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Everything You Need to Know About Contouring: A Step-By-Step Guide


Contouring has been a go-to technique among makeup artists for decades now—and for good reason. From defining your cheekbones to sculpting your jawline to emphasizing your unique face shape, contouring can boost any makeup look by adding depth and dimension to your facial features and bone structure. While it might feel like an intimidating makeup step to master (we’re looking at you too, winged eyeliner), this beauty technique isn’t nearly as complicated as it may seem—trust us.

Read on to discover which products are best to use, a step-by-step tutorial on how to contour, plus a few tips on how to customize your contour to better suit your face shape.

About the Experts:

Melissa Hurkman is a celebrity makeup artist based in Los Angeles. She has worked with Jessie James Decker, JoJo Fletcher, and Hannah Ann.
Alex Levy is a New York–based makeup artist and beauty marketing consultant.
Ash K Holm is IPSY’s Chief Makeup Artist. She has perfected a signature soft glam look on some of Hollywood’s most famous faces (just peep her Instagram for a look at her A-list client roster), and now the in-demand makeup artist is at your service.

What Exactly Is Contouring?

“Contouring is a technique to sculpt the face with makeup,” Hurkman says. “This is also a great technique to softly ‘correct’ any features or slim areas of the face. You can even contour to enhance any areas to make them appear larger.”

Basically, contouring is the opposite of highlighting. While highlighting "highlights" facial features by adding light to certain areas of your face, contouring involves darkening areas you want to define or recede. "Contouring is adding dimension and definition to the face using makeup to mimic light and shadow,” says Levy.

For example, one of the most common areas to contour is the hollows of your cheeks. Adding a darker color to this area sculpts your cheekbones by creating a shadow, making them appear sharper, higher, and more defined. You can also contour the shape of your eyes, your nose, brow bones, cupid’s bow, or jawline. One thing remains true, though, no matter what area of the face you decide to contour: “Contouring adds instant life,” says Holm.

What’s the Difference Between Contouring and Bronzing?

While both are designed to add depth to your face, these two makeup products do so in different ways. Bronzer adds warmth (think: a subtle, sun-kissed glow) using warm tones, whereas contouring adds structure with cool-tone shades. Another difference is that bronzers can be shimmery or matte while most contouring products are only matte.

Still confused? Don’t worry, we have a separate guide that covers the difference between contouring and bronzing.

So, What Should You Use for Contouring?

Let us break down three of the most popular makeup products used for this technique.

Powder Contour

Powder-based palettes like the SMASHBOX COSMETICS Travel Contour Palette is how you'll find most contour kits. This type of contour product is great for beginners because it’s easily buildable. “If you are new to the contour technique, I like to recommend a powder because it’s going to be the softest approach and easiest to blend,” Hurkman says. Contour powder is best applied using a contour brush, like the SHAINA B MIAMI Contour Brush.

A matte finish is most common for contour powder, making it ideal for oily skin. If you have mature skin or dry skin, your skin type may be better-suited to one of the other two contour products listed below.

Cream Contour

Cream contour sticks like the TRÈSTIQUE Color + Contour Bronzer Stick aren't quite as blendable as powder, but the color is more pigmented and