10 Contouring and Highlighting Secrets Social Media Makeup Artists Aren't Telling You

I love Instagram. I LIVE on YouTube. But certain self-proclaimed #muas have brought this trend to seemingly unachievable heights.
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Publish date:
June 6, 2016
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techniques, contouring, makeup artists, highlighting, YouTube, social media, Instagram, face shape

Highlight and contour. You haven't just heard of it β€” you're probably sick of it. Even my mother has seen those crazy videos where people paint stripes of light and dark seemingly strategically all over their faces, utilizing bizarre tools like tape, knives, and Louboutins to "control color placement."

(Please never put on this much powder! You'll finish the container in approximately five days.)

While the trend is still going strong, and before we leave it behind in favor of future makeup styles (like nontouring and draping), I wanted to make sure that you aren't confused about any crazy contour concepts.

I know a magician never reveals her secrets, but, as y'all know, I'm not one to stick to traditional constructs. So here it goes... the big confession... drumroll please...

The secret to highlighting and contouring like a pro: It's not as complicated as it seems, you guys.

I love Instagram. I LIVE on YouTube. But certain self-proclaimed #muas have brought this trend to seemingly unachievable heights. I'm going to bust these myths wide open and help you learn how to quickly and easily achieve the best highlight and contour for you.

These are the 10 most important commandments when it comes to highlight and contour.

Less is more when it comes to product.

I watch videos where Instafamous peeps paint thick, full-coverage foundation all over their faces and then add thick full coverage highlight and contour and then blend it out! Watching this gives me the heebie-jeebies, like hearing nails on a chalkboard, because it's so misleading.

By adding in so much product at one time, it's impossible to control your final result. What you aren't seeing in these videos is that, after these YouTube celebs blend out their product, they actually go back and adjust their colors. They add more highlight and more contour to combat the muddiness that has collected on their faces. Of course this footage gets left on the cutting-room floor to allow for a false air of effortlessness and constant perfection, but it's just unrealistic.

When working with makeup, add saturation in sheer layers. The less product we use, the more natural it will look. Whenever I do contour on anyone (especially with cream), I use the tiniest little baby bit of product possible, knowing that it will blend out for a very long time. We can always add more! Much harder to take it away once it's there.

Highlight and contour is not one size fits all.

Not everyone needs to contour their nose and not everyone needs to highlight their jawline. It depends on your face shape and what features you personally prize. For example, I have a "hound" face shape: round at the top, heart at the bottom. My forehead is already short in comparison to the rest of my face. If I were to put contour on my hairline, it would make my forehead look even smaller. Therefore, I don't contour my forehead.

On the flip side, I love my angular jawline. I choose to accentuate this feature by contouring under and highlighting on the jawline. By creating contrast, I allow my favorite features to stand out even more.

Choose your weapons wisely.

We do not all need to use cream highlight and contour every day. Ain't nobody got time for that (even myself, and I spend half an hour on my makeup most mornings). Powder is a super-quick and easy way to add definition. Cream, which runs rampant on Instagram, takes more conscious effort and cannot be rushed. Sticks are a faster and easier alternative to cream, but still take considerable effort to blend. Make sure to take into consideration your end goal and time frame before committing to something crazy.

In addition to possessing the proper products to use, you'll need the right tools of the trade to blend as well. Imagine trying to bake a cake without a bowl, a spoon, or a pan. Natural-hair brushes are better for powders, while synthetic bristles and beautyblenders are better for creams. Fingers are OK for minimal/natural looks (like a little bit of contour in the hollows of the cheeks, or a bit of Illuminator of the cheek bones), but for more saturated looks, blending with fingers can become a bit blotchy.

Liquids go with liquids and powders go with powders.

Do all of your liquids and creams first, set with a translucent powder, then apply any additional color powder products you want. If you were to apply powder contour on top of wet foundation, the contour would stick like crazy where you first apply it, and would skip when you try to blend it out, creating a muddy mess.

If you use a powder foundation, either use your cream highlight and contour first (a technique called underpainting), and then follow with your powder foundation, or opt for a powder highlight and contour instead of cream.


I want to see your true colors shining through!

Some palettes are great for certain skin tones, and no so great for others. It you have a warmer skin tone, make sure you use a product with a slightly golden undertone. If you have a cooler skin tone, make sure you choose products with a pinker undertone.

