The Ultimate Truth About Contouring!

I often get asked by readers (hiya!) and fellow makeup artists to write posts on various subjects, and the one that comes up time and time again is, of course, contouring. It seems the makeup artists of the world, myself included, have a heck of a lot to say about the current world obsession with a trend that’s blown up to monstrous proportions in recent years.

Luckily for me, I’ve been in the industry long enough to know of a world without a contouring obsession. Before Kim Kardashian released the infamous pre-blending selfie that confused the masses and launchedcontouring-makeup-kim-kardashian a thousand makeup disasters. But a friend who teaches a highly regarded makeup course in London recently told me of her current students’ lack of understanding that there is more than one type of contouring. And that the whole “clown makeup” application of dark and light concealers does not a makeup artist make. So this one goes out to the new school of makeup artists, and student artists, bombarded with contouring selfies and understandably confused!

Before I start, this isn’t going to be a contouring tutorial. The internet is drowning in those. Kimmy K is soon to be bringing out a new website with her team of artists showing you exactly how to get her famous look, so if you want the full whack contour technique, that would be my go-to recommendation. May as well go direct to the source! And for something more red carpet/editorial ready, check out Lisa Eldridge’s technique.

Nor am I here to talk about products, I feel a post dedicated to that coming on in the near future, but I will say my personal favourite contouring products, and more often than not the ones I see in other artist’s kits are; Tom Ford’s Shade And Illuminate, Kevyn Aucoin’s Sculpting Powder, Illamsqua’s Gel Sculpt in “Silhouette” and MAC’s Sculpting Powders. So now that’s out of the way, what I want to talk about is the craze itself. What is this sudden obsession with contouring, what’s the story behind it, and do you need to do it at all?

Allow me to break it down. First of all…

1. There are two types of contouring.

One is the natural school of contouring, designed to subtly enhance bone structure. Seen in editorials and on the covers of fashion magazines, seen on movie stars on the Oscars red carpet. This is the contouring of Lisa Eldridge, Pat McGrath and Charlotte Tilbury. It can be barely a wisp of product or amped up for a vampish look, but is always strategically and sparingly placed, using products specifically designed to imitate soft, natural shadows.

The other is that, which back in the 90s, was referred to as “heavy natural”. Yes the shades may be on the natural spectrum, but all else is not. This is the uber-glam Kim Kardashian school of Kontouring, the makeup of glossy Los Angeles types and hyper-made-up pop stars, the dramatic technique used flawlessly by Scott Barnes (the man behind the infamous selfie above), Kevyn Aucoin and Sam Fine. For the purposes of this article, I’ll refer to it as “full contouring”!

If this is the type of makeup you want to concentrate on, by all means do, it is a niche look however, and you need to be really, REALLY good at it. Those who do this look well are exceptionally talented makeup artists, and while it may not be to my personal taste, I respect their skill immensely. And while we’re here, have you noticed anything about those five images above? That would be that…

2. Full contouring works best on black skin.

contouring-makeup-sam-fine-imanOr may I rephrase that, contouring works best on deeply tanned to black skin tones, but black skin tones in particular wear it most beautifully. Many of the artists who specialise in the technique work with a lot of celebrities of colour, and there is a simple reason for that. Contouring is all about mimicking light and shade on the face. When light hits the skin, it reflects back with far more contrast the darker that skin is, therefore the natural highlights and shadows on tanned and black skin are more extreme than on white skin, and can be played up more dramatically.

I mean, look at the INSANE play of light and shade on Iman’s face there as she has her full contour look done by master in the field, Sam Fine. Look at the contrast between her face and her chest. But once she has her gown on you just know that’s going to work beautifully on the red carpet. Now if she were fair-skinned? Not so much. Bare this in mind when contouring caucasian skin, less dramatic contrasts between the contour and highlight shades are advised for lighter skin tones.

