Photoshop Taught Me How To Contour My Face With Makeup

As teenager, I'd catch myself reaching for the dodge tool only to remember that I was looking at a mirror and not a computer screen. So I turned my Photoshop skills into makeup skills.
Publish date:
August 6, 2013
How-To, YSL, highlighters, contouring, photoshop, concealer, Dermablend

I learned to use Photoshop before I learned to use makeup. Sometime around ninth grade, I came to the conclusion that I was possibly the ugliest person ever, bar none, although with maybe the exception of the subject of Quentin Matsys’s The Ugly Duchess.

I didn’t entirely mind being the ugliest person ever--I never really thought about my hair or my face, and I used that time to think about Schroedinger’s cat or whatever weird thing I was really into at the time. However, around this same time, it seemed like every person at my high school got a Facebook page.

In a lot of ways, Facebook was a place for all of us to reinvent ourselves and curate our images. I started to give a damn about how I looked; this ability to curate was appealing to me, the ugliest person ever, and I set out learning how to manipulate images.

I’m going to pause this story for a moment just to throw this out there: xoVain does not use Photoshop. We don’t Photoshop our images, because that’s lying. We engage in vanity, not dishonesty. However, when I was 14, I engaged in a lot of vanity and dishonesty both.

I pinpointed all of my flaws and attacked them furiously through Photoshop. I became obsessed with figuring out what exactly made me so unattractive. I was impressed with my own ability to manipulate my face digitally. I began to feel that this fake-me represented me but better than my real face did in real life. I could make my images correspond to how I felt inside. I went from not caring at all to having a fairly extreme case of body dysmorphia.

When I looked at myself in the mirror, trying to force my hair into some sort of submission, I began reaching for tools that weren’t there; my left hand would go up to grab the dodge tool only to remember that I was looking at a mirror and not a computer screen. I needed to learn how to use makeup.

I began to poke around and watch internet tutorials. It was daunting. Every video made it seem like I’d have to use 30 different products and 60 different brushes to accomplish anything. It seemed fairly hopeless.

So I just thought about things in terms of Photoshop. I already knew how to make myself look good; I just needed to translate it into makeup. Instead of drawing a marquee around my eyes and enlarging them by two percent because they are too close together, I could apply black liners and shadows to the outer corner of my eyes. Instead of sculpting cheekbones with the dodge and burn tools, I could do it with highlighters and bronzers.

Eventually, I went to university for photography. This was my big defiance; I had always wanted to study film, and I think most people expected me to. Instead, I rejected moving images in favor of still ones--I wanted to be a fashion photographer. I was thrown headfirst into darkrooms, and I was forced for the first time to really study light. I was always analysing light, looking for light, and I began to see light everywhere. I became conscious of the lighting in every situation I was in, and where the light was best.

I left photography school for a lot of reasons, mostly that I really did want to make movies after all, but also because I was commuting from Philadelphia to New York every day on a Chinatown bus. It was a hellish experience, trying to do charcoal self-portraits on the bus at 6 A.M., trying to see the light on my face in a small compact mirror.

All of these experiences combined into mush in my brain, and eventually developed into my very specific method of contouring. Ta-da! That was a lot of unsolicited information about me. Now you know.

So basically, I look at the light on my face. My mirror is in between two windows, so I get a nice even light, and I stare at myself in the mirror. Wherever the light falls on my face, that’s where I highlight. Wherever there are shadows, I contour.

You have to adapt this for your own face, because there’s no universal bone structure! I think it’s silly just to memorise the placement of shadows and highlights because they are different on every person. I would never go into the darkroom and dodge (highlight) and burn (shadow) every photograph in exactly the same spots.

So on this image, I tried to make a little map of where I generally see light fall on my face. It falls in some pretty typical “highlight areas” but notice that I don’t highlight my entire t-zone. I don’t like to highlight across my forehead--light just doesn’t hit that spot as prominently as other spots on my face. But there might be some prominent light on your face in that spot, and that’s cool.

The shadows on my face mostly fall under my cheekbones and the sides of my face. I don’t have much shadow that comes in on the sides of my eyes. I do have some shadows under my eyes, but I don’t darken them because that’s just not a very popular look. I’d actually be pretty into darkening the circles under my eyes--I think it would enhance the contrast between dark and light on my face, but I will abstain so you will listen to me instead of dismissing me as an obviously crazy person.

Now, here’s a swatch of my “light” color and my “dark” color. I’ll elaborate on these in a second.

This is the step where I slap some highlighter in every spot where I see light. The highlighter I’m using is, in fact, the delightful Touche Eclat by YSL. I’m using it in 2, which I believe is called Luminous Ivory or something.

Now, generally, I’m more interested in technique than product. I fully believe that I should know how to beautify myself in any circumstance, in case I ever end up like Edie Sedgwick, using soot or whatever she was forced to use when she ran out of money. I’m trying to make a reference to a vague anecdote about her that I don’t completely remember the details of, and I don’t remember where I read it, so you’re just going to trust me that when Edie Sedgwick ran out of money she continued doing her iconic eyeliner with soot or crayons or something.

I’m digressing from the main point, which is that 99% of the time, I actually don’t care about products. But there’s three that I really really like, and Touche Eclat is one of them.

It’s just so f-ing luminous. It might be a placebo effect; I will admit that I’m a bit taken in by opulence. Maybe YSL just makes me feel impossibly glamorous.

Touche Eclat is expensive as all hell though: $40. (Remember, I’m a poor person. I commuted to New York every day because I have no money.) But if there was one thing that I could wholeheartedly endorse spending $40 on, it would be Touche Eclat. The first time I wore it, I was street-harassed more than ever before. Certainly all of these men had the same thought: “That chick looks way too happy and confident--women should never feel that way! If only there was a way for me to take her down a peg... Oh, but I can! I’ll make kissy noises and crass comments about her body!”

Just kidding, street harassers don’t know what “crass” means. But the point of this is that they couldn’t take me down a peg because TOUCHE ECLAT MAKES ME INVINCIBLE. Yes.

Anyway, moving on. Here’s some shadows. In my face-map, I circled the sides of my nose as needing some contouring, but I ultimately didn’t want to. I have a very narrow nose, and while increasing the contrast on it makes it look incredibly stark, it also makes it look even more narrow.

I would get Touche Eclat in a darker color and use it for shadow areas if I were made of money. I don’t even know if it would work right, but I would totally try to make it work. But I’m not made of money--I’m made of cells--so I used a stick of Dermablend that is too dark for me: specifically Dermablend Quick Fix in beige.

Full disclosure here: I’m deuteranomalous. I’m one of those rare women with trouble perceiving reds and greens (another reason I left photography school--I am never going to pass a color correction exam). So to me, this concealer looks kind of too orangey for my skin. But I do struggle with some colors, so, perceive the colors as you normally would and don’t listen to me.

Anyway, I really like Dermablend because I do have terrible acne sometimes and I feel much better if I can hide under the thickest concealer possible. I probably don’t actually look that much better with thick concealer slapped all over my face, but it makes me feel better, and that’s basically all that matters.

This is my face when all of that is all blended in. I blend with my fingers because I always feel like I have better control that way.

This is pretty subtle contouring. If you use more contrasting colors and slap it on thicker, you can build up to Bowie levels of contouring. David Bowie is my cheekbone muse. I would highly recommend listening to Bowie covering “If There is Something” (originally by Roxy Music, of course) just on repeat while contouring one’s face.

Let me know if this helped you with your contouring. Also, let me know if you hate me and all of my interests. I’m curious.