Much like taking a great photo, a beautiful, glammed up face is a play on getting just the right lighting. Whether you are spending the day in the studio, under lights, or want a little special something for a night out, knowing how to fake great facial lighting is a skill you might want to carry around in your back pocket. Since Kim Kardashian’s makeup artist upped the anty on makeup drama using these illusion tactics, there has been much gab about highlighting and contouring. The following simplifies the process so you can try your hand too.

The Flashing Disclaimer

Makeup, like everything else, is personal and should be treated as such. Wear as much or as little as you personally like. On a daily basis, there is little need for dramatic highlighting and contouring. Seriously, just looking in the mirror, you will likely see natural shadows that define your features. Also, as you likely are aware, makeup is expensive, requires upkeep, expires regularly, and in natural lighting can look overdone or actually detract from your natural beauty. Most of us just need a few products and five minutes.

Then, why bother?

From the beginning, the art of highlighting and contouring has been used to re-color actors and actresses for photography and film. Today, knowing how to chisel a cheekbone is even more handy with our culture being very photo-centric. No need to be a starlet to perfect this skill! This technique is used for more than one purpose, but mostly for the following needs:

  • Overcoming low light with highlighting where there is a need to brighten features or “add light” to the face
  • Contouring is particularly useful in harsh light where midday sun or studio lighting has washed out features
  • Adding dimension in instances where distance creates a “flattened” effect
  • Corrective contouring and highlighting for strengthening facial structure or to build in depth for more drama
  • Adding drama and attention to one area of the face

So, whether you are looking for a little extra oomph for a photo shoot or a special night out, or you just want to brighten up on a dull day, the following will really help!

Getting Started – the Tools

While every makeup artist has personal preferences, there are some basic must-haves for this process:

  • Clean and conditioned skin – Because this look requires great blending, a clean face that has been moisturized will be the best base. If you skip this key step, you will likely not end up with a look you are excited about. Moisturizing offers a little extra “slip” and aids in blending away harsh lines.

  • Tools to blend – Use what you love; some ladies love brushes while some prefer beauty blenders. The key to a more natural look is well blended lines, so skip using digits for this one. You might even go a step further for the purposes of ease and get brushes to apply the “lines” and blend everything out with a sponge blender. This set of brushes will work for the entire application and blending process
Pro Tip – While natural-hair brushes are great for applying powder, they are porous and will absorb product. Synthetic bristled brushes are great for applying wet, cream, and powder products. This brush is perfect for chiseling in contour powders too.
  • A Highlighter – Choose a highlighter two shades brighter than your natural skin tone. A matte texture will be best for these purposes. Light shades of concealer work wonderfully for a daily highlight.
Pro Tip – While there are wonderful pearlized highlighting products, these products are not optimal for those with larger pores or fines lines and will also accentuate any skin texture challenges from acne. Be careful to keep those products away from areas with overly noticeable skin texture flaws.
  • A Contour Product– A great contour will be two shades darker than your skin color in an ashy, grey, tone. Yellow-based contours tend to look very muddy and will not give you the same “shadow” effect.
  • A Foundation Product– Your every day foundation is fine. Be sure that you are color matched for the season you are in and that you are neither too tan nor too pale for your base shade. Without this key, the rest of the process is useless. To try several colors, try a versatile foundation palette like RCMA.
  • An HD/Colorless Setting Powder Setting powder will serve to keep everything in place after application. Because these are face products, you will not want them moving around as your day wears on or the heat of studio lights warm the products on your skin.

Cream or Powder Quandary

There is lots of talk about whether cream or powder products are better and the answer is simple:

  • Cream ProductsIf your skin tends to be dry, cream products will look more natural and provide better slip for blending. For cream applications, apply a thin layer of all of the cream products (foundation, highlighter and contour, and any color correcting products) and then blend. Set the look with HD powder and, PRESTO!, you are done.
  • Powder ProductsIf your skin tends to be oily, powder products will provide a better and longer lasting finish. For powder applications, apply a thin layer of foundation and concealer, then apply contouring and highlighting powders, and blush. Dust the remaining area (which has not yet been powdered) with HD setting powder so the rest of your makeup is set. There is no need to set the areas you have highlighted and contouring because the powder products will act as a setting agent. After all powder products are applied, sweep over the face with a clean, fluffy blending brush to blend any lines or knock off excess powders.

