How to Contour & Highlight Your Face with These Easy Steps!

Learning how to contour and highlight your face is a lot easier than you think!  Contouring is playing with shadow and light to bring more or less depth to facial features, like accentuating cheekbones or slimming the jawline.  The simplest way to contour is to use a product that is two to three shades darker than your natural skin tone, and you’ll want the undertone to run slightly cooler than your natural undertone.  You can also contour with bronzer for a warmer, subtler effect if preferred.

Before Contouring / After Contouring (using NARS Radiant Cream Compact Foundation)

For the demonstration, I’m contouring with cream foundation, as it is an easy way to achieve seamless, blended contours and highlights as they can easily be sheered out, blended out, or layered for the perfect combination.  Cream-based products are more forgiving for anyone new to contouring, so they’re a great starting point. As liquid and cream bases dominate, cream contours work well on top without adding too much powderiness and again, they can be “erased” and dialed down in the event one overapplies!

Highlighting and contouring bring back definition and shape to the face, especially after you’ve created a beautiful, flawless blank canvas with your foundation. Because foundations are one color, and depending on the coverage, they can leave the face looking flat and shapeless.

More of us are familiar with highlighters–shimmering powders and creams patted along the high planes of the face to reflect light–but contouring can be a more difficult and daunting task. The best part about makeup, though, is freedom of choice; you can go as defined as you’d like, so you don’t have to go for a dramatic contour and highlight but something subtle that just defines and helps lift the face. I’ve tried to show a more dramatic contour (but you could go further and make it even more dramatic) so that you can clearly see the differences before and after.

Don’t be afraid if you’re new to contouring!  Uzo, NARS International Lead Stylist, recommends beginners to use cream foundations for contouring “because they are easier to blend” as “powders in an unskilled hand can make contouring look harsh and un-blended while liquids don’t give enough definition. It is not about having a stripe of darker, un-diffused color along the sides of the face but subtly blended dimension that defines the cheekbones (and jaw line).”

Generally, your highlight shade should be two to four shades lighter than your actual skin color.  Depending on how much depth and shadow you want to create, you may find going one or two shades deeper is enough to achieve a subtle, but noticeable, contouring effect, but for greater definition, you will want to select a shade that is two to four shades darker than your natural complexion and opt for a shade that has similar undertones to your skin tone or one that is more neutral.

Where to Contour & Highlight Diagram

Step-by-Step Tutorial

STEP 1: Prep and prime the face–whatever your normal pre-foundation routine is, do that prior to starting. Make sure you give your moisturizer enough time to absorb and sink into the skin, as this gives you a better texture to work with and always helps your foundation apply better.

STEP 2: With a sponge applicator or synthetic foundation brush (Uzo recommends foundation brushes with nylon), apply the foundation all over the face, blending and smoothing the coverage out to as little as you need. It’s best to apply sheer coverage all-over, and then go back and build up coverage just in the places you need it. For me, that meant light-medium coverage on cheeks, underneath the eyes, and on my chin to minimize redness, unevenness, and hide blemishes/post-acne marks. If you normally use concealer, apply it as you normally would (whether before/after foundation).

STEP 3: With a flat, firm brush, I like to pat on the highlight shade underneath my eyes in an upside-down triangle shape (see contour map below) and directly underneath my brow bone. With a fluffy eye brush, blend the highlight edges into your normal foundation to make the transition seamless.

STEP 4: Using the same flat, firm brush, pat the highlight shade just below the center of the forehead, and then lightly down the nose. You can also highlight slightly underneath the nostrils. (Keep in mind, depending on your desired shape, you may use less or more highlight/contour to get the right definition for your nose.) With a fluffy brush, blend and soften the edges so the highlight gradually fades back into your skin color.

STEP 5: To bring the mouth forward, highlight just above the cupid’s bow to make your lip shape more prominent. Lightly pat the highlight just under the lower lip around the outer corners, and then directly below the center of the bottom lip in an upside-down triangle shape. Another trick that can be used to define and shape the mouth is to use lip liner to create the shape, and then using a precise, concealer brush to very carefully apply outside to really give a crisp lip line. Use a fluffy eye brush (like the one we used in the third step) to blend the edges of the highlights with the foundation.

