Saturday, December 3rd, 2011

By Victoria, Theatre Makeup Artist

Victoria is a 19-year old college sophomore who attends school in Massachusetts for Engineering, but she’s an avid Theater Makeup Artist and has worked on a variety of shows, from dance shows (think intense, flamboyant glitter) to periodic musicals. She aims to combine her “nerdy” passions with her artistic ones: to overanalyze the mathematics of reshaping the face, learn the science of why a product works better or worse. She’s a romantic dreamer who enjoys re-imagining herself in a soap opera, pretending one day a prince is going to come riding in on a dragon and take her away. Until then, she’s planning to use her makeup brushes and colors to force her friends to be the stars of her imaginary fairy tale.

How-to: Contouring

I remember the first time I looked at my pictures from a dance performance:  my face was completely bleached out, and I was so embarrassed I didn’t want to show them to anyone! At the next show, an older girl with beautiful orange stripes down the sides of her face came over and lovingly gave me some help. After a friend asked me if that performance was “Lion King” themed, I knew I needed a change. Since then, I’ve joined the battle against the monster we theatre makeup artists have to fight: giving life and dimension to a face that is flattened by unforgiving lights.

My weapon of choice is contouring. Highlighting and contouring is the art of changing the face. For theatre, we may contour for two reasons: one, because theatre lights bleach out all the shadows and dimension of the face, or two, to make the face look like a different ethnicity entirely. Today, I’m going to concentrate on the former: on giving yourself beautiful cheekbones.

One thing that I really want to highlight (ha!) in this post is that having beautiful cheekbones is not just about the cheekbones! It’s about how things look in relation to each other; how far the cheekbones are positioned from the eyes or the shape of your jawline. A relatively wider set jaw can mask any high cheekbones. Just shade along the jawline to soften and recess it a bit, and your cheekbones will pop out naturally.

Cheekbones generally start a finger or two widths away from the edge of the eye; if yours don’t, you might want to consider shading under the outside corner of the eye to push the cheekbone down further. Some cheekbones are naturally quite prominent and maybe your goal is to diminish them a bit! Avoid highlighter and place your blush further down. Before you start, analyze your own facial structure and compare it to the look you’re trying to achieve.

Find out what you’ll need and how to contour!

Tools Needed

A good blending, directional brush with a smaller head. My favourite brushes for contouring include the MAC 165 (discontinued), MAC 109 ($34.00), ELF Blush Brush ($3.00), Real Techniques Pointed Foundation Brush ($7.99), and Sonia Kashuk Pointed Foundation Brush ($12.39). All of these have two important features: the head is small, so I can really place colour where I want it; the bristles are soft and pliable while still being dense, which makes blending out colour a dream. Important note! If you’re using the MAC 109, use only the edge to place colour, and then the whole brush head to blend.

A matte, contour shade (definitely avoid shimmer!). It’s really important to mimic the face in shadow. For daytime and under softer lighting, matte bronzers can be a viable option – a couple of my favourites include the Hourglass Sunset Illume Crème-to-Powder Bronzer Duo ($40.00) and the ELF Contouring Blush and Bronzing Palette ($3.00).  Use these with caution; bronzers tend to contain redness and shimmer in them which give a beautiful tan but don’t look like natural shadows. For heavier duty contouring, look for a taupe shade, a grey-casted brown, or use a foundation three shades darker than your natural skin tone. These will mimic natural darkness by creating shadows on the face. My favourite contouring shades are the MAC Sculpting powders ($16.00 each).  There’s a wide variety of excellent quality powders for different skin tones. Unfortunately, they are PRO-only, but everyone can shop at a PRO store or place a phone order at any PRO store.


I personally never use the fishy face to contour under the cheekbone – every time I do that, my contour ends up too low! Instead, measure a straight line from the top of your ear to the outside corner of your lip. That’s the general path your contour should follow. Use your fingers to feel the bottom edge of your cheekbone and find the lowest point of the cheekbone. The contour should generally fade into nothingness by here. Imagine drawing a long triangle, with the hypotenuse being that contour line and the short edge being very thin, not more than a centimeter and along the side of your face. You can move this imaginary triangle up and down on the face to adjust whatever features you’d like to adjust. That’s where the majority of colour should be concentrated and not err too far from.

