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Contouring, Defined: Learn How To Contour Like a True Pro

Contouring 101: How To Contour Like an Absolute Pro

30 Dec 2021

Makeup gives you power; it grants you the ability not just to cover blemishes or paint your lids in color but to transform. This is never more true than it is with contouring. When you know how to contour with makeup correctly, you can sculpt your face and flatter your features any way you like. Of course, “correctly” is the operative word here. Face contouring may be all over social media, but it’s also a very real professional makeup artist technique.

So, that’s where we come in. Rather than leave you to delve into the world of contour makeup via trial and error, we’ve created your go-to pro contouring guide to, well, guide you through the ins and outs. You’ll learn what contouring is, how to contour your face (complete with step-by-step instructions), and how to factor your face shape into the equation. With this guide, we’ve made contouring easy and foolproof. Keep reading to discover the transformative power of contouring.

What Exactly Is Contouring?

First things first, let’s define contouring. It’s a makeup practice that involves strategically applying color in a manner intended to shape or sculpt specific areas of the face. By using darker colors to mimic shadows, contouring builds depth and can make your visage appear more angular. This technique can be used to make cheekbones pop, sculpt your nose, define your jawline, and so on. It all depends on where you contour (more on that later).

When it comes to face contouring for beginners, it is helpful to clarify the difference between contour with bronzer. While a bronzing powder may not look completely dissimilar from a contour powder at first glance, their purposes aren’t the same. Bronzer is used to add warmth to your complexion—think of a gorgeous, sun-kissed makeup look. And as we said, contouring is all about the illusion of depth.

Highlighting, on the other hand, is the opposite of contour makeup: The aim is to brighten rather than add shadow. This can be done either with colors that are lighter than your skin tone or shimmery formulas that reflect light. When used together, face contour and highlight products can have an even more dynamic effect—it’s definitely a case of opposites attract.

What Should You Use For Contouring?

At NYX Professional Makeup, we have a number of vegan products for sculpting your face. Here’s the rundown on your options:

Cream Contour

Cream contour formulas blend beautifully on dry skin types, even when other products might cling to parched patches. Instead of a brush, try blending cream contour products with a makeup sponge for a natural, soft-focus effect.

Product Pick: The Wonder Stick ranks high among our favorite easy ways to contour. This dual-ended contour stick is the ultimate dynamic duo. Start with the creamy, pigmented contour color, then flip it over to use the coordinating highlighter on the opposite side.

Powder Contour

Powder products tend to be great for oily skin types—they don’t slip and slide around on slick skin—and contouring face makeup is no exception. They’re also a good choice for beginners, as they’re buildable and easy to control, especially if you apply them with a good brush. When picking a contour powder, keep in mind the best ones will have a shimmer-free matte finish. This is ideal for creating shadows that look real.

Product Pick: For a compact option that houses all the shades you need, try our 3 Steps to Sculpt Face Sculpting Palette. Each highlight and contour palette includes three easy-to-blend shades to contour, highlight, and illuminate.

If you love to experiment with makeup, we recommend the Highlight & Contour Pro Palette instead. Featuring four contour shades and four highlighters, the versatile kit ensures you’ll always have the right hue at your fingertips. It’s also refillable, which can help minimize waste in your makeup routine.

Liquid Contour

Last but not least, let’s talk liquid contour. This is great option for a natural-looking finish. These high-impact formulas are ideal for pairing with liquid foundations since they have similar consistencies. The result is a more seamless makeup look. An additional benefit is that it’s easy to be quite precise with your application.

Product Pick: Liquid contours often double as concealer, and who doesn’t love a multitasker? Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Contour Concealer is the perfect example. Not only can you use it to camouflage dark circles but the right shade will make the perfect contour color (look for one about two shades darker than your skin tone). Pair it with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop Full Coverage Foundation for even coverage and a perfectly diffused contour.

How To Contour In 5 Easy Steps

Once you have a product picked out, it’s time to learn how to contour your face.

1. Build Your Base With Primer and Foundation

Typically, we don’t recommend contouring completely bare skin. Rather, you want to lay down a foundation—so to speak—first. Start with a face primer, like The Marshmellow Smoothing Primer or Plump Right Back Primer & Serum. Either option will help the rest of your makeup, including your contour, apply easily and last longer. You can stop here or follow your primer of choice with foundation, applying an even layer to your entire face.

2. Contour Your Cheekbones

The bulk of learning to contour is understanding where to contour. You can sculpt any spots you want to appear smaller or more symmetrical, but, generally, there are three key zones to hit: your cheekbones, nose, and the perimeter of your face (a.k.a. your forehead and jawline). While there is no strict rule as to the right order to sculpt each spot, we like to start with the cheeks.

To define your cheekbones, first, you’ll need to find them. While some people are blessed with super prominent ones, not all of us are so lucky. And hey, that’s where contouring comes in. To get a better idea of exactly where your cheekbones are, make a fish face (suck in your cheeks and pucker up your lips). This unflattering expression will make your cheekbones temporarily pop.