STEP 6: If you aren’t planning to wear eyeshadow and the like, use a tapered crease brush to lightly apply the contour shade and following the natural curve of your eye to create more depth. With the same brush, apply thin lines of contour down the sides of the nose, and then lightly swish the brush in small, tight strokes to blend the contour shade with the highlight and foundation shades. When it comes to noses, we all have our preferences, and you may be angling for a narrower or wider nose; the narrower and closer the shadow and highlight are together, the narrower the nose will appear.

STEP 7: With a firm, flat, slightly angled brush, apply short strokes of the contour shade along the hair line, temples, and jawline. For the jawline, you typically wouldn’t bring the contour shade all the way to the center of the chin; only along the sides (about one third to two-thirds across, depending on your natural face shape and preferences), so that the chin doesn’t become so prominent that it juts out. With a lightly fluffy, angled brush, blend the contour shade to transition to the foundation color. It’s important that you blend slowly and with feathery strokes, because you don’t want to blend the contour so well that it disappears or makes a larger area just ever-so-slightly darker.

STEP 8: Lastly, contour cheeks by applying the contour shade underneath the cheekbones. Though an old technique, finding the hollow of the cheekbones is still easiest when I suck in my cheeks and make the ever-glamorous “fishy face.” It’s important to use your fingertips to feel for your bone structure, and you want to make sure the contour isn’t too low on the face, so I usually use the structure as my guide and contour right below it. You’ll want to have the contour shade applied from about the ears to half-way to two-thirds down the face. Let your face and natural bone structure be your guide, and you can always soften and blend out if it is too heavy–or add more definition if it is too subtle.

STEP 9: Set all of your hard work with a loose or pressed setting powder. (I used NARS Light Reflecting Loose Setting Powder applied with a lightly fluffy, large powder brush all over the face.  To finish, apply your eyeliner, mascara, lip color, and so forth.  For lips, I went with a mix of NARS Hyde Park and Jardin des Plantes Satin Lip Pencils.)

BONUS: Apply blush and/or a shimmery highlighter to further define cheeks. (For this, I used NARS Dolce Vita to blush and Albatross to highlight the tops of cheekbones and lightly around the cupid’s bow.)

Before Contouring / After Contouring with NARS Radiant Cream Compact Foundation

Before Blush/Powder Highlighter / After Blush/Powder Highlighter with NARS Dolce Vita and Albatross

Before Contouring / After Contouring / After Blush/Powder Highlighter

After Contouring with NARS Radiant Cream Compact Foundation

After Blush/Powder Highlighter with NARS Dolce Vita and Albatross


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Sunny Avatar

Wow, the result looks AMAZING, Christine! So perfect that it looks almost photoshopped! I’m still guessing my shade would be Ceylan (at least it will be in autumn/winter), but I’d like to try some before I make up my mind 😉

Thea Avatar

Ooh, this is super useful. I’ll be trying it with the L’Oreal TrueMatch cream foundation I already own (and even already have highlight/contour shades in), but I do want to at least check out my base shade in the NARS foundation someday.

Wwendalynne Avatar

What a fabulous feature, Christine! I’ve been playing around a lot with H/C and having lots of fun..It’s addictive.. and I just wanted to add there is are plenty of ways to get your hands on palettes which can carry you through the spectrum of highlight and contour for your skintones without having to purchase or guess at multiple shades of an HE product. Check out Camera Ready Cosmetics, for example. Most of the professional makeup providers offer inexpensive solutions with products of lesser volume, but multiple colour palette form – Graftobian is just one great example with their cream foundation palettes (5 shades) costing just over 20 bucks: A super inexpensive way to experiment with a seriously pigmented performance product…hehe and a little alliteration to twist the tongue.