  • A simple variation to make the cheeks appear rounder and younger is to take the contour and curl it around the bottom edge in a u.
  • For a chiseled, defined look, take the contour and run it vertically downwards to the chin. This works great on men, or for gaunter looks!

To finish off this cheekbone contour, work on the temple as well. You can usually feel where the temple is; that’s usually where most of my headaches seem to be concentrated at! Draw another pair of imaginary lines from the corners of the eyes to the corners of the nose (outer to outer, inner to inner). The temple contour colour stays within these lines.

  • For extra definition and to really enhance and deepen your eyes, follow the bottom line with a small brush to place some of that colour underneath the outside edge of the eye. This will even help minimize puffy under eye circles. This outer line is also a great guideline to follow to make a cat eyed shape liner or outer-v colour.

PS: A fun fact – did you know a 2009 Princeton study said that high cheekbones look more trustworthy?

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88 thoughts on “How-to: Contouring

  1. Cozy

    Very useful info! Thanks for the tips!! :)

  2. Amy Em

    Great information! Thank you :)

  3. Erica

    Great post! Contouring changed my life! I have never had “good” cheekbones, and putting on weight only made my face look rounder than before. Contouring helped me define my cheekbones and create shape and definition that normally doesn’t exist. I think this is part of why sites like this and YouTube are so great. Nothing like this existed when I first started applying makeup, so I am late to the table in terms of learning about contouring and highlighting and how much it can help your finished look!

  4. Great post!!! I also use hourglass duo for contouring. One product I totally recommend for this, especially for people who perform on theaters is kryolan ultrafoundation wheel, it has foundation, a really dark matte shade to contour and an ivory shade to highlight.

  5. Kelly Marie

    What a great post! This is the first time I’ve ever seen an intelligent, comprehensive post about contouring that isn’t written like a 4th grader will be reading it. I love when beauty is smart :) Keep these posts coming, Victoria and Christine!

  6. SA

    I don’t understand where the makeup goes… in the triangle?

  7. Great article from a great standpoint! Very nice tips in an understandable writing style.
    What is the shade of the MAC eyeshadow in the picture?

  8. Kim

    Great article! Though to clarify (i’m utterly clueless in this area!!) – are you supposed to be using a blush to contour on the cheekbone or do you use the contouring shade and then the blush just below? Where do highlighters come into all of this?! (haha, told you I was clueless). Thank you! x

    • Carie

      Contour shade below the cheekbone, blush on the cheekbone, highlight above the cheekbone.

    • I didn’t go into highlighting in this post because it was long enough already, but maybe I should have! 😛 So depending on the look, the blusher placement can change, but generally for a natural look it goes inbetween the highlighting area and the contouring area. Highlighting goes along the tops of the cheekbones — above the line we drew from the ear to the lip. I like to apply contouring and highlighting first, then use the blusher to gently blend the two together.

    • shortie

      u use a bronzer or a contour powder to contour. the blush should be on the apples or slighly above the contour and the highlighter should be in a “c” shape around the eyes from the top of the cheekbones to the temple. look on youtube for “how to contour, blush and highlight”. theres tons of videos on it

      • Kim

        Thanks everyone! Wow, its even more complicated than I thought haha 😛 Though I’m sure its not really – shall definitely check out some videos :)

  9. Katie

    That was perhaps the most helpful thing on contouring I’ve ever read. Thank you so much Victoria!! I look forward to reading more of your posts here in the future. :)

  10. Nikki

    This was very helpful and interesting! Thanks! :)

  11. Suzanne

    Great post. So helpful. Thanks!

  12. Great post! I have found the Smashbox fan brush to be useful for contouring.

  13. so so helpful! contouring has never been my strong point so this was amazing and very well explained, thanks!

  14. cristina

    Great post! I hadn’t really though of making the cheekbones higher or lower using contouring.

    One question: Isn’t the Real Techniques brush in the picture the Contouring brush? The Pointed Foundation Brush is kind of flattened. The correct link for either the countouring or the pointed foundation brush is:
    in the Core Collection; the link you included is for the angled foundation brush.

