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 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