Wwendalynne Avatar

Hi Maggie: I’m about NC-20 .. I think and I’m on the lightest neutral Graftobian palette. I wear Leading Lady, the second shade in the palette, or a bit of a mix with Prima Donna–1 shade darker at shade #3 in the palette– and can create gentle contours with the darkest and highlight with the lightest My undertones are a mix of yellow and pink. The lightest warm toned palette could work as well, but here’s what I see in that palette. The step between the second colour (sorry can’t remember the names) and the third is a biggie and this palette is too warm for my skin and makes me look like I have a green cast. I think if you have more yellow in your skin, it might make a better match. Hope this helps 😀

Emily Avatar

I love this! Thanks Christine. One quick question…. what if your foundation match is siberia? What would use use then to highlight?

Christine Avatar

Hi Emily!

My best tip for anyone with really pale skin is you’ll want to focus on the contour a little more, and then use finish to create the highlight – so something with a little shimmer or even just not setting the cream foundation as you might elsewhere, so it retains some sheen (most will set on their own, but they won’t set as fully matte as they might with a powder on top). You might also consider building up the foundation since you probably wear it much sheerer all-over, so a little more product might give it an even lighter look.

Irene Avatar

Not by Nars, but I’m very pale too (Siberia match or paler) and MAC Cream Color Base in Luna (a pearly white) works perfectly for highlighting. It’s not a foundation, but being a cream product, it’s very easy to blend, as long as you apply it on top of foundation or bare skin before powder 🙂

Jennifer R. Avatar

Love the tips you gave on how to contour & highlight, especially the face map on where to apply the contour & highlight. Thanks for sharing your tips and btw, you look beautiful in the after pic! You can definitely see how great contouring & highlighting can define your face.

Christine Avatar

Hi Emily!

My best tip for anyone with really pale skin is you’ll want to focus on the contour a little more, and then use finish to create the highlight – so something with a little shimmer or even just not setting the cream foundation as you might elsewhere, so it retains some sheen (most will set on their own, but they won’t set as fully matte as they might with a powder on top). You might also consider building up the foundation since you probably wear it much sheerer all-over, so a little more product might give it an even lighter look.

Stephanie Avatar

The contour looks really nice and natural! I never tried contouring with a cream product before, so I might have to try it out! I tried to use powder, but thought it looked rather harsh and unnatural.

Carla N. Avatar

I can imagine this being terrific for someone who has the skill and the time, or for special occasions, but I prefer to keep my routine simpler, for the most part.
I have quite round cheeks, and I suppose I really “should” contour them, but I just don’t.
As for my nose, I actually wouldn’t mind if it were a bit larger, so I leave it alone, too.
I’ll admit, I did go through a :phase” when I was blending a touch of highlight down the bridge of my nose and on the tops of my cheeks, but it didn’t seem to make that much difference, so I started skipping it.

Christine Avatar

It’s not something I would do everyday (the whole she-bang) 🙂 Even on a regular basis, I would only do areas where you wanted the definition or not and made an impact for you – for instance, I never contour my nose because it’s not something that does anything for me (personally), but cheek bones/jaw line make a bigger difference for me!

Barbie Avatar

it does! i have a cream bronzer from sonia kashuk and i’m soooo tempted to try this! it looks way better than using powder. when you blended it did you use a different brush or your foundation brush?

Christine Avatar

Hey Barbie,

Sponges are fantastic for blending, so if you have one of those, highly recommend trying it with a sponge. I also used angled contouring brushes, too, and they work well 🙂 I did use a separate brush from the one I applied my foundation with – I think it would be fine to blend a contour shade with, though – for a highlight, it might take the highlight down too much.

Malia Avatar

I was going to say the exact same things – amazing and photoshop looking, and in an awesome way! I don’t usually wear foundation but I’m sure going to buy some now 🙂

yellowlantern Avatar

Maybe this is just me, but I don’t think foundation is very good for contouring using a darker foundation usually just looks too orange or yellow to look like real shadows. The undertones of foundation lack the grey tones that for me are necessary to a contour shade.

