VIDEO: Make-up tutorial - how to contour your face

Loved by camera-ready celebrities, contouring is supposed to sculpt the face into a symmetrical ideal of beauty. So what does TV3’s Anna Daly think?

IT’S not called warpaint for nothing. Make-up is a secret weapon. It creates the illusion of youth and beauty. Prompted by celebrities, make-up artists are fine-tuning the idea of hiding flaws and accentuating good features.

The market is flooded with contouring kits, which became prominent thanks to Kim Kardashian. People have marvelled at her hollowed cheekbones, her fine jawline, and her narrow nose. Some accused her of having had plastic surgery, but Kim’s make-up artist, Rob Scheppy (one of three in constant rotation) says her look can be achieved without the surgeon’s scalpel. 

Kim showed how much effort and expertise was involved in countouring, when, in March, 2014, she posted a picture of herself mid-session, before the make-up was blended out. If confirmed what we’ve long suspected: looking like Kim takes serious effort. It also looks a little daft to the untrained eye: it seemed Kim had drawn a weird palm tree on her face.

Using a clever blend of light and shade, make-up contouring sculpts a person’s bone structure. It’s the biggest beauty buzzword du jour… but contouring has been around since make-up was invented. Old Hollywood went mad for it, because it helped to create angular, sculpted goddesses who were a world away from the average woman.

According to Warren Dowdall, personal beauty stylist at Brown Thomas, it was celebrity make-up artist, Kevyn Aucoin, who brought it to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s for stage and photography sessions.

When Yves Saint Laurent’s Touche Eclat highlighter/complexion perfecter came out 23 years ago, its light, reflective qualities became a game-changer. Optical illusion has always been make-up’s modus operandi, but this was the first time that a contouring product was marketed en masse. Still, make-up artists reported that several users were misusing the product as an under-eye concealer (hello, tell-tale white moons) causing much chagrin among beauty experts.

But where supermodels and celebrities blaze a trail, civilians are sure to follow. Just like the HD brow and eyelash extensions before it, contouring has filtered down to the mainstream and is being embraced by teen girls and young women keen to recreate the A-list’s look. GlamBoothTV’s YouTube contouring tutorial — just one of hundreds — has been viewed 20m times. And beauty blogger Promise Phan’s ‘Mystery Celebrity Transformation’ tutorial, in which she uses contour make-up to transform herself into celebs, like One Direction star Zayn Malik and rapper Drake, is a viral hit.

It all speaks of a much wider phenomenon: Western millennials weaned on heavily airbrushed photos and red-carpet moments are unwilling to settle for anything less than perfection with their own looks. Once upon a time, the old Hollywood look was strictly for work — even Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe had a natural off-duty look — but not anymore. 

The line between celebrity and plain old human being is eroding by the day, so little wonder that young women are emboldened to try a look that was once the preserve of working models and actresses.

Something more worrying is afoot, too. Not only are our bodies seemingly in need of an overhaul; our facial features are, too. Because contouring conforms to a very specific feminine ideal: fine-featured and asymmetrical.

Facial symmetry is the universal standard of attractiveness. Both male and females subconsciously evaluate this when viewing a face. Researchers hypothesise that it is a biological code that signals that this person is genetically healthy and would be good to breed with.

Still, young women want to nail the look. Aided and abetted by little more than these YouTube tutorials and pictures of their idols, their efforts can be … well, a bit heavy-handed.

“We’ve had a lot of people coming in recently asking for contouring, probably thanks to Kim Kardashian,” Dowdall says. “When you’re young, you just don’t have the skills to do it right. Fortunately, that kind of heavy contouring has died a death and the look is getting softer and softer every day. It’s become something that simply enhances one’s facial structure.

“My advice to young people is to go get their make-up done professionally, and that way you can see how it’s really meant to be done, on your own face,” he says.

Still, it isn’t just ‘regular’ women who come a cropper with contouring. The red carpet is peppered with contouring efforts gone awry. Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Eva Longoria and Linsday Lohan have stepped out in public wearing tell-tale contouring stripes. Angelina Jolie, usually a paragon of physical perfection, had a spectacular make-up fail on the red carpet, for the premiere of The Normal Heart, last May.

Even Amy Huberman has seen the funny side of it all, tweeting a picture of her own contouring efforts — a cheeky tricolour on St. Patrick’s Day. A send-up, certainly, but her wry sideswipe proves just how far-reaching the phenomenon has become.

TV3 presenter Anna Daly, 38, needs little in the way of help on the beauty front but, curious about this hot new trend, she decided to give it a try.

Warren says that users need to be mindful of their face shape: Anna, for instance, has a slightly square-shaped face, with equal dimensions (a surprise to her, as her family have ribbed her over her ‘round head’ for years). 

But for those with rounded faces without much definition and soft features, contouring can be hugely transformative.

