Getting Pointy: A Practical Guide to Contouring

When I was asking friends for suggestions about blog topics, one of the first things to come up was contouring: how to do it, when to do it, with what to do it, the works. I was reluctant, uncertain of what to say about a process that’s so straightforward. Turns out, however, that I underestimated contouring completely. A quick search online reveals contouring as a multi-step process that can add about 20 minutes to someone’s make-up routine. No wonder make-up artists are rolling their eyes and composing lengthy treatises about how unnecessary it is for anyone not appearing under bright lights and on-camera.

I would argue that depending on your foundation, contouring can be necessary. I mentioned in last week’s post that when I was rocking sheer or light coverage foundations, I didn’t feel the need to define the features of my face. A little blush, maybe a highlighter, and I was good to go. However, with a heavier coverage foundation, particularly matte foundation, my face loses a lot of its definition. I need to contour a little to bring out my features again.

At it’s most basic level, contouring relies on having a product that is slightly darker than the natural skin tone and a product that is lighter. Darker products hide or retract features; lighter, shimmering products draw features forward. The trick is finding what features to push back and which ones to pull forward, and I have seen face charts that look more like topographical maps from the sheer number of features being pushed, pulled, carved, accentuated…

But honestly, natural-looking contouring relies on one major piece of wisdom, a philosophy that could feasibly be applied to any product but is especially true for contour: when it’s done right, when it’s done well, you won’t notice it’s there. Natural-looking contour blends seamlessly with the skin, works with your features rather than against them, and is a supporting detail in a look overall.

Finding the Right Products

I prefer powders; I find they blend better and are easier and more user-friendly. They have been, for me, far more forgiving than creams. For many faces, a bronzing powder and shimmering blush will be all the face needs, and many of them come paired in palettes, ready to use. Highlighters seem to be in their heyday right now and are easy to find in both cool and warm tones. Best of all, if you’re really having trouble, a frosty eyeshadow doubles as a solid highlighter.

Unfortunately, my fair skin doesn’t take kindly to just any brown tones. Bronzers are typically too ruddy to look natural on me, even when they’re sheer. Cool-toned browns work best for pale skin. One of the most helpful videos for me was from a couple years ago by Glam and Gore, which goes through a number of products for highlighting and contouring fair skin (that’s actually where I first saw the NYX Contour palette). I am also a huge fan of Taylaa, who has her own reccs for contouring fair skin. My own fav (in addition to the NYX palette) is MAC’s Harmony, a cool-toned brown powder. It’s just enough shading to make my cheekbones pop without giving me a sallow, skeletal appearance, and while buildable, is very forgiving to a contouring newb like myself.

For a natural-looking contour on my cheeks and temples, I use a fluffy powder brush and a light hand when applying. Granted, I say this as a person with high cheekbones. If you are having trouble finding a blending brush that fits your cheek, I have it on good authority that pinching your powder brush will blend but allow for a narrower band of application. For the bridge of my nose, I opt again for a fluffy shadow brush to prevent the appearance of harsh lines. Neither of my brushes are professional quality. For my cheeks and temples, I use a Real Techniques Powder Brush, and for my nose, I use an inexpensive eyeshadow blending brush so well-loved the label’s worn off!

Truly, though, the brushes are just there for transfer. Let the make-up do most of the work.

Application

Once again, natural-looking contouring works with your facial features, not against them. The first couple of times I contoured, I did the old suck-in-the-cheeks method to identify where the hollows of my face were, then starting from the furthest point, I circle and then gradually blend the powder down towards my mouth for my cheeks. I use the same method on my temples. Again, have a light hand with the powder and blend to keep it subtle. The heaviest or darkest point is going to be the deepest, and the contouring should diffuse gradually across the skin similar to how shadows would form on your face.

I’ve seen conflicting opinions about whether to contour the nose. Near as I can tell, the cautionary tale revolves around trying to thin out the nose using powder. I find once my cheeks and temples are done, my nose looks strange without a little bit of shading along the sides, blending slightly into the cheeks and always, always up into the brows. Applying contour simply to the sides of the nose and then stopping before the eye breaks the illusion you’re creating and calls attention to the artifice of the make-up.

From there, I pop on a light blush on my cheeks (my current favourite being Nars’s Bumpy Ride) followed by one of the highlighters from Anastacia’s brilliant Glow palettes on the very top of my cheekbones and the inner corners of my eyes.

And that’s it. The whole process takes three minutes tops, wears very naturally, and is completely open to play and interpretation depending on the day.

More than perhaps any other process, contouring is not a necessary step in applying make-up, and certainly not to the degree of celebrities, models, or other entertainers. Fans of light foundations or nude skin will likely find it excessive, weighty, or severe. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to overdo contouring. However, with the right make-up, a light hand, and a practical approach, contouring can help to bring a whole look together.

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