5 Rules For Basic, Natural-Looking Contouring


The best advice Josie Maran ever gave me (also the only advice, since we talked for 10 minutes) is that the fastest way to contour is just applying bronzer down the side of your face in a '3' shape. They were wise words, and true—if you've only got 30 seconds and a pan of brown shadow, swiping a couple half-moon shapes from forehead to cheekbone and then cheek to jawline really does work.

But there's more to contouring than bronzer tips from model-cum-argan-magnates... There are also highlighter tips! And foundation tips! And even blush tips! I like my makeup suggestions the same way I like my men—uncomplicated and fast—so here are my "I'm too lazy for multi-step tutorials" tricks:

1. Keep it light in the center, and shadowy at the edges
You know how in Zoolander, Derek sucks in his cheeks and makes his eyes all big when he does Blue Steel? You want that, except with products instead of fish face. The basic concept is that the middle of your face—forehead, bridge of nose, cheekbones, under eyes, etc—should be lighter because it'll make your face look more angular and bright. Then you use a darker product to create faux shadows along your hairline, jawline, beneath cheekbones, and along the sides of your nose. That way you always look like you just stepped out from under an old Parisian streetlamp in Les Miz and are about to sing an off-off-off-Broadway version of that song Joey covered for the talent show in Dawson's Creek.

2. Technique makes a huge difference
The subtle contouring method goes something like this: Get two foundations shades, one a shade lighter than your skin tone and one a shade deeper. Dot the lighter shade across the middle of your face, then dab the deeper one around that as a kind of "frame" and add subtle stripes of it down the sides of your nose and in the hollows of your cheeks. Then use a big, fluffy foundation brush to blend it all out. This works for any foundation formula, although if you're using an especially thick cream you might want to grab a sponge instead of a brush.

There's also a more dramatic version, which usually includes either shadow or a full-on contouring kit. You apply your normal base, then stripe white shimmer shadow or highlighter on the areas you'd normally put the lighter foundation, and line the deeper foundation areas with your dark shadow or bronzer. Then you blend it out—very carefully.

3. Don't combine different product textures
Pick a single bronzer/highlighter/foundation texture and stick to it. In general, powders are easiest to blend, creams are highest coverage, and liquids have the best staying power. They're all solid choices, but when you layer them together, the combination usually cakes up—which only works if you're going for an 80s business lady thing. This is a good rule of thumb even if you're not contouring, since the same thing happens with powder blush over cream concealer, for example.

4. Remember Your Shapes
It's hard to visualize how the stripes and lines I'm describing are supposed to look, so I like to use cheats to help me remember. Plus, we all have different face shapes, so if you straight up copy someone else's example it could make you look like a badger (just sayin').

Face-Framing 3s: Your deeper shade or bronzer gets brushed from forehead to jaw in a '3' that follows your hairline and dips in under your cheekbones.

Eye-Brightening Cs: Think of this as a 'c' shape inside the top half of the contouring '3' you just made. Take your light shade or highlighter and create a crescent that goes from the center of your brow bone (right above the middle of your iris) to the same point just beneath your eye socket.

Connect-Four Cheekbones: Take your light shade/highlighter and put a tiny dot on the tip of each finger, then pat your cheekbones from eye socket to cheek hollows so that you have four columns of dots, like a mini Connect Four board on your cheeks. Blend out and up towards your temples.

Under-cheek teardrops: Create a long, skinny tear shape in the hollows under your cheekbones, where you could draw a straight line down from the center of your eye to the "point", and the rounded part is right across from your ear canal.

5. Keep in mind that all this is subjective
General guidelines are great, but at the end of the day you're the person who decides when your face looks its best. So if you don't want your nose to look more narrow, don't put shadows down the sides! Simple as that. There's no one way to do it right, so as long as you keep the general idea of creating highlights and shadows in mind, you'll be just fine. It's only makeup, after all.

—Lacey Gattis

Photos by Annie Kreighbaum.

Kim Kardashian's makeup artist Mario Dedivanovic stopped by and worked his contouring magic on Shaughnessy Brown. For more makeup posts, click here.

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  • Q

    Don't understand how there aren't any comments yet... This is a great post! Thank you for all the tips.

    • Isabel

      When I tried clicking on it on the website it told me the page didn't exist, now on my ipad it works, maybe others are having the same trouble?

