How-to: Contouring

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?