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Eyeliner 101: How to Apply 5 Different Types of Eyeliner

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When it comes to completing any makeup look, we consider eyeliner the icing on the cake. Whether it’s smudged and smoky, winged eyeliner, a perfect cat eye, or barely there, it pulls together an eye makeup look in a way few other products can. It’s the finishing touch that just has a certain je ne sais quoi. And believe it or not, anyone can rock whatever liner look they want—regardless of eye shape, expertise, or skill level—all it takes is patience, practice—and most importantly—perseverance. So if you’ve messed up a cat-eye (or several), we’re here to tell you that not all is lost. After all, every great makeup artist once struggled to get those darned wings to match, too! Ready to learn how to apply eyeliner like a pro? Read on for a complete guide to applying every eyeliner product under the sun—pencils, liquids, creams, and more.


About the Expert:

Lori Taylor Davis is the Global Lead Pro Artist for SMASHBOX COSMETICS.
CiCi Chang is a makeup artist based in New York City and founder of C.omak Makeup.

How Many Types of Eyeliner Are There?

There are five main types of eyeliner, but first, here’s a quick history lesson on the origins of eyeliner—and we’re talking about the OG kind. From the riverbanks of the Nile, to the darkly-defined lashlines of the Roaring ’20s, to modern cat-eye looks on the catwalk, the history of eyeliner is almost as long and varied as the humans who wear it. Some of the eyeliner products we use today were first invented in ancient times: ancient Egyptians, for example, used kohl to rim their eyes—an ingredient we still use in our eyeliner products to this day.

In modern times, the formulation of kohl liners has evolved from the traditional lead-based formula that the ancient Egyptians used into an endless variety of other eyeliner products to choose from. While the packaging of these products might vary, there are generally five main types of eyeliners: liquid eyeliner, cream liners, gel eyeliners, kohl liners, and of course, pencil eyeliners.

Micaela Klein applies liquid eyeliner to her upper lash line.

Which Eyeliner Is Right For Me?

Well, It depends on the look you’re trying to achieve.

For a smoky eyeliner look: “First use a pencil or kohl eyeliner, drawing near your lash line. Slowly connect your eye shape, then use a small brush or small round eyeshadow brush to smudge the line you just drew slowly, until you reach the outer corner of the eye, using a circular motion,” says Cici Chang, a makeup artist in New York City.

For an easy wing: “I like to use gel liner and an angled brush to draw the details of the wing first, so the wing wouldn’t be too thick and heavy. Then layer eyeshadow on top of it to create a matte layer. Finally, use a liquid liner to emphasize the wing at the outer corner,” Chang tells us.

For a sharper, more defined line: Reach for liquid or cream eyeliners. Softer, more diffused looks call for pencils, gels, or kohls.

For a grungier, dramatic look: A kohl pencil–like PIXI BY PETRA Endless Silky Eye Pen in BlackNoir–might be your best bet.

For a soft, smudgy eye: A gel liner–like SMASHBOX COSMETICS Always On Gel Liner–is great for smudging across the lower lid and upper lash line.

For a crisp cat-eye: Use a liquid or cream eyeliner, like KVD VEGAN BEAUTY Tattoo Liner in Trooper Black.

In addition, if you’re new to applying eyeliner, a pencil is a great way to start your foray into eye artistry, so you can gradually work your way up to liquid liners. Pencil generally allows for the most control when applying the product, and thus, a great way to become familiar with the practice of applying eyeliner. Liquid liners are ideal for bolder, graphic eyeliner looks, as well as sharp lines. The downside to liquid liners are that they’re harder to control during application, and do have a bit of a learning curve. No matter what look you decide to create or what your current skill level is, there are tips and tricks you can use to master any eyeliner product.

Lynette Cenée applies pencil eyeliner.

What’s the Best Eyeliner Product for Me?

If You’re a Beginner...

“Beginners can use the most basic simple and natural thin eyeliner pencils to fill in the waterline or use dark brown eyeshadows as eyeliners, it’s foolproof and simple!”, Chang says. Pencil eyeliner is a great jumping-off point for any eyeliner newbie. There are three main types to choose from: standard, kohl, and gel. A standard eyeliner pencil, like the LOTTIE LONDON Am-Pm Retractable Liner, generally has a harder-packed tip and can be a great choice for beginners who want precise, budge-proof lines. Gels and kohls, on the other hand, are perfect for building pigmented, inky colors that can be worn in a straight, sharp line or blended around your eyelashes. No matter what eye pencil you decide to use, though, make sure it’s freshly sharpened for a precise application.

Pencil eyeliner can be used to build a variety of different looks, from feathery wings to a sleek tightline. For a classic look, choose a natural eyeliner color like MAKEUP GEEK Brown Eyeliner and gently sweep it across your upper lash line, staying as close to the lashes as possible. Sweep a similar-colored eyeshadow over the eyeliner line, and flick out at the edges for a winged eyeliner look. Finish with mascara and a wink at your cute self in the mirror!

For a more adventurous look, after you’ve finished with eyeshadow, apply a gel pencil in a bright color like MAYBELLINE EYESTUDIO Lasting Drama Waterproof Gel Pencil Eyeliner in Lustrous Sapphire to your lower waterline (the pink area in between your eyeball and your lower eyelashes), or your lower lash line. If you want, use a blending brush to smoke the color out, and then apply mascara for a finishing touch. Voila–a quick, easy, yet totally stunning eyeliner look!

