Optical Illusions 101: Highlighting and Contouring Tips from the Pros


Blame it on Kim Kardashian, but the “trend” of contouring your makeup seems to be sticking around longer than expected. And with good reason: you can make your face thinner, pop out some new cheekbones or even give yourself a nose job — all with a few swipes of the brush! This isn’t the harsh contouring of the 1980’s, instead it is much more natural.

It is definitely intimidating to start contouring. Where should you start, and when should you stop? The goal should always be natural, you don’t want to be one of the “over-contoured.”

In general, darkness will make features recede or appear smaller, and light will make areas pop out. By applying your contouring product and a highlighting product in very specific locations, you’ll be able to change your whole look. Let’s get started …



Selecting a Product:

While there are definitely a lot of products that can be used for highlighting and contouring, there are few basic rules you should keep in mind when selecting your highlighting and contouring products.

1. Only use a matte contour.
Lindsey Rivera says to “avoid using any product with shimmer! The goal of contouring is to re-shape your face by tricking the eye. Dark colors recede and light colors highlight. Shimmer highlights also, so you are counteracting your contour by using a glittery bronzer.”

2. Don’t go too dark.
“The more ‘pro’ you are the darker the color you can use. If you’re timid or unsure, start with only a shade or two darker than your own skin tone,” advises celebrity makeup artist Veronica Lorenz.

3. Choose your shade carefully.
For a contour to look natural, you should stick to a product that is within the color range that you would usually wear. If your skin is warm toned, go warm toned. Avoid using products that are very warm, something that is too orange won’t look natural. Instead, look for a slightly more grey version of what you would use as a regular bronzer.

4. You can blend with cream or power.
There’s no rule that says you must use a powder for contouring, though most online tutorials use bronzer. “Use the formula you’re most comfortable blending,” says makeup artist Regina Ventimiglia. “If you’re a pro at blending powders, don’t reach for a cream contouring product and vice versa.

Benefit Hoola Bronzer $28
NYX Cosmetics Wonder Stick $12


Applying the Contour:

While there are some basic rules for applying contour, many of these rules are made to be broken. The truth is that everyone’s face is different, and while a cheekbone contour might look great on you, it tends to make me look like I’ve just lost too much weight. It is great to read around the Internet for different tutorials on contouring (my favorite resource is MaskCara’s tutorials on how to contour for your face shape) but experimenting with your own face is the best place to start.

1. Pick a few features to contour.
“Understand what and why you’re trying to contour. More often than not, you really do not need your entire face contoured!” says Regina Ventimiglia. The contour and highlight should be applied lightly to specific areas, rather than covering your entire face in either contour or highlight. It should look like war paint, not paint by numbers.

2. Apply where shadows are naturally found.
Sheila Arkee has this list of the most common places to apply a contour:
– On the temples of your forehead
– Down the sides of your nose
– Directly underneath your cheekbones
– On your jawline

3. Experiment with application order.
While most women apply contour over their foundation, you can reverse this order. Celebrity makeup artist Misha Shahzada explains that she prefers “the 3-D method. This is when you apply the contour shade prior to applying foundation. I find this to be the most natural looking technique.”

4. Just smile.
Final Pro Tip: Don’t do the “fish face” to find your cheekbones. This usually results in placement of the contour lower on your face and pushed closer to your mouth than you want. Instead, smile to find your cheekbones and place the contour just below.


Applying the Highlight:

While there’s a lot of talk about contouring, there should be more discussion about highlighting. Makeup artist Shannon Van Horn offers up this golden rule, “For every contour there is a highlight.” Forgetting that highlight is a big mistake, it really balances out your contouring!

Sheila Arkee recommends applying “highlighting products on the high planes of the face – the areas most likely to naturally be hit by light.”
– The bridge of the nose
– Tops of the cheekbones
– On top of your brows
– The cupid’s bow
– The space right underneath the lower lip, middle of the chin


Blend, Blend, Blend:

Makeup artist Kim Porter says that “the biggest mistake when contouring cheeks is having a harsh line that isn’t blended or too dark of a contour shade. A strong contoured cheek is great for print work but not for everyday makeup!”

Highlighting and contouring needs to be well-blended into the face for a more natural look. You can blend with a brush or a sponge. The goal is to avoid any lines or streaks on your face. Makeup artist Norah Salazar recommends blending in a circular motion for better results.

BeautyBlender, $19.95
It Cosmetics Heavenly Luxe Fan Brush $48



Check Your Results:

While there’s nothing like natural light for applying makeup, contouring can be very tricky. Even with great lighting it can be very hard to get your contouring to look right. “When you’re finished, snap a quick photo of yourself and see how you look. The camera won’t lie,” recommends makeup artist Shannon Van Horn.  Norah Salazar agrees, “when in doubt, take a selfie in good light, preferably natural or using a flash, you will be able to see what your contouring looks like.”

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