Not Fair; The Makeup Artist’s Guide to Deep Black Skin Tones Part One

makeup-for-deep-black-skin-Nykhor-PaulLast month, dreamy long-limbed model Nykhor Paul was in the news, blasting the makeup artists of the fashion world for being “unprepared” and “lazy”. And it pains me to say that unfortunately, in what seems to be the sad majority of cases, she’s right. What Nykhor was referring to, is the inability of an absurd amount of makeup artists, particularly white artists, to expertly make up her deep blue-black skin tone… or to make it up at all! Nykhor Paul hails from South Sudan, and like many other models of colour including Alek Wek, and Grace Bol, has not the light black skin of Beyonce say, or the caramel tones of Naomi Campbell, but the deepest ebony skin tone, with those cool blue undertones, for which many a make up artist is, inexcusably, totally unprepared.

I’m happy to say that through learning the ropes in a multi-cultural city, and having worked with Mac and Illamasqua in my early days, both of which proudly cater to the full range of skin tones, I spent years working regularly on all skin colours. It’s undeniable that in the Western world the prevalence of skin tones like those of Wek and Paul are less common, but this doesn’t mean they are less essential a skill for an artist to learn! I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and say; any makeup artist who cannot make up, or is not willing to learn to makeup, the skin of a colour not their own, should just pack up their brushes and go the heck home. I once heard of a makeup artist for a well-known TV show hiring a “black skin specialist” as she was unable to do the makeup herself – which is frankly, a bloody disgrace.

Now if you’re a young makeup artist starting out, and you haven’t yet worked on the skin tones I mention, please don’t take offence. I know it’s not always possible to find models willing to give up their face for you to practice on at the drop of a hat. And even for established artists who flinch at the thought of having to make up an as yet unfamiliar skin tone, I promise this isn’t a dig.  All I ask is that you do you read on, and be prepared, so that when it’s needed you have the products and the technical know how to do your best job for the lovely lady (or fella) in the chair!

So where do I begin? Well how about with supermodel Iman who for 14 years, used to have to take her own foundation on shoots and to shows, as makeup artists were incapable of matching her complexion. Sick and tired, she reacted by designing her own groundbreaking cosmetics range, which remains to this day one of the biggest and best quality ranges for dark skin tones in the world. And while many brands that claim to cater to all ethnicities will in fact have fifteen foundations for fair skin tones with two for “black skin” tacked on the end, Iman’s range comes in 12 shades as seen below, from lighter Asian tones to those I’ll be writing about here which would be roughly shades Earth 3 to Earth 7, described by the brand as “deep ebony”. While many a makeup artist has begun to master working with lighter shades of black skin, these tones are where a lot of artists fall short.


What the folk at Iman get right, is that they understand the undertones of black skin. It’s not just a beige foundation, with brown/black pigment added to darken it. Oh hell no. There are golden undertones to lighter black skin, often reddish undertones to deep Asian skin and then blue undertones to the deep ebony skin tones. And so it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that you also cannot apply the rules and colour theory of makeup for fair skintones to the skin of Lupita Nyong’o or Ajak Deng. It would look, simply, hideous. Just as Lupita’s red carpet looks would look disastrous on say, Jennifer Lawrence. This isn’t one size fits all beauty. The application techniques may be the same but you need a little more know how than that at your disposal.


So let’s start with that beautiful skin first of all shall we?


Some of the smoothest, most stop-you-in-your-tracks skin I’ve ever seen is in this family of skin tones. Women blessed with deep black skin often have seemingly non-existent pores, zero lines and an offensively even skin tone – and by all means if that’s the case don’t go mad on the foundation, let that skin shine! But if your client does need a little help on the foundation front, then read on.