If you choose the wrong product, the colors can ash out or turn orange against your skin tone, leaving behind an unrealistic-looking sculpt.

Highlight first, contour after.

If you apply your highlight first, certain planes will start to be emphasized and, by contrast, you'll be able to see where the contour needs to go. Also, as your natural contour becomes visible, you may realize you need barely any contouring product.

Make sure to blend out the highlight before even adding the contour to avoid muddiness.

If you're fair, contour becomes more important. If you're deeper, highlight become more important.

Basically, whatever creates the most contrast becomes the most important step. I have to highlight with straight-up white concealer to even see anything, so I rely mostly on contour to sculpt my face.

If you watch RuPaul's Drag Race and are familiar with Bob the Drag Queen, you know that on his beautiful, rich skin, highlight is really what pops. Use more of what does more for you and less of what does less. Contrast is key.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BFo6YQeEnLq

Want more of... https://www.seedandspark.com/studio/a-queen-for-the-people

A post shared by Bob The Drag Queen (@bobthedragqueen) on

Placement is pretty important.

And by pretty important, I mean vital. Always place the product first where you want is to be the most saturated (aka the brightest or darkest). Highlight is like a little white dress. We wear it when we want to stand out and make an impact β€” BUT it will also emphasize every roll, every bump, and even the sleeve of Oreos I ate at 3 a.m. last night. So if you have an area that you're self conscious about, don't highlight it! And, if you like a certain feature, make sure to highlight it more!

Highlight goes on the center planes of the face, anywhere that already naturally catches light (aka the triangle of light under the eye, the center of the nose, the jawline, the center of the forehead, and/or the chin).

Contour, on the other hand, is like a little black dress. We wear it when we want to look sleek and slim. Contour is your sculpting tool.

It goes around the perimeter of the face β€” anywhere that would naturally cast shadow (like a big 3 and E around your face). If you're self-conscious about certain aspects of your face (like I am about the current width of my chin since I haven't been as healthy since I moved back to NYC), put a little contour there.

Highlight and contour should work with your already beautiful, natural face shape to help you feel more confident and glam.


Directional blending will never steer you wrong.

Have you read my eyeshadow blending article? Chances are, if you keep reading my stuff, this concept will never die.

Whenever we blend, our goal is to create a gradient. Always start blending from the area that's the most saturated with product toward the area that's the least. Whenever you pick up more product or place the brush back on your face after lifting it up, put the brush back at the point of origin β€” aka where the product is the most saturated. If you pick multiple starting points, the result will be super muddy and splotchy.

Whenever possible, blend with the intent to uplift the face. If all your strokes are directed downward, the face will be dragged down. However, if your strokes are directed upward, the face will be uplifted. Especially the cheekbones. Try to cradle the cheek as you blend, in more of a check mark or Nike-symbol motion.


Bronzer is not necessarily contour and Illuminator is not necessarily highlight.

It's like how a square can be a rectangle but not all rectangles are squares. (Has your brain exploded yet? No? OK, good!) Bronzers are generally golden in tone because they're created to give our faces warmth. Contour is meant to mimic natural shadows, which are taupe/gray/cooler in tone. By color theory alone, they're pretty much opposites. However there are certain bronzers, like the ever-popular Benefit Hoola, that are formulated to be a bit cooler in tone and kinda sorta can be used as both.

If your bronzer is gold or shimmery in any way, do not use it as a contour! Shimmers and warm tones come forward, rather than recede.

Speaking of shimmers: illuminators are basically shiny highlighters. They're meant to mimic the natural dewiness and healthiness of skin. So we want to use them strategically. Do not put them anywhere that you would naturally get dewy (like sides of the nose/nostrils, forehead, and chin β€” basically just stay away from your T-zone). Illuminators are great for cheek bones and brow bones. Putting a little Illuminator on the cupids 's bow can help to define the lip shape without having to use a lip liner.

If you have dry skin (or if you personally just like the look of it, like me), you can also dust a little on the tip and bridge of the nose as well. This will draw attention to the center of the nose and create a slimming effect without having to use a ton of contour.

In short, as long as you are catering to your face shape, tone, and style, you will always highlight and contour like a queen!

  • Do you still have any questions about highlight and contour that I can answer for you?
  • Are there any additional tips and tricks you can share?
  • What are you favorite contour and highlight products?