Back to the basics: learn how to apply eyeshadow from someone who’s obsessed with it! Whether you’re an eye makeup beginner or a makeup pro, we’ll help you further your eyeshadow exploration–at least a little bit!
This is an expansion of our step-by-step smokey eye tutorial, which is more focused on where to apply eyeshadow and how to effectively create a look with it, while this post is more focused on how to get the most out of your eyeshadow based on formula as well as finish. You can view my favorite eyeshadow formulas here (along with all of my must-haves, in general).
In this Post
Eyeshadow Application Prep
Experiment with bases, primers, and tools. Some formulas work better with certain products but not others. This doesn’t mean one should go out and buy additional product to make something work that isn’t working, but if you have a creamy primer and a drier primer, you might consider experimenting with what you have in your stash and seeing what performs better and when. Similarly, a fluffy brush might work great with this shade but a denser brush might do better with another. Sometimes fingertips really are the tool to use.
Eyeshadow primer usually works for intensifying pigmentation and improving longevity. I might make the effort to test without, but in a normal existence, I’d always use primer because… all it does is take everything to the next level and give me the 110% confidence that everything will look good 12+ hours later.
In my experience, it’s not a gimmick at all. A good eyeshadow, however, will still be quite pigmented and blendable without a primer–it will be the longevity that the primer will do the most lifting for. My favorite primers are MAC’s Prep + Prime 24HR Eye, Smashbox’s 24HR, NARS Smudge Proof, and Urban Decay Anti-Aging Primer Potion.
Consider layering primers if you’re having difficulty with longevity or setting lids with powder. Over the years, I have heard from many readers that laying down two primers is often the miracle solution for better wear, particularly on oily or more hooded lids. The most common combination I’ve seen is using a creamier base, like a MAC Paint Pot, and a thinner, more silicone-based primer like Urban Decay Primer Potion. You can also dust translucent powder all over the lid and let that work its magic for a few minutes, or you can pat on translucent powder to set the primer/base prior to eyeshadow application.
Tools of the Trade
Sponge-tip applicators work well for packing product on, and a clean one can be quite effective at softening crease shades, though brushes are often the “standard” you’ll see used in a slew of tutorials.
If you’re new to brushes, I recommend picking up a basic eyeshadow set and keep the price point under $30 and learning the shapes you like (and you may like what you already bought and not feel the need to upgrade or add to it!). Brands like Real Techniques, Wet ‘n’ Wild, EcoTools, elf, and Sonia Kashuk all offer basic sets and are, generally, well-received by the community.
Here are the basic shapes that I find useful for eyeshadow application:
- shader brush (small-to-medium in size, flatter with a dome-shaped edge that’s slightly fluffy overall) for packing eyeshadow onto the lid and intensify pigmentation;
- a tapered, crease brush (I like having a smaller, more precise option and a medium-sized one for depositing and diffusing color into the crease and above the crease);
- a fluffy, blending brush (medium in size, less dense, fluffy for applying color to the brow bone and softening corners and edges);
- and a pencil brush (tapered or pointed, small, good for detail and precision work).
Please refer to my must-have makeup brushes for powder eyeshadows for some idea of shapes and styles.
Applying Your Eyeshadow
Decide what order you want to apply your eyeshadow beforehand, as this will help you select tools, determine placement, and help facilitate with blending. Here are some common methods I like to use:
- mattes before shimmers — this ensures that mattes stay closer to matte
- lightest to darkest — this often ensures that lighter and mid-depth shades are more visible (and don’t get overwhelmed by darker shades)
- darkest to lightest — if I want a deeper area to be larger or more intense, this can be the way to go
- crease, then lid, then brow bone — I tend to work in the crease (often mattes), then diffuse upward and outward, and finally apply lid shades (typically shimmers)
Working with Powdery Eyeshadow – Step by Step
Pay attention to the type of formula you’re working with. For powder eyeshadows, some formulas are so soft and silky but they can be very powdery, others are harder and stiffer but are more buildable. You’ll want to adjust your technique and the order of your application (to some degree).