Lori Taylor Davis, the Global Lead Pro Artist for SMASHBOX COSMETICS, recommends beginners use neutral tones that can be layered to add definition where they want it. She has ultra-easy tips for any newbie.

  1. Choose a soft pencil liner in a neutral shade, such as charcoal gray, soft brown, or bronze.

  2. Always sharpen the pencil. This makes the application easier.

  3. Apply color to the inner corners of your eyes, following the natural eye shape to the outer corners.

Lynette Cenée applies pencil eyeliner to her upper lashline.

If You’re Intermediate...

So you’ve mastered using a pencil and are ready for a new challenge. Enter: cream eyeliner—an eyeliner that’s more malleable than traditional pencil eyeliner.

Cream-based eyeliners most often come in small pots and are meant to be applied with a small detail or angled brush. This formula can be used for more bold and graphic looks, or smudged out for a softer effect. While perhaps not as difficult to apply as liquids, cream eyeliners do require a more steady hand for precise application. Like all eyeliner products, cream liners can be mastered with continued practice.

To apply cream eyeliner, apply your eyeshadow as you usually would. Then, dip a small angled brush (THRIVE CAUSEMETICS Precision Angled Eyeliner Brush is perfect for detailed eye looks) into a cream eyeliner pot, like E.L.F. Game Up Eye Win Eyeliner Pot. Starting at the outer corner of your eye, create a small triangle, keeping the angled brush in line with the natural angle of your eye. Drag one leg of the triangle across the lash line, tapering in until it’s all but disappeared near the inner corner of your eye. Then, fill in the blank space inside the triangle with the gel eyeliner.

For extra precision, dip another angled brush in some cream concealer, and drag along the outside edge of the gel eyeliner to clean up and sharpen the line you’ve created.

As for Davis, she likes a classic cat-eye look for those with intermediate eyeliner skills. Her tips are easy! 

  1. Choose a pencil eyeliner color that's classic but with a twist, such as navy, deep green, or purple.

  2. Don’t forget to sharpen it!

  3. Start the application at the inner corners, using the bottom lash line as a guide.

  4. Softly wing out the color towards your temples. Feel free to keep the wing soft and small.

Lynette Cenée shows off her eyeliner.

If You’re an Eyeliner Expert...

Liquid eyeliner provides a sharp, dramatic look, and is commonly used for creating anything from swoon-worthy cat eyes to intense avant-garde eye looks. And while you might think it’s one of the trickier eyeliner products to use, all learning how to apply liquid eyeliner takes is a steady hand and lots of practice. Fortunately, mastering a clean liquid eyeliner look is totally doable with just a few insider tricks! “When it comes to liquid eyeliner, the key is to keep practicing and to know your eye shape. When you are using a liquid liner, don’t draw at a 90-degree angle; instead, hold the pen barrel horizontally and parallel to your eye, and use the body of the tip to drag and create a smooth line. Relax your hand and hold your palm and wrist closer to your face; use your little finger for support and balance yourself,” Chang tells us.

Want to create the perfect wing with liquid liner? Try the dots or dashes. “Use a pencil to create a dotted line to create the perfect wing shape. If you want the perfect wing, don’t make it too winged at first; slowly adjust both sides, one at a time. Check both sides horizontally and look down to see if the lines are aligned,” Chang says. Then connect your dots for an even wing.

(P.S. For a complete how-to on applying liquid eyeliner, be sure to check out our tutorial here.)

Liquid eyeliner comes in two main applicators: felt-tip and brush-tip. Felt-tip liquid eyeliners like LANCOME Artliner Precision Felt-Tip Liquid Eyeliner are generally easier to apply, as they allow for more control and are ideal for those with shakier hands. A brush tip, like the one EM COSMETICS’ Illustrative Eyeliner has, is slightly more flexible, and therefore a bit more difficult to apply because it can be bent in potentially unpredictable ways. Both of these types of eyeliner, however, are ideal for creating vivid, graphic eye makeup looks.

To apply, simply shake the product if using a felt tip, as this will saturate the felt tip with liquid. Start at the outer lash line and sweep the liquid eyeliner along the upper lash line in small, connected strokes, continuing until you reach the inner corner of your eye. For added stability, rest your pinky, or the edge of your palm, on your cheek as you go. Then, extend the line to the tear duct, following the natural shape of your eye, for a modern twist on the classic cat-eye.

Davis recommends using a liquid liner in an unexpected shade, such as purple, green, teal, bright blue, or yellow. How fun is that? Here’s how to do an exaggerated double-color cat-eye. 

  1. Choose your brightest liquid eyeliner hues. Go wild with contrasting shades!

  2. Apply the deeper shade close to the lash line.

  3. Apply the lighter shade color on top in a thicker line than the bottom. 

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About the author
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Elizabeth Denton
Elizabeth is a freelance beauty writer. Previously, she was a beauty & fashion editor at Time Out New York, Seventeen, & Allure. She has more than a decade of experience in the beauty and fashion world, writing for Nylon, StyleCaster, Cosmopolitan & more.
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Article Last Updated July 15, 2022 12:00 AM