3. It is not a new technique.

I mentioned above the “heavy natural” style of the 90s. Kevyn Aucoin in particular was held up as the master of the style, and his famous best-selling books still show the now all-too familiar guides to full contouring. He used the style not only on clients like Janet Jackson and Linda Evangelista, but to famously transform his subjects into other celebrities, for a series of impressive photographs. But as Kay Montano mentioned in our interview, even back then there were two schools of makeup, the heavy and the more natural; the “glam” and the “cool” so to speak, and it was thought the heavier style had died a death in the new millennium… until now!

And even though contouring had its 90s heyday, it’s beginnings were way back in the silent movies of the 1920s. As you can see below, on its journey to 2015 it made its way onto the face of Madonna in the 80s, into Revlon ads of the early 70s, and to German screen legend Marlene Dietrich.

Dietrich was known for paying close attention to the overhead lighting on set, applying her own makeup to accentuate the shadows it cast, giving her that perfectly sculpted trademark look. And her perfect understanding of the way light and shade work on the face leads us to…

4. It can look… questionable in the flesh.

If you’re not very careful that is. Take a look at your face in a mirror where you can see the light casting shadows… next to a lamp say, or in direct sunlight. Now move your face left and right. See how the shadows move? Now if you sit straight on, particularly in front of a well-lit makeup mirror (which works specifically to abolish all shadows) and create those false areas of light and shade on your face, whats the difference? That’s right, they don’t move.

That beautifully sculpted cheekbone and jawline you’ve created can very easily just look like two brown stripes to someone viewing you from the side, and don’t get me started on a strong nose contour in broad daylight. This is just one reason why contouring that looks so divine in a low resolution Instagram selfie looks so dreadful in the flesh. Because in real life, light and shade MOVE.

I want to reiterate it’s not the age-old technique of full contouring I have a problem with here, it’s the bastardization of a technique that takes great skill, into something that makes zero sense. The only way to get away with it is to blend until you can blend no more. Utterly SEAMLESS blending. Do not be fooled by filtered social media images or teeny tiny red carpet pictures either. There is a LOT of makeup on that skin, and often unnecessarily so!

Full contouring does not mean your makeup has to be three fingers thick. The amount of makeup I see some girls applying in YouTube videos terrifies me. I can hear the pores screaming in suffocation. You’re much more likely to convince a viewer online and IRL that those pops of light and shade are simply your own natural beauty if the skin’s texture is that of skin, not high coverage product. Contour away by all means but try not to be so heavy-handed with the coverage, there is middle ground. Unless of course you are a drag queen.contouring-makeup-drag

And I swear that’s not me throwing shade. I LOVE me a good Queen. But it is true that for decades now, the main proponents of the full face contouring technique have been the fabulous members of the drag community. Often their makeup skills are out of this world… Just look at RuPaul for crying out loud… Flawless! But as much as drag artists may be gorgeous creatures, most women are not drag queens. By which I mean they do not require a full face of heavy contouring to disguise a five o clock shadow and change their features to those of someone else. Which leads me to the next point.

5. Faces do not need “fixing”.

erin-oconnorThis is what I find the most disturbing about the current contouring obsession, particularly amongst teens and twenty somethings; the insinuation that something is wrong with their facial features, and that they need “correcting”. It may seem hypocritical to say so as a makeup artist, after all makeup is designed to be transformative, but I do not believe it’s designed to entirely disguise the face of the person wearing it, or to attempt to alter their features to some “ideal” version of what’s beautiful.

Makeup should enhance all that’s wonderful and gorgeous about the person wearing it, not attempt to hide them away by daubing on a whole new identi-kit face regardless of who is in the chair. Look at Erin O’Connor’s exquisite Roman nosed profile, Reese Witherspoon’s adorable pointed chin, or Lily Cole and current it-girl model Natalie Westling’s rounded cherub-like cheeks! Unique features are what make women uniquely natalie-westling-id-magazinebeautiful, celebrate them! The best makeup artists who use the full face contouring technique do just this. They customise their use of contouring to fit the woman in front of them. Picking and choosing which features to shade and highlight and to what degree. Kevyn Aucoin himself famously said,

“Perfection is boring. If a face doesn’t have mistakes, it is nothing.”