Here are some examples of more soft, more powdery formulations that I’ve tried: Anastasia Eyeshadows (particularly mattes, less so with shimmers), LORAC Eyeshadows (particularly the Pro palettes), Tarte Amazonian Clay Eyeshadows, and Too Faced Eyeshadows.
- Apply your eye makeup first, because it’s going to be difficult to completely escape some fallout, especially if you’re working with shades that contrast against your skin tone. Why waste a bunch of time applying your base just to have to touch-up and redo it later? You might consider priming or prepping the skin but leaving complexion products for post-eye makeup if you need some prepping products to absorb and sink in!
- Use a softer touch as the powder is more yielding and plenty of product will get on your applicator (brush, sponge-tip applicator, fingertip, whatever) and a firmer touch will just kick up more excess product, which is messy and will waste the product.
- Use softer brushes, be careful with fluffy brushes as scratchier brushes can disturb the powder’s surface even more, which will dislodge more product than you’ll need for application; similarly, fluffy brushes tend to flare out more at the tip, which can pick up an excess amount of product and then apply too much with little precision.
- Tap off excess prior to applying to the eye area by lighting tapping the ferrule of the brush against your wrist or forearm; there’s no need to whack it against your wrist or the edge of the table, just a light tap is all you need. If you’re using sponge-tipped applicators, this can be useful but the sponge tends to hold the excess powder better.
- Be careful using dampened tools or fingertips because more powdery eyeshadows often absorb natural oils and moisture and leave behind hardened surfaces, which will turn your ultra-soft eyeshadow into an eyeshadow brick.
- Pat and press the eyeshadow on for better color intensity, which will minimize how much product can get swept or diffused before you’re ready to blend. This will also ensure that there’s a precise lay down of color as more powdery formulas can be harder to control.
- Blend with a clean brush or after you’ve already used your brush to apply most of the color, then use the mostly-clean brush to diffuse and blend out edges to minimize fallout, over-blending, and muddying. It also ensures that you don’t over-intensify any particular area, too!
- Use a smaller, more precise brush to intensify after blending. If you’re fairly happy with the result you’re getting but want a lid color richer or the crease to be more defined, use a smaller brush to darken just the area you want to minimize having to go back and do additional blending.
Working with Firmer Eyeshadow – Step by Step
Firmer eyeshadow formulas are pressed more firmly into the pan, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, but firmer eyeshadows require some modification of techniques and tools in order to get the most pigmentation and blendability out of them. One upside is that firmer formulas tend to work best for building u p coverage and often don’t suffer from fallout.
Here are some examples of firmer, denser, and/or stiffer formulations that I’ve tried: Make Up For Ever Artist Color Shadows, MAC Eyeshadows, and NARS Eyeshadows. Most metallic shades these days tend to be denser/creamier and/or thicker, so some of this section would apply to shimmery shades from these formulas as well: MAC Extra Dimension Eyeshadows, NARS Dual-Intensity Eyeshadow, and Tarte Tarteist Metallic Shadow.
- Use a heavier hand because the surface of the pan is stiffer and firmer, so there’s little fear of picking up too much product on a brush, and depending on just how firm or stiff the formula is, it may range from moderate pressure to heavy pressure.
- Push and lightly jab at the pan with the edge of a brush when you want to get more pigment. I prefer a pushing technique over a swirling or sweeping technique when picking up my powder eyeshadows in general (but I’m all about that ~pigment~), where I a flat, shader brush (like a MAC 239) and use the tip of the brush and gently push the pan a few times to dislodge product, and then I pick it up with more of the brush’s surface area so that I can pat it onto the lid.
- Use flatter, denser brushes with creamier and more silicone-based powder eyeshadow formulas. These types of brushes are often synthetic eye brushes that are marketed for cream and liquid usage, but they tend to do well with these denser (but creamier, not too stiff) formulas–like heavily shimmered, more metallic eyeshadows. I find brushes like MAC’s 242 work well, but I’m also a huge fan of Smith’s 253, which is a natural option.