Job done on applying foundation, next up are face shaping and creating definition. Warren uses the Tom Ford Traceless Foundation stick (this neutralises redness). The Laura Mercier highlighter, he says, works well on Irish skin, and he applies a stripe on the top of the cheekbone, down the middle of the nose and in a semi-circle above the eyebrows.

“This draws light to the centre of the face,” he says. “Essentially, highlighting is about making the light come forward, while contouring makes the light recede.”

Here’s where things get technical (and where things can go wrong); once the highlighting is done, the contouring stripes are applied to the hairline, the sides of the forehead, jawline, cheeks (coming from the ear at a downward angle and finishing just below the corner of the eye) and the side of the nose.

All of this creates a ‘narrowing’ visual effect. At this point — I won’t lie — they do look a bit like go-faster stripes.

Anna, fearing the worst, laughingly exclaims: “Is this a Republic Of Telly sketch? Is a camera crew about to jump out on me?”

It does look extreme… but this is where, according to Dowdall, the magic happens.

“The trick is to keep blending until the ‘dark’ bits are buffed into the light bits,” he says, using a Bobbi Brown coverage brush to buff for five minutes. “There should be no visible lines at this stage.” Dowdall also suggests that Irish skin tones stick to more neutral colours, like taupe.

“The colour of the contouring powder should really be the colour of a shadow, so avoid something that is too orange,” he suggests. Two shades darker than your natural skin colour and/or usual foundation colour is a safe bet.

A quick slick of highlighter on the cupid’s bow (the area between the nose and lips) and Anna’s contouring session is done. Sure enough, the finished result is impressive. Anna does indeed have more of a sculpted face: a more defined jawline and cheekbones that pop. Though most people deploy contouring for special occasions and glitzy evening wear, Warren has created a daytime contouring look for Anna. There’s a crèche run (to pick up James, 4, and Euan 2) and work to get back to, after all.

To ramp up the dewy look, Warren throws some more highlighter to the top of the cheekbone, above the hollow. The end result is striking; Anna’s skin looks youthful and… well, like skin. But for a TV presenter and ex-model used to applying lots of matte powder for camera-work, the dewy look takes getting used to.

VIDEO: Make-up tutorial - how to contour your face

“I think it looks amazing and it’s a nice change… but I’d be nervous of doing it myself, as there are too many opportunities to get it wrong,” says Anna. “I know make-up pretty well, so I don’t know how my friends who don’t use make-up would cope with it. But I think I might adopt some touches of it in the near future.”

Though dewy can be a risk for imperfect skins, as they can sometimes be seen as oily, Warren says the look works great on mature skins: “Just be sure to use a foundation and powder that balance it out,” he says. “Using a mineral-based foundation won’t dry out your skin.”

As to how Anna fared in the real world, with her celebrity-influenced face: “No-one noticed a thing, but maybe that’s a good thing,” she says. “I’m thinking, if you really messed up the contouring, people might notice more.”

For all Warren’s buffing and expertise, Anna was also surprised to see how little make-up was used: “It was the easiest face of make-up I ever took off,” she says.

Contouring kits can be pricey. Dowdall says that his clients in Brown Thomas can spend up to €500 on a seasonal ‘make-up wardrobe’, though the ever-popular Charlotte Tilbury Filmstar Bronze & Glow sculpt/highlight kit is the store’s priciest kit, at €65. Still, the high street is wasting no time getting in on the action, too (Boots’ Seventeen range has a Define & Conquer contouring kit for €7.59).

A small price to pay for physical confidence… and, besides, it’s much cheaper than a facelift.

Brush up your technique

DO: Ensure your ‘canvas’ is ready to work on. Apply a foundation that’s right for your skin tone, and a liberal helping of concealer to banish redness and imperfections.

DO: Invest in good brushes. A brush with a point, like Charlotte Tilbury’s Sculpt & Powder Brush, will buff away tell-tale stripes.

DON’T: Overdo it with product. Less is always more.

DON’T: Go for bronze. Stick to neutral colours like taupe, and aim for a colour that’s two shades darker than your original skin or foundation colour. “The colour should really be the colour of a shadow, so avoid something that is too orange,” suggests make-up artist Warren Dowdall. Two shades darker than your natural skin colour and/or usual foundation colour is a safe bet.

DO: Give it a go if your first attempt doesn’t work perfectly well. Head into a professional make-up artist for some guidance.

DO: Buff… a lot. “The trick is to keep blending until the ‘dark’ bits are buffed into the light bits,” Warren explains. “There should be no visible lines.”


It turns out 40 is no longer the new 30 – a new study says 47 is the age of peak unhappiness. The mid-life crisis is all too real, writes Antoinette Tyrrell.A midlife revolution: A new study says 47 is the age of peak unhappiness

More From The Irish Examiner