Deep toned skin can have a tendency to be quite oily, although obviously check with the individual what their skin type is first. If the oils are a go-go, try to use an acid toner in makeup-for-deep-black-skin-skincare-toner-primer-clinique-beccathe skin prep stage – not as scary as it sounds, these just help to tackle oil production and are in many a toner! Clinique Mild Clarifying Lotion – £16.99 (1.)
with salicylic acid is my go-to. Then, a primer. I’m really not a big fan of primers on the whole, but I make an exception in the case of particularly oily skin. Just steer clear of the bright white and chalky monstrosities that will dull the heck out of black skin, instead a translucent primer like Becca’s Ever Matte – £28 (2.) is ideal.

Then, stick to light coverage if possible, an “oil-free” tinted moisturiser like Nars Pure Radiant Tinted Moisturiser in Polynesia – £29 (3.) can be plenty. There’s also a lot of love online for the more bank account friendly Be Beautiful Blemish Balm in Dark
from Sleek – £8.99 (4.), brilliant if you’re building a kit on a budget. For a little more coverage, keep with foundations that are less oil heavy. Water based products like Illamasqua’s much-praised Skin Base – £32.50 (5.) – of which shade 18 is considered to be one of the darkest in the makeup world – or Lancome’s Teint Miracle – £29.50 (6.) are ideal… in fact the latter graced the blessed visage of Lupita Nyong’o when she accepted her Oscar, no less.


Lupita is also a fan of using two shades of foundation – as shown again in her super pretty Oscars makeup – not for heinous clown contouring (as if!) but for a simple application trick that works so well on deeper black makeup-for-deep-black-skin-lupita-nyongo-oscarsskin tones. Ebony skin is blessed with the most glorious natural highlights and shadows, so simply applying a foundation shade one tone lighter to the centre of the face – the nose, chin, forehead, apples of the cheeks – and a deeper natural tone to the edges of the face works to beautiful effect. The impression is of contouring in a sense, but a lot less rigid and more natural, giving an effortless radiance to the face. I mentioned in our contouring post how contours work best on darker skin tones because of the play of light and shade… Well this is the soft focus, naturally beautiful version of that and it works spectacularly on deep black skin.

I don’t often rate cream to powder foundations, if ever in fact, but that velvet texture and their oil-fighting properties can be a great long-lasting option on these skin tones, in which case perhaps look to Iman or Black Up Cosmetics for more options. Concealer wise, if there is any discolouration, this is where you can really have some fun! In the weird makeup artist way where covering blemishes is… fun. Subtle colour correction works especially well on deep skin tones if required, I prefer the technique of mixing a little of Mac’s Studio Finish Skin Corrector in Pure Orange – £12.50 into my concealer of choice (just a little mixed in please, we’re not after a Tango effect)  and as such Mac’s Pro Conceal And Correct Palette Dark – £35 (7.) which contains that alongside five other great shades is very handy, as is Makeup For Ever’s Five Camouflage Cream Palette in Dark – £25.75 (8.).


To save this turning into a post on colour correction technique I’ll hand over to the gorgeous and infinitely likeable makeup artist Jackie Aina. Jackie’s skin is slightly fairer than the deep ebony tones mentioned here, but her detailed breakdown of colour correction for hyper-pigmented areas of black skin is spot on, works just as well for darker skin tones and is seriously recommended viewing for makeup artists looking to learn more about working with black skin. Head straight to 2:42 for the good stuff.

You can by all means finish with a translucent setting powder, but not all are ideal for such deep black skin, a great all-rounder that doesn’t look ashy, is Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder – £29. And always have some blotting papers to hand, as shine tends to show up with a lot more oomph on darker skin tones.

I have two foundation/concealer bags in my kit, one for the lighter half of the spectrum and one for the darker, and just pack whichever I require that day. If I don’t know who I’ll be working on I take both. Simple. And before we move on, honourable foundation mention must go to; Black Up – who are selling great sample cards of their Mattifying Fluid Foundation, as are Sleek with their New Skin Tester Kit in Dark, allowing you to test which shades you get the most use from before purchasing full size for the kit.