  15. emily

    This is an AWESOME post, thank you so much!

  16. emily

    Also – do you have a blog? I would definitely read it!

    • Ana

      agreed! the post was truly an enjoyment to read – and so helpful! i’d love to read more.

      also – i can’t justify any higher-end purchases at the moment so i loved the fact that you recommended for all budgets. (:

    • Thank you so much — I’m currently setting up my blog with my best friend (if you’re interested, you can watch the empty space at but I’m really excited just to be here.

  17. Kelly

    I love this post thank you! I’ve been wanting to try my hand at contouring but could not find a good how-to, Temptalia delivers again!

  18. BiancaCA

    This was great! It would be so awesome to see a before & after picture of u! I think it would help us to see the process in action visually!

  19. angela sutherland

    ‘A simple variation to make the cheeks appear rounder and younger is to take the contour and curl it around the bottom edge in a u.”

    so where I’m i doing this?

    • At the bottom of the triangle, the part closest to the nose, instead of stopping there, curve the colour upwards. Make sure you don’t join that colour with your nose though, or else it will be very obvious.

  20. summerblue

    Excellent article! Thank you.

    BTW, the fishie face works perfectly for me. I have a full, round face so placing the counter line too high makes my face look unbalanced.

  21. kaydi

    This has easily been the most helpful post I’ve read on contouring. Well written and with pictures, too? Yes, please! I would love to see a follow-up post showing how to highlight and blush with before and after pics. Thanks Victoria!

  22. elizabeth


  23. Nicole

    What a nice and informal post. I would love to see a contour tutorial, perhaps with diferent bone structures.

  24. nancy y.

    i LOVED that you mentioned ELF’s contorting blush and bronzing palette! Its amazing, I use it everyday! Def my fav to contour. and for 3 bucks! its such a steal! :)

    • I definitely wanted to add in some budget options! Do you have any other budget suggestions?

      • emily

        I do, I suggest the NYX blush in taupe to contour. It’s not my favorite, but it’s pretty good for the price.

        Also, if you have inglot available, some of their matte eyeshadows work as contour shades. I think I use 349 – just in the deepest part of the hollow. along with another shade for most of the contouring (I use a MAC face powder in a shade 2 shades too dark for me)

  25. Summer

    What an amazing post! It’s so well-written and helpful. Please keep contributing!

  26. Daphne

    VICTORIAAAA 😀 It is I, Daphne! :) I liketh your post ! Nice insight on contouring!

  27. Dana

    This is a great post, thank you so much. I have always wanted to try contouring but have been hesitant because I was unsure where to shade, etc.

  28. ty for this info. it is well written tho would it be possible to do a utube vid on this? i think if i saw this in progress i could grasp it better. again ty for the info, best written countor ive ever read!!

  29. Excellent article. Your tips are terrific.

  30. This was soo help, that photo is extremely helpful as well! Looks like I’ve been contouring a little too low :X Now I will always remember “Triangle of Contour” Thanks so much!

  31. Heather

    Great post. I’d love to see a video demonstrating your information!

  32. katherine

    This has to be one of the best tutorials on contouring that I’ve ever seen. Thanks so much!

  33. This is a great post Victoria well doe!! Xx

  34. this step by step diagram is super useful. i have a very “flat” profile… i’ve always wanted to master the art of contouring to help my features POP. now i feel a little bit more confident =)

  35. Marie

    I didn’t understand the contouring temple part at all…

    • I’m so sorry! Here, let’s try again. Do you see in the first diagram of my face the two parallel lines drawn from my lips to my nose? The contour colour should be placed above the brow, inbetween those two lines. Shade it downward, the most concentrated amount of colour by the hairline, diffusing it into nothingness before you hit the brow.

      • Haha, this part confused me, too! So we are applying a contouring shadow to the edge part of the bone above the eyebrow, kind of above the squishy temple part? Sorry for the weird lack of anatomical precision… But on my face, there’s a squishy part between my cheekbone and my forehead, and this set of lines encompasses the rounded edge of the forehead bone. Is this correct?

