques for the best look!
- Learn to recognize the obvious gimmicks. Things like the clown contour or covering the face with dots and then blending them out are not actually great techniques – they just look cool on Youtube or Instagram, and they get blended away into nothing. Feel free to enjoy the videos, but you can get away with speedy swiping at home.
Photos via Instagram