      • ITGLacey

        Hi! Thank you so much! I think there was an issue with the cache for a little while this morning, but it should be all fixed now!

    • ITGLacey

      Thank you so much! :)

  • Beauty Addict

    Love your writing! Please add more columns from you!

  • Robin Sparkles

    Do you guys know the darker color being used on the model? I have trouble finding something for contouring because I'm so pale and have very pink undertones but that looks perfect!

    • ITGLacey

      Indeed! For the "e" shape, the shade is a blend of Anastasia's Contour Powders in Java & Fawn, & then the teardrop contour blush color is Estee Lauder Rebel Rose!

      • Robin Sparkles

        thank you!!

  • lisa robb

    This is great for beginners.
    L x

  • nicole

    great post! does the "don't mix textures" rule apply to using tinted moisturizer too? for example, i use tinted moisturizer almost daily - never foundation - and will use a powder bronzer to contour. would using a liquid bronzer be better for use with a tinted moisturizer?

    • ITGLacey

      Hey! It depends on the way your tinted moisturizer dries. If it's creamier & stays on top of your skin, then powder bronzer is going to be harder to blend & messier. But if it's thin liquid & dries matte, then powder is great, actually—just don't layer it over until your moisturizer is completely dry.

  • Sophie Isabella D.

    I never thought about keeping the same formula for all products- perhaps using my MAC Harmony blush with a liquid highlighter is the reason why I can't quite get it to have that "yes, I'm naturally this chiseled" look…!

  • http://lil-loves.blogspot.co.uk/ Lil

    I've been looking for a good, natural-looking contouring method and this guide is fab, thanks! :)

    Lil x
    Lil Loves

  • http://www.thefieldingreport.com Emily Trout

    Great post! Love that there are some more directions to this- that "3" tip I'll definitely be trying. Also, so jealous you got to talk to Josie Maran, even if it was for 10 minutes!

    • ITGLacey

      She was really nice! Also, insanely, mind-numbingly gorgeous.

  • Lauren


  • Lauren

    But quick question - what are using to create the "under-cheek teardrops"? The highlighter?

    • ITGLacey

      Blush (or bronzer, in a pinch)! Here the color is Estee Lauder blush in Rebel Rose.

  • haints

    Where is the earring from?

  • Annie Lindsay

    I just recently bought the Maybelline Fit Me foundation in the stick form and they're AWESOME for contouring. Super affordable and suuuuppper blenadble. I love 'em!

  • Alice Dennard

    As always, into the gloss read my mind. I've been contouring half assed for almost two years now and yesterday at sephora I got all new contouring stuff and now a handy guide on how to use them! Thanks Lacey!

  • andee

    Or, you could just age. Guess what? Having hit my 6th decade a few years ago, mother nature has contoured my face. Saves me time.

  • http://thefashion-six.blogspot.co.uk Emma Rose

    Great tips. I just haven't the time in the mornings to do a full contour face!


  • Mary Bulgin

    So helpful! Only just learnt the art of contouring.

  • charmystique

    Great tips! I love how the end result is so subtle. I also think practice makes perfect with contouring. We all have different faces, so techniques will have to be adapted to suit each face type.

  • http://www.wernerbeauty.com/ Teckie

    Great point about mixing textures - I'd love to see a post about moisturizer, primer and foundation ingredients and mixing water/oil/silicone-based. I've heard many different (sometimes conflicting) opinions and would be curious to know what you guys think!

  • http://www.clevergirlreviews.com/ Clever Girl Reviews

    I like the pictures! Helpful!

  • http://www.boujeeandbroke.com/ Boujee & Broke

    Great advice...But who really has the time in the morning to do a full contour face? I definitely do it on the weekend tho! Great tip about the powder blush and cream foundation!

  • http://sugarkissesbeauty.com Wendy Maldonado

    I love this post...love love love..thank you

  • Tess

    I love doing makeup but my biggest problem was trying to learn how to contour/ high lights will love to have a video

  • chloe

    Ok i Just got the anastasia contouring pallette ans i know you use it after you put foundation on but do i use Powder or anything after?!?

  • asma

    great article and thank you for your effort

  • Graphy

    It's only makeup, after all. - basically what the site is based on hahaahha