- Build up intensity to avoid having a nightmare of a time blending out a stiffer eyeshadow, because often, the firmer and stiffer the eyeshadow, the more strongly it adheres to the lid and less blendable it is. What I like to do, particularly with richer or darker hues, is to apply in layers, gradually building color intensity so that it is strongest exactly where I want it and I simply don’t layer on as much on areas that I want it to be more diffused or blended. It ends up looking more blended without actually blending it out as a result.
- Use a scratchier brush for blending out edges. This is why the softness of a brush isn’t always the most important feature! Sometimes, you’ll want a slightly scratchier, rougher brush (this is not to say it should be painful or irritating; e.g. squirrel hair is far softer than goat but goat is still soft yet blends more efficiently), which will move the eyeshadow more efficiently. The longer spent blending, the higher risk one has of muddying everything in the end.
- Use similarly-hued, lighter shade to help blend and diffuse edges. If all else fails, I’ll take another eyeshadow (hopefully one that’s a bit less stiff!) and layering it just above the harsher edge I want to blend and then pull that lighter shade down and use it to diffuse and soften the edge without lightening the original shade too much. Be careful using more white-based shades as it can cause some deeper shades (especially when working with matte eyeshadows) to turn gray.
- Use a firmer touch when blending out the eyeshadow. You’ll likely want to use more circular motions or more pulling along the edge, which will move the pigment a little more than more gentle, sweeping motions. Sometimes I find that using my shader brush (like the MAC 239) and that edge is more effective than a softer, tapered crease brush (like Hakuhodo J142) because it does a better job of pulling the pigment up and out.
- Apply matte eyeshadows prior to creamier, denser metallic eyeshadows. I find that some creamier, denser metallic eyeshadows do not blend that well with matte eyeshadows, which are often a little thinner and more powdery, so I will apply the matte eyeshadow first and then gently pull the metallic shade over the edge of the matte. This seems to help minimize the need to try and make the two textures (which are different in thickness) meet and blend.
More Eyeshadow Application Tips
Start with less pressure and gradually increase pressure as needed to blend out the eyeshadow. Something that I see (and personally did) when starting out was that I was a lot more vigorous with applying product to my eyes (and face, actually), when I really didn’t need to be tugging or pulling on my lid space as much. In fact, learning to use less pressure is a skill. Try holding your applicator further away (hold a brush handle toward the end rather than near the ferrule or brush head) as this will naturally yield a softer pressure on the skin.
Blend less than you think you’ll need. You can always blend more, but once you’ve over-blended, it can be difficult to get the intensity and contrast back. This is particularly true if you use a magnifying mirror to apply your eye makeup, because you’re already looking at your eye so close-up and magnified that it’ll often look more and more blended from a “normal viewing distance” (e.g. looking in a normal mirror or when someone stands in front of you).
Also, keep in mind the look and effect your going for — did you want a seamless blend of neutrals where it’s such a subtle gradient that “muddy” is almost a good thing or are you trying to showcase multiple, more contrasting shades?
Always step back and admire your work by looking at your eye makeup in a regular mirror (not a magnifying one) and also from a step back, which is how most people will be seeing your makeup! This helps to ensure evenness, intensity, shape, and blending.
Experiment with shapes and placement. Just because such and such style works for one person doesn’t mean you’ll find it works or looks “right” to your eye — sometimes that can be that you’re not used to seeing yourself in that style of makeup and other times it’s that another placement or modified placement will be more “flattering” to your eye.
I recommend taking some time to play around and trying a few typical eyeshadow placements to see what you like best. Don’t be afraid to do less or more steps. There’s nothing wrong with using one or two or 20 eyeshadows; it’s makeup, it’s your face, and it should be fun.
Practice blending colors together with shades from related families first. If you’re struggling with blending colors together, try blending like with like; this doesn’t mean a light beige and dark beige but more like a gold and a copper or a soft brown and a deep brown or pink and plum.
You want enough contrast between the two shades that as you blend the two together, you create a third, more mid-tone shade between the two of them; this will help you gauge if you’re blending efficiently. If the two shades are too close together, they can get lost easily if you’re just learning.