Demystifying The Palette: How To Use All The Colors In Front Of You

Ever play favorites with the colors in a palette because you have no idea how to use the rest? Here's how to start using everything you paid for.
Publish date:
August 12, 2013
blushes, eyeshadows, How-To, Urban Decay, highlighters, palettes, contouring, wet n wild, bronzers, e.l.f.

It has happened to all of us. You fall in love with a collection of eyeshadows: So many! So sparkly! So untouched by grubby fingers and gouging brushes!

Then you get it home, use it a few times to create elaborate, time-consuming looks, fall in love with one color, use that color daily, hit the pan on that color, and abandon the rest.

Or you get a blush/bronzer duo: So easy! All in one! A real space-saver! Then you realize you don't actually know how to use bronzer.

Then there's the contouring kit: Where does the highlighter go again? Do what where?

Palettes really can make your makeup-applying life easier, but you've got to know where everything goes (in theory--once you have the basics down, experiment away).


Take Urban Decay's Naked palettes. I own Naked 2; its "griege" colors work better with my fair skin than the bronzier original. This metal box of awesome contains 12 full-size shadows and a dual-ended brush (and a tiny lip gloss that doesn't fit in the box!) for $50. Taken separately, the components would run you $234, and there are a couple of colors not sold as singles.

It's easy to get overwhelmed. The trick is breaking down the colors into a few groups: Highlighters, lid colors, crease/transition colors and liner/contour colors. Some colors may overlap a bit, but generally speaking, this is how you'll get the most use out of a palette like this.

The Naked 2 makes it tricky because it isn't laid out particularly logically. Roughly broken down, you have a matte and a shimmery highlight on the left end, matte and shimmery dark liner/contour shades on the right, five light metallic or sparkly lid colors, two mid-tone shimmery shades you can use as lid or crease colors and one matte mid-tone contour color.

As much of a workhorse as the Naked 2 is, it doesn't really bring the drama. For that I rely on my favorite Urban Decay palette, Smoked.

It is, as its name suggests, good for creating variations on smoky eye. What sets it apart is its use of color as opposed to just providing shades of gray and black like so many smoky-look palettes do. In Urban Decay's world, smoky is blue and purple and green and bronze as well as (sparkly) gray.

The palette comes with a booklet containing 15 step-by-step looks that utilize all the colors as well as a seriously tar-like full-size black eyeliner pencil (Perversion) that smudges well but then sets until you remove it. You get $134 of product for $49 with this, and if you like your eye makeup to pack a punch, it is a great investment.

Color-wise, you get a matte cream highlight color, Kinky, and Freestyle, a peachy color that makes a great transition color above the crease to blend out the harsh edges of a darker color. It can also be used a base color.

Then, for lid and crease shades, to mix and match at will, you have three jewel tones: purple Rockstar, cobalt Evidence and gorgeous blackened emerald Loaded. Barlust, a shimmery bronze, and Asphalt, a dark gray with teal and silver shimmer, make for more interesting neutrals. A matte dark brown called, either amusingly or horrifyingly, Backdoor, and Blackout, a matte black, perfect for lining or adding depth in the outer corner as well as contouring and shaping, round out the set.

Try out the looks provided in the booklet (my favorites are the Red Carpet and Midnight looks), then play around with the colors on your own.

The spectacular taupey-silvery gray, Mushroom, in this palette should become your be-all end-all of smoky-eye shadows. It's that good and it looks great on everyone. Use it as a lid shade and contour with any of the other shades if you want a quick-and-dirty smoky look. I like it with Barlust in the crease and lined with Backdoor for a toned-down brown smoky eye. Or contour with any of the jewel colors--burying color in the crease is fun because it only shows when you blink--and line with Blackout for a more dramatic look.

Wet n Wild eyeshadow trios make deciding what to do with different colors really easy: their intended use is printed right on the color itself: browbone, eyelid, liner--boom. I own a couple of these in very neutral configurations and keep them in my desk drawer or travel bag for an easy polished look in a hurry.

Walking on Eggshells looks like Neapolitan ice cream: cream for a highlight, warm pink on the lid, contoured with a medium brown in the crease and along the lower lash line. Silent Treatment features a great basic taupe lid shade with a pink highlight and a sparkly dark brown crease/liner shade.

These trios are great quality for the price, are available everywhere, and make practicing a basic three-step eyeshadow look so easy. I'd suggest investing in a good eyeshadow brush (you don't have to go pricey: E.L.F., EcoTools and Sonia Kashuk all make great inexpensive brushes) and use one flat side for your brow (start with the lightest color so you don't muddy it later with the darker shades), flip it and use the other flat side for your lid, then use the tip for crease and lower lash line.


E.L.F. blush and bronzer duo in St. Lucia (they make two other similar sets, both good for darker skin tones than my own) is perfect for imparting that just-stepped-off-the-beach look, even when you're toiling away under fluorescent lights. And it's only $3! Supposedly, this set is a dupe for the NARS duo of Laguna bronzer and Orgasm blush. I can't speak to whether it is an exact dupe as I've never tried that particular set, but for glow on a budget, you really can't beat this.

To make the most of this duo, find a big angled blush brush and a smaller, rounded blush brush. Use the angled brush in the bronzer. Dip it in, tap off the excess on the back of your hand (E.L.F. did not skimp on pigment), and suck in your cheeks. Where your cheek hollows, put the tip of the angled brush and sweep backwards towards your ears. Dip and tap again, and apply at your temples and then again along the underside of your jaw and down your neck. Add a little, using the very tip of the angle brush, down the sides of your nose. Go back over the lines again until the color is blended on the edges and you no longer look like you drew stripes on your face. The purpose of this is to create shadows on your face that will push your features forward.

Now take the smaller, rounder blush brush, dip it in the blush, tap off excess and apply to the apples of your cheeks--the fleshy parts right above where you put the bronzer. Swirl it on the apples and brush back along your cheekbones and up around the side of your eye socket. This blush has some shimmer in it so it helps with highlighting--very convenient.

A contour palette, like Urban Decay's Naked Flushed, ups the ante of the blush/bronzer duo by adding in a third step: the highlighter. The blush in here is matte rather than shimmery so that it is the highlighter that catches the light. Follow the steps above with the blush and bronzer. Take a small amount of highlighter (think glistening versus looking sweaty) and apply to the tops of your cheekbones, down the bridge of your nose, and in the Cupid's bow of your upper lip.

If your skin's not terribly oily, try a dot in the center of your forehead and chin, or if you want your eyes to pop, try some on your browbone and in the tear duct area of your eyes. Imagine yourself in a candlelit restaurant: you want the light to hit on the high planes of your face, opposite where you created shadows with the bronzer.

What are your favorite palettes? What looks do you use them to create? Have you ever bought one only to be completely intimidated by why was in front of you?