Once you spot the hollows of your cheeks, you can go ahead and apply your contour to that area. Start with a line along the hollow, going from your hairline inward. Make sure not to carry it too close to the center of your face. Typically, you don’t want your contour color to go past the outer corner of your eye. After it’s applied, take your time to really blend out the line. Contouring is about creating an illusion, and that doesn’t work nearly as well if there’s an unblended streak of concealer on your face.

3. Contour Your Nose

Next up: your nose contour. How you contour this feature largely depends on the result you’re seeking. Noses can be contoured to look thinner or wider. You can define the tip or create a more round-looking end, broaden the bridge or narrow the root, and so on. This is something we encourage you to experiment with—see what effect suits you best.

With that said, we’re happy to share the most popular nose contouring method: Use your contour product to draw parallel vertical lines down the bridge of your nose. The closer the lines, the slimmer the nose will look. Blend out your contour, making sure to keep the center of the nose free of color for a sculpted finish.

4. Contour Your Forehead and Jawline

Our final contouring spot is your forehead and jawline. Applying face contour makeup around the edges of your face helps give definition to your face shape.

Apply your contour product along your hairline first, focusing on your temples. Next, draw a line starting at the bottom of your ear and bring it down, stopping right before the center of your chin. Repeat on the other side of your face. Finally, blend out until smooth.

5. Top Things Off With Highlighter

If you ask us, contour should always be complemented with highlighter. It’s all about balancing dark with light for a natural-looking effect. (And even if you want a look that really pops, highlighter will make it extra eye-catching.)

As for where to highlight your face, you want to dust, brush, or tap highlighter onto key spots that naturally catch the light. This includes the tops of your cheeks, down the center of your nose, your brow bones, the inner corners of your eyes, your cupid’s bow, and the center of your chin. Like your contour, you’ll want to make sure to blend out before calling it a wrap on your makeup routine.

Pro Tip: To keep things simple, use an all-in-one product featuring both a contour and highlight color. This is especially great for on the go. Wonder Stick can easily be stored in your purse or makeup bag for traveling or touching up during the day.

How to Contour For Your Face Shape

The steps above are the perfect jumping-off point when you’re just starting out with contouring. Once you’ve mastered them, you can take things a step further and customize your look. By contouring with your specific face shape in mind, you can better play up your individual features. Scroll down (or use MYAIA, our virtual makeup assistant) to find your shape, then discover our tips for contouring it.

Oval Face Contour

Oval face shapes are almost equal in length and width. They’re also characterized by slightly curved edges.

  • Follow the classic contour method, applying product in a “3” shape, hitting your temples, cheekbones, and jawline
  • Because your forehead and chin are already narrow, try using a lighter hand when defining these areas
  • Highlight your cheekbones, chin, and nose to balance the dimension you’ve created
  • Round things out with a bit of blush on the apples of your cheeks

Heart Face Contour

If this is you, your cheekbones are prominent, and your forehead is wider than your chin, which may be more angular or pointed.

  • Contour your forehead, starting at the center, right along your hairline and sweep down toward your temples
  • Continue the contour at your temples, bringing it down to the hollows of your cheeks
  • Don’t forget to add highlighter to your cheekbones, the sides of your jawline, and the center of your nose

Square Face Contour

Square faces appear beautifully chiseled, with equal length and width accompanied by angular edges.

  • Find the hollows of your cheeks (use the fish-face trick), then apply contour
  • Apply contour to your temples in curved, rather than straight, lines for a softer effect
  • Highlight the tops of your cheeks and the center of your forehead for a bit of glow

Round Face Contour

Round face shapes will be equal in length and width as well, but they have curved (i.e., rounded) edges.

  • Place your contour product, starting at the temples and moving down under the cheekbones—the result should look like a “C” shape
  • Contouring lower on the cheeks will help give the illusion of more defined cheekbones
  • Utilize the “C” shape again, this time drawing it from your cheekbone to your jawline (together, the “Cs” should create a “3” shape)
  • Apply highlighter along the cheekbones, being careful not to bring it toward the center of your face

Rectangle Face Contour

You likely have a rectangular face if the length is greater than the width, and your jaw is angular and square.

  • Contour your cheeks but don’t drag the color into the center of your face
  • Only contour the middle of your forehead, stopping before you reach the temples
  • When contouring the jawline, stop halfway between the edge and your chin
  • Add your contour color beneath the center of your chin
  • Finish with highlighter on your cheekbones and chin

Diamond Face Contour

Diamond face shapes have more length than width and feature a pointy chin and narrow hairline.

  • Contour below your cheekbones, starting at the base of your ears and ending in the middle of the cheeks
  • Keep the contour makeup away from your mouth
  • Create the appearance of fullness with a touch of highlighter on the apples of the cheeks, middle of the forehead, and chin


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