Be realistic about what contouring can do, and celebrate each individual face that’s being made up, don’t mask it!

6. Full contouring is not an essential “pro” skill.

That is to say, not all professional makeup artists are fans of it and most hardly ever, or never, use it. I certainly don’t mean it’s not highly skilled, by God it is, and as I mentioned before if you’re going to do it, you better be really, really good. But what I have noticed is that since it’s re-birth, it’s been embraced, particularly by girls on the street as being a pro “secret”, the ultimate holy grail of techniques that makes a makeup artist a makeup artist. And I’m sorry, but I call bullshit. This is 100% not true. It is not a trend born of the catwalk, or the world’s most revered makeup artists, but rather a result of Instagram selfies and YouTube tutorials. Yes some pros use it, some of us use it just now and then upon request, and some never ever do.

Bobbi Brown  has professed to hating the extreme contouring technique because “it makes you look like you have dirt on your face”! Laura Mercier has also been vocal about her distaste for the current trend. The majority of artists I know never use the full “heavy natural” technique and get this; You don’t need to do it AT ALL.

Contouring, full or subtle, is not an “always” thing, it is in no way essential, do it if it suits the look! Many creative makeups don’t call for the slightest bit of contouring. A lot of contemporary fashion and runway looks are the same. Romantic, pretty styles often lack any contouring, as do many fresh red carpet looks. Some faces are blessed with gorgeous bone structure, and contouring is wasted on them! Sometimes it’s nice to just sculpt the face with well placed highlights instead. Contouring is just one skill to have in your arsenal, it’s not a one-size fits all technique. Just look at these un-contoured beauties!

So finally, do you need to learn the “full contour” as a makeup artist?

The ultimate lowdown is this;

  • If your main clients are young girls on nights out, particularly glamorous types, or brides, its worth learning to do this well as the trend will likely stick around for a good while yet! As always work with the preference of the individual, you must be able to produce natural contours as well!
  • If you want to work in the fashion world, you will not need this, period. Subtle contouring and clever highlighting skills when needed are preferred.
  • If you work on commercial shoots or TV, where realism is preferred, a full contour won’t be appreciated!
  • If you work with celebrities/pop stars, it’s worth knowing how to do it for clients who request it, but don’t employ it at all times, always work with the preferences of the individual.
  • Or… Specialise in it, and you will be called upon solely for this type of makeup. There are a small group of artists who do, and they are very successful, but when I say a small group, I can think of five or six that I now of by name, worldwide!

Of course, the most important thing is to do you and do what you love. But I hope that’s cleared up some of the confusion. Oh hang on a minute… Kim K just did her Vogue Spain cover without a scrap of makeup on!! STOP THE PRESS!!!


Lucy xx

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11 Responses

    • Lucy G August 7, 2015 / 4:10 pm

      Thanks Ann-Marie! xx

  1. Izabela August 7, 2015 / 5:34 pm

    Such a great article… “Amen”

    • Lucy G August 7, 2015 / 5:54 pm

      Thanks Izabela Amen indeed xx

  2. Ferdie Santiago August 7, 2015 / 6:11 pm

    You just lifted a heavy burden on my hurt!
    Spot on!!!

  3. arkichou August 7, 2015 / 6:51 pm

    the vogue with “no makeup” although she is clearly wearing mascara and other on the pictures^^ made me laugh the first time i saw it.
    that being said, like always when it comes to face i like the more sublte version. i´m not perfect but i don´t want to change the way my face looks. i want people to see i am the same person with and without makeup and not wonder who that stranger is^^

  4. Hannah August 8, 2015 / 8:26 am

    Amen. And so eloquently put!

  5. Lucy G August 9, 2015 / 10:24 am

    I’ve just realised that no one gets notified of my response to individual comments, oops. Thanks so much for your lovely feedback everyone! xxx

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