Taylor Avatar

I just want to reiterate how important it is for everyone to make sure that they are contouring and highlighting based on their own facial structure. The reference map is a great starting point, but everyone has different features, so you really have to develop a technique that is specific to your face. I watch a lot of YouTube videos and for the most part, everyone contours their face the same exact way and it doesn’t always suit their features. For instance, if you have a slender nose or small forehead, you wouldn’t want to make them look smaller by contouring them to death. Remember, contouring/highlighting is pretty much equal to pushing in/bringing forward. Figuring out the best way to contour/highlight your own face can really enhance your features and really give your face a lot of dimension. Of course, there is always a learning curve, as this is more advanced makeup application, so you just have to practice and figure out what works for you.

Liz Avatar

Really pretty. I almost like it better without the blush for some reason. On a funny note, I’ve been reading your blog daily for a couple of years, and never noticed the beauty mark on your left cheek. It’s so cute.

Melissa Avatar

The contour shade looks a bit too orange, but I understand that could just be my monitor. It looks great otherwise. Fantastic instructions! I prefer creme products, so I may have to try this. Your lip color, by the way, IS AMAZING! I have one satin pencil. I think I need these as well now!

Christine Avatar

You might prefer a grayer contour, too! I don’t like orange-y contours (bronzers are usually that way for me), but on my warm skin, some grays (like Chanel Notorious) can look wrong – this is a good medium for me, but totally understand some wanting a more shadowy color, too!

Melissa Avatar

No I totally understand! Some grays can just look off. Some things just look better in person and I think this style/color of contour is one of those things. I still haven’t figured out the perfect contour for my pale freckled skin! Question: Have you thought about reviewing Chanel’s Soleil de Tan? I know you’ve got a huge backlog, but some higher end permanent reviews would be awesome!

anastasia Avatar

I love that you keep the exact same expression and pose in the before-after photos – a lot of people shoot it with a smile on the after shot and sometimes use a slightly different angle as well. Comparing the two shots is so much easier this way!

Kasey Avatar

Wow this is amazing! This is such a helpful post in learning to contour which I’m going to have to keep in mind.Thanks for such a great visual instruction too! 🙂

patsyann Avatar

Gosh, this is one of the most useful make-up “tutorials” I have seen so far. The contour map is fantastic. Everyone can use this advice custom tailored to their facial structure. My face shape is quite similar to yours (except I have those dreaded droopy epithelial eyelids) so I will be practicing with your map as my guide. I often use Ben Nye cream foundation so I am going to check out their other shades for highlighting and contouring. I never get it quite right with powders. Thank you so much!

Yushin Avatar

A NARS artist told me I could use their concealer sticks to achieve the contours (of course back when these cream foundations weren’t out)…. so that might be a cheaper option for people that don’t want to buy three foundations. I like the idea of using these foundations more since the concealers are smaller and more concentrated when I put them on the face, so it takes a while to blend. I currently use NARS’s tinted moisturizer but I might try the cream foundations when I run out. Thank you for this great post about contouring! 🙂

Yushin Avatar

oh for people wanting to try using concealers to contour, the artist said use the concealer first and then foundation/tinted moisturizer as this helps with the blending (as opposed to putting the concealer on after foundation/tinted moisturizer)

Chelsea Avatar

You’re really making me want to buy the NARS Radiant Compact foundation, although Siberia (my current match) will probably be a tad too dark by winter!

How does the light reflecting powder work with flash? Is it bad like most reflective powders?

rachel Avatar

christine this is your best set of pics ever! you look like such an incredibly gorgeous and healthy woman… wow!

creepy fangirling over =)

Maddie Avatar

I hate to be the party pooper but I prefer your face without contouring. It’s not that you look gaudy or overly made up or something, but perhaps your face in particular just looks better without it. Maybe the “normal” highlighting and contouring suits you more than doing it with different shades of foundation.

