How to Apply Eyeshadow - The Ultimate Guide!

I’ve been a fiend for all things eyeshadow for over a decade, so you might say I’ve picked up the basics and have fine-tuned my techniques over the years. I’ve taken all of that knowledge and expertise from the years and tried to shake it all out of my brain and into this post so that readers who have asked how I achieve certain looks might get the tips they need to recreate my looks at home!

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 my 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).

1. Prep your eyes with primer.

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.

2. Pick the Right Tool to Apply Eyeshadow

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.

How to Apply Eyeshadow
Sonia G Pro Eye Brush Set

Here are the basic shapes that I find useful for eyeshadow application:

  1. 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;
  2. 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);
  3. a fluffy, blending brush (medium in size, less dense, fluffy for applying color to the brow bone and softening corners and edges);
  4. 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.

3. Figure Out Order and Placement

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)

4. 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.  For more blending tips, check out this post.

How to Apply Eyeshadow
simplehuman Sensor Pro Mirror

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.

Looking for the perfect formula? Check out our favorite eyeshadows and must-have eyeshadow palettes.

Eyeshadows We Recommend


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Comments on this post are closed.
Ana Maria Avatar

Tools make indeed a big difference with eye shadow applications. I find it amazing how some eye shadows look muddy or patchy when applied with some brushes, but blend beautifully with others. Some MAC Mattes eye shadow apply and blend so nice with a MAC 217 brush, but slightly stiffer crease brushes pick up product hard and apply patchy. Some shimmery eyeshadows apply well (both in terms of pigmentation and fall-out) with flat synthetic brushes, others apply well with natural hair brushes… and sometimes only fingers work.
With the right brush, primer and technique… I think any eyeshadow can be worked with. My tip for eyeshadow is to experiment and play with make-up until you find that `sweet-spot`.

Christina Avatar

Excellent tips, Christine! I’m not a novice to applying shadows, but it’s always great to have tips from others and reminders of the different application techniques. I enjoyed reading this post very much and appreciate all the effort you put into it.

Seraphine Avatar

There are so many good tips here that I’m printing this out for easy reference at home. I learned something new as soon as I started reading it. I use a 10x magnifying mirror to do my eyes and I do tend to over-blend sometimes, but never put the two together. Amazing!

Thank you for another very useful tutorial!

Ginny Avatar

For dark matte colors that aren’t the easiest to blend, I will load up the brush a few times and blend into the back of my hand. Rather than just tapping off the excess, this helps coat the brush hairs evenly and avoids that issue where all the color sticks to one area and won’t blend out. If I want to intensify the color I can pat it straight on after I have established a good blend.

AB Avatar

I’ve printed this out — so many great tips that I’d likely never have figured out. This morning was actually the first time I used a matte on top of a shimmer to take the edge off the metallic effect. At this rate, these other tips would take me years to figure out and try. Thanks!

Iron Maiden Avatar

This is great, but for those of us who prefer a light, natural look, not very helpful. “Intensity” is not the goal of everyone’s eye makeup application.

Christine Avatar

I tried to share tips for getting the most out of one’s powder eyeshadows, including general tips like helping eyeshadows stay on longer, how to blend, how to avoid fall out, etc. I also spoke about how to soften the finish of an eyeshadow, how to avoid over-application of color, why building up intensity (to your desired preference) is better than packing color on sometimes, and so on. There are, of course, tips for making shimmer eyeshadows more intense and improving the color payoff of eyeshadows… just as there are tips about the reverse. One of my tips is about how buildable coverage isn’t a bad thing even 😉

Perhaps you could share some of your favorite tips with us 🙂

Kelly Avatar

The one thing that completely changed my application game was setting my primer with powder foundation. My typical combo is MAC 24-hour and Laura Geller Balance -n- Brighten but I’ve tried several primers and some different powder foundations that haven’t worked on my face and they all perform well. It works so much better than any other powder or shadow I’ve tried for setting primer. Shadows apply smoother, blend better and I have much less visible texture on my eyelids.

Brenda C Avatar

I think you’ve covered all the bases Christine. I am printing this out as well as a reference in case I run into some problem that I can’t figure out. I’m really enjoying these posts as a brush up to my application routine. Thank you!

dzymzlzy Avatar

Thanks, Christine! This is great. One thing I’ve been wondering is whether or not setting eye primer with a powder (translucent or skin colored shadow) decreases the pigmentation or performance of the colored shadows applied on top of it. I definitely find blendability improves after setting it but in my mind the primer just won’t make the colors pop as well as it would
on a tacky surface.

NL Avatar

My eyes tend to water a lot if I use primer, concealer or powder. It is so frustrating to put the effort in and then my inner corners wash away from the tears.

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