Contouring Isn't As Easy As Everybody Makes It Seem

I walked out of Sephora with a makeover, tutorial, and fancy new products, but when left to my own devices, the results weren't quite the same.
Publish date:
July 17, 2013
contouring, fail, foundation, highlighting, dark skin, afters, befores, errors, trials

A disproportionate amount of my makeup adventures begin with needing something specific for cosplay, I’m finding. This particular journey was no different: it began with an image, the threat of unforgiving camera lenses, and curiosity.

I made the rather ambitious decision to construct Clair Hummel’s Snow White of her Historically Accurate Disney Princess fame, and ran into a stumbling block. I, with my exactly-the-same-shade-as-Ghirardelli-cocoa-powder colored skin, am decidedly not white.

The cosplay community was never overwhelmingly forgiving to us cocoa-powder-colored cosplayers, and I feared that they would be even less so to one who had the gall to dress as a much-beloved character renown for her luminescent, pale beauty.

By contrast, I wanted to be as brown, chocolatey and sun-kissed as possible. Making sure that I looked hyper-feminine enough for both Snow White’s character and cameras would require something that I heretofore had no experience with whatsoever: actual, real makeup.

I knew already that I would have no luck perusing the beige aisles of CVS and Walgreens, so I made my way to Sephora. Armed only with my copy of Face Forward and the knowledge that MAC cosmetics made me look pale and orange, I walked in, loudly professed my complete ignorance to the first salesperson I could find, and was directed to Asia, the consultant who would help me along my journey.

Walking me through the process that I would later repeatedly screw up with horrifying consequences, she showed me the basics of facial contouring: highlighting the areas that you would like more pronounced, while shading areas that you would like to recede. The contrast between the highlights and shading helps accentuate existing bone structure or, in the hands of a seasoned professional, completely restructure the face entirely.

Other salespeople walked by and remarked about how radiant she made me look. I felt empowered. I could do this.

I left Sephora that day with a bag full of quality products, a mind that immediately forgets basically everything it’s presented with, and the somewhat foolish notion that it would take no effort at all to recreate the gorgeous look that Asia gave me that day. Bundling all of these things, I went to con and made myself as pretty as I could manage without professional, practiced guidance.

In trying to recreate my process step by step, however, I made a few terrible mistakes that resulted in horrifying consequences. I’m going to take one for the team and walk you all through this embarrassing process, so that none of you repeat my folly.


Most people--but especially brown people-–have varying skin tones in their face. To keep from flattening everything out, multiple shades of brown are used throughout the face to emphasize the structure that’s there. In this picture, I’ve used the Bobbi Brown foundation stick in Chestnut on my jaw and forehead, which I then blended with my finger.


Now comes the lighter foundation, which both blends with the lighter shades of my face and adds subtle highlights to the areas I apply it. I also blended that in with--you guessed it--my finger. I’ll go into my choice of tools and what that means for the end result later.


At this point, if you’d like to further contour your face, a brighter highlighting color is needed. The key here is to use it as a highlight, and use it somewhat sparingly. Don’t treat it the same way you treated the lighter foundation.

If you want to know what too much damn highlighter looks like, though, it looks like this:


This most important of steps ended in spectacular failure, and set the foundation upon which the look would ultimately rest. Haha, puns.

Anyhow, setting powder seals your oil-based makeup against smudging, and, when applied correctly, gives a lovely, skin-matte finish that is perfect for photography.

I realized a moment too late that I had borrowed a friend’s powder brush at the convention to apply my setting powder, and didn’t have one of my own. Knowing that this was one area where my trusty finger wouldn’t excel, I decided to use an unused fan brush I had lying around and see how that faired. It’s a brush, right? That’s at least better than my finger, right?

The powder went on super unevenly, and I looked an ashy, hot-ass mess. When using setting powder, make sure you have a voluminous, poofy kabuki brush, or a poofy painting equivalent. Fingers and non-poofy makeup or paintbrushes need not apply.


My fan brush fails me yet again, and I apply far too much blush as a result. Evening it out with the fan brush was miserable and pointless, and I wound up looking like a small child that got into her mother’s makeup box.


Finally, something I can’t screw up! This was the only thing that turned out pretty OK.

I lined my lips with a dark red liner (this one being Revlon Colorstay Lipliner in Plum), completely filling in my upper lip. When going for a two-toned lip, making the upper lip slightly darker mimics natural shadows and adds a bit of depth.

From there, I added Revlon Super Lustrous lipstick in Fire and Ice to the bottom lip, and sparingly to the top lip.

My epic journey complete, I headed back with Laura to look at the pictures before and after this makeover. They were startling, and not at all in a good way.

Asia, if she is reading this, is probably weeping into her hands right now. I’m so sorry.

There are lessons that I absolutely need to impress on anyone who hasn’t run screaming in terror from their computers upon seeing that last image:

  • Make sure that you use the appropriate brushes for your varying materials. While a finger or sponge can work decently well for blending foundation, having tools specifically designed for powder and foundation definitely won’t hurt.
  • Do not slather half of your face in highlighter. If you need an explanation for why it’s a bad idea, scroll up.
  • Study from the greats, and move slowly. If you have a book like

    Face Forward, it’s a good idea to actually reference it instead of keeping it open next to you while deciding on your own to skip steps or play it by ear. The results aren’t cute.

Have any of you tried facial contouring?