Steffy W Avatar

DEFINITELY LOVING THISS! I’m so so so impressed and am just in awe, been looking at your picture for at least five minutes now( no stalker i swear) but the contouring/highlight is absolutely beautiful, despite the initial markings that looked like a fair bit of product, it looks seamless and amazing, i can’t even!!! Been wanting to contour for a while but never do it amazingly, gonna give your markings a go according to that i want to accentuate and define! i’ve been a reader for at least 5 years and i love your reviews but you definitely should do more of these!!! xxx

divinem1 (Melissa) Avatar

I’ve always struggled with contouring because of the mix between powder/cream. I think I’ll give this a try, because I really want it to work. So you apply your blush and highlighter after you’ve applied all over fae powder to set the contouring, Christine?

You look positively fabulous in the final result — or even before the blush. Love it! Thank you for going through the painstaking attention to detail to put this together! You rock!

Christine Avatar

Yep, after I set – with this much cream product on, I find it easier to lightly set with powder, and then apply the blush – because if the cream is still wet/damp at all, it can cause the powder blush to stick and be a PITA to blend.

If you use less cream product (because this was highlight/contour everywhere and then some!), it might not be necessary!

Thank you!

divinem1 (Melissa) Avatar

I’d say you’re ready for the Academy Awards in the final photo. That’s A LOT of work! Absolutely beautiful though! 🙂 Definitely going to give this a go!

susanna Avatar

Loved it! I was reluctant to contour myself but now that I see your work I might be able to copy it in myself since my facial features look very much like yours. Thanks for sharing!

Kris Avatar

OMG Christine, you look totally Photoshopped! Actually,you look like Jennifer Lopez, who always has the most amazing highlighting and contouring and looks Photoshopped all the time. The pictures look phenomenal, but did you feel, in real life, that it was too heavy on your skin?

Clare Avatar

This is amazing! I I wish there was a video of this look <3 I'm going to have refrain a few more weeks till payday to go buy this foundation and powder! Do you recommend the loose powder over the pressed? Also does the powder or foundation cause flashback at all?

Frankie Avatar

Hi Christine! You mentioned that you like using a sponge to blend out cream contour. If I were to use the Beauty Blender should I make the sponge damp or keep it dry to best blend?

Rad Avatar

Oh wow this is really helpful Christine and the coverage of the Nars foundation looks really good. Will have to try this out.

On another point, is there a way to store some of the features as favourites on my profile like I can do with Vanity and Wishlist? E.g. If I wanted to find this in say 4 months, I could go to the fav features tab.

Jade Avatar

You look stunning- like you have been airbrushed! Beautiful.
Do you have any recommendations for Highlighting when Siberia is the foundation I use as my base?

Christine Avatar

Hi Jade!

I would recommend using something that has a little shimmer – like NARS Alabtross or Miss Liberty – instead! You could also try Luxor (Multiple) for a cream product, or even mixing in a luminizer (MAC Strobe Cream) with the Siberia foundation.

Kira Avatar

Whoa.. the after picture looks like a police sketch of you. I guess because I recognize it as you, but it looks like a slightly different/photoshopped person. It’s truly amazing — the possibilities available with makeup! You really made a lovely transformation here!

Helen Felmingham Avatar

Fab post, Christine! But, I would have liked to have seen a picture of you after you had contoured & highlighted ONLY (without the added eyeliner, blush & powder) so we could see an accurate comparison between before & after 🙂

Najibah Avatar

Hey christine,
I was just wondering cuz everyone says you need to contour with products that have an almost grey undertone. .but then I also hear using cream foundation can also be used but foundation never has that grey undertone to create that shadow effect….. sooo whats better and looks more natural?
Also I dont know if I should get the tom ford shade and illuminate or just buy a cream foundation cuz I usually use sheer to light coverage foundation. ..dont know what’s better.
Thanks <3

Christine Avatar

I think either works, and the level of gray can depend on your natural skin tone – like if you’re really, really warm, something too cool or gray will look off.

Since you use such light coverage, I’d probably go for something made for contouring! I haven’t tried Shade & Illuminate but it sounds like it could work.

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