Now that you are equipped with the tools and products you need to achieve a sculpted face, you are ready to experiment with light!

The Concept of Light and Dark

This is a simple concept: highlighting will visually bring something forward, while contouring will create the visual illusion of recession. More simply put, highlighting makes something stand out, while contouring creates the look of depth.

  • If you want to create the look of more chiseled cheekbones, contouring underneath the cheekbones “recesses” that area and highlighting the tops of the cheekbones showcases that space. When combined, your cheekbones pop!
  • What about the perfect pout? If you use a small shader brush to contour just under the bottom lip line, you will create the illusion of a poutier mouth. To further give the illusion of a prettier pucker, use highlighter to bring your cupid’s bow forward.
  • Need a little help with your jawline? Use a chiseled brush to apply a contour product to just below the jaw line you would like to enhance.
  • If you would like to thin the bridge of your nose, using contouring on each side of your nose will create a thinner look. An even more dramatic look can be achieved by blending out a thin line of highlighter down the middle of the bridge.

Because each face shape is a little different, contouring and highlighting are unique to those face shapes. Review this helpful pictorial post, specific to different face shapes and where product should be applied. 

“Baking” Your Contour

For extreme circumstances, you might need a more crisp or dramatic contour and highlight. That can easily be achieved with the techniques used above, complimented with “Baking,” a term used to describe an added step. To bake you will need a pigmented powder in a lighter and brighter shade and a powder puff or cosmetic sponge.

Pro Tip: One product seen in many pro cosmetic kits is Ben Nye Banana Powder. If you buy a contour kit, most brands include a yellow-hued brightening powder.  

Just beneath the contoured area, carefully apply a generous amount of the brightening powder on the edge of your powder puff. Allow that product to rest for the remainder of your cosmetic application and then sweep the loose powder away. This will leave you will a very crisp and defined contour.

A Few Cautions

Avoid the “Zebra Effect”

When it ones to makeup, stripes are bad, and they completely defeat the purpose of highlighting and contouring. If your work is obvious, you have not done a good job. Makeup is meant to perfect and enhance, not draw you into drag queen status. Be light-handed with this process. Begin by gently applying and darken gradually. By design, contouring products tend to be pigmented, so take it easy and use a light touch. Contouring also looks best when used with gradient, so use a light wash, then a bit more to darken an area that requires a deeper “faux shadow.”

Instagram is not Your Friend

You have seen it: several lines drawn in four or five different colors and blended out with sixteen different brushes and expensive blenders. Makeup confusion ensues. Cosmetic chaos erupts. Please do not buy in! Most beauty gurus have ring lights (at a minimum) that wash their product down and then top their photos with filters. Your human eye is viewing enhanced enhancements. A more natural touch will always be better. Keep in mind, to sell endorsements, images and tutorials will typically err on the side of more brushes and products. That is absolutely the opposite of what is needed to really achieve a beautiful and professional look.

Keep It Simple

Simplicity is still your BFF when it comes to cosmetics. To create a truly balanced face, use the same contour product on your entire face. The most beautiful looks are created with very simple (and light) contours, all over the face. So if needed, chisel the hollows of your cheeks, the underside of your bottom lip, your hairline, the sockets of your eyes, your jaw line, and your nose with the same color of the same product. This will synthesize the same lighting in the same room on the same face.

As always, find what works for you and have fun! Want to try a few more great products? Try your hand with these.

Photo credit: ASR Photography, Aimee Sue Radic

Model: Shannon Paige Stoner

Makeup Artist: That Basic Chic


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