  36. kate

    Great post!! weird question, do you shop at the MAC on newbury street bc i’m pretty sure i helped you last time you stopped by…

  37. Iris

    Can you show us photos of you before and after contouring correctly ? This was all very helpful. Also, can you show how to contour the nose and under the chin correctly too ? Thanks !

  38. Heavenly Herrera

    This is a great article Christine!! Does Victoria have a link for facebook or any of the like??

  39. BooBooNinja

    Without a doubt, this is the most informative post on contouring I have ever come across.
    Well done!

    It sounds like you’re going to do a follow-up with highlight-placement.
    Could you make it a three-part series, as in: 1) contouring, 2) highlight, and 3) blush placement?
    The highlight how-to might be quite short, so you could combine 2 & 3.

    Regardless, it would be extremely helpful if your last post in this “series” showed lines indicating the placement of contour, highlight, and blush.
    I get confused when I have to do all three. I think that’s why I’ve shied away from using all three.

    Thank you again for a great post. :)

    • BooBooNinja

      ps Thanks for sharing the article. How very evidence-based!
      (I’m doing my Masters, so I think your use of evidence-base practice as both funny and informative.)

      Attention: BooBooNinja Nerd Alert!

  40. Minna

    Nyx Taupe blush is cheap and great contour colour; not too brown or muddy; greybrown. Also imo best for fair-light skintones. I never used bronzer since:)

  41. Ginnia

    What if you want to contour a jaw to make it less square? What’s the technique there? Nice job on this article. Much appreciated.

    • I have a pretty square jaw myself, so I do this on myself pretty often — find the squarest point of the jaw (usually the wide angle that’s jutting out below the ear) and shade directly on it, angling the line of colour in the shape you want your face to look. Brush the colour downwards down the neck, and try to avoid doing more on the jaw then just those two outer points. This is pretty tricky, so use a very very light hand and a lighter contour powder — you don’t want to give yourself a mustache!

  42. Mimi

    Another helpful instruction would be for us older ladies on how to contour to lift the face and make it appear younger. I learned from your post here that I have been placing my blush (and occasional contour) too low and this drags down the face and makes it appear saggy. Would placing everything higher work or should we do different angles? Thanks for any help you can offer.

    • I find that using the line gives the most natural looking angle. Especially for mature skin, you want to lift everything upwards, so avoid blush placement on the apple of the cheek but rather right along the cheekbones!

  43. Great post. Well thought out and very informative. I also really appreciate that you mentioned both high end and low end products.

    I’m really loving these contributors on Temptalia! It really sets this site apart from other makeup and beauty bloggers.

  44. Thanks for the pictures and diagrams!


  45. This post is amazing! It makes a lot of sense how the “fishy face” trick doesn’t work for everybody. Now I have to take out my MAC 168 and Harmony to sit in front of a mirror to figure this all out now! Thanks Victoria!

  46. Natalie

    I love to contour! I have to echo previous comments – this post was so wonderfully written and informative! I look forward to your next posts!

  47. Alexandra

    This is one of the most well written and helpful posts on contouring I’ve ever read! It’s so great that you also emphasized that you should work with your own features and figure out where to go from there. Thanks for sharing!!

  48. Courtney

    Thank you! I have rather weak bone structure, so I really have to play up my cheeks when I do theater. I’m going to give your technique a try next time!

  49. Lilastar

    Very useful. Loved your graphs showing exactly were to place the product!

  50. Carolina

    What an amazing post. And I don’t even do contouring! :) I loved reading your post and found the images with the lines very enlightening. I think a must for your next post, should be blush and highlighting (probably a post each), to really complement what you explained here. I’m specially interested in the highlighting, since I do that.
    Can’t wait to read your next post! :)

  51. Noora

    That was incredibly helpful! Is there any site where I can find more of your tutorials? This really made contouring simpler for me :)

  52. Josefina

    I tried this yesterday, for Christmas Eve, and found that my cheekbones look SO much better than when I do the fishy face! Thanks! great tips!

  53. Zulaikha

    great post! the best that i have come across about contouring!

  54. michaela

    I’m confused because one of your tutorials on contouring says use the fishy face, so which is best? I’m rubbish at Both ways lol