So that’s the basics covered… and we haven’t even got to the fun stuff yet! Head on over to Part Two where we bring you the remainder of our makeup artist’s guide to working with deep black skintones… it’s time for eyeshadows and blushers and lipsticks oh my!

Lucy xx

Featured Image By William Baker for iD Magazine

To Follow Mascara Wars, click here!

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Pin on Pinterest650Share on Google+0Email this to someone

7 Responses

  1. Daniela Polla August 24, 2015 / 5:20 pm

    It seems to me that many fashion shows are affiliated with a certain line of makeup exclusively. Artists are probably using what’s supplied for them, which may have a limited range. Did she have a couple bad experiences with her makeup, or did she do a little research before calling a whole group of professionals lazy and unprepared?

  2. Lucy G August 24, 2015 / 5:45 pm

    That’s true, but I always take my darkest shades with me to shows, I always have a mini-kit of sorts. I think she’s generalising of course but she makes a very valid point! x

  3. Fatuma August 24, 2015 / 6:58 pm

    Thanks for this, this information is so informative. As a dark skinned lady it is nice to see someone appreciates the complexities of dark skin. We don’t all just fall under the 2-3 extra dark shades that are added on to a foundation range. Regarding what Daniela Polla said, if you are going to be working at fashion shows, surely it is your job to be prepared for any type of model? I can accept that you are more likely to come across the fairer models, but carrying a few darker shades would help cover all bases. Surely that’s what being a professional is about.

  4. Lucy G August 24, 2015 / 7:40 pm

    Thanks Fatuma, glad you enjoyed! I think it’s probably a combination of problems, the fact that until recently there were so few deep dark shades didn’t help… But absolutely we should all be prepared for the fairest to the darkest skins. I’m glad Nykhor spoke up it seems it’s a conversation that needed having! x

  5. Sian August 24, 2015 / 9:19 pm

    Can’t wait for part 2! I think this information is so helpful and absolutely invaluable to anyone working as a makeup artist.

    I can’t stand this… excuse, (because that is all it is)… of shows being sponsored by certain brands, that keeps coming up. That doesn’t matter, I work on a show team sponsored by a brand with a rather narrow colour selection – not pale enough for fair skin tones and not dark enough/wrong tones for darker skin tones, but I take product with me that I know will work should I have to makeup any models who fall at either end of the spectrum.
    I have my Bobbi Brown BBU Palette and a Kryolan Palette of cream foundations that I can apply pure or mix to thin out depending on what I need. They are my safety blanket, I wouldn’t go to any job without them!!
    At fashion shows you have key products to create a look – whether that be a statement eyeliner, or a specific lip colour, whatever. But as a MAKEUP ARTIST the least you should be able to do is create a beautiful base that compliments any model’s natural tones. If you can’t do that, yo’ve got to question wether you should really be putting yourself forward to be part of fashion week teams. I have heard the same things that Nykhor said from so many models and I find it so embarassing!

    Sorry… that got a bit long and ranty :/

    Loving your work Lucy!! x

  6. Gina Ortiz August 24, 2015 / 10:02 pm

    I’m a professional makeup artist in Los Angeles, and I am lucky to have learned how to work on deep skin tones early on in my career. I’m VERY impressed with Jackie Aina’s thorough knowledge on this subject, as well as being very grateful she did this video. Every makeup artist should know how to correctly make up dark skin. This video is SPOT ON. Great info and detail. Thanks, Jackie!!

  7. Livia June 27, 2016 / 2:33 am

    I’m in no way a makeup artist, I’m only 15, but my best friend has a very, very dark skin tone that I can’t find the right makeup for anywhere! I thought it would be nice to do her makeup because I think I’m OK at it for my age, so I’m happy you shared this and this taught me a lot about Dark skin tones. There’s not much racial diversity where I live and I’ve been scouring the Internet for something like this, because she has gorgeous features and I’d like her to have fun with make up like the rest of the girls in my school! Thank you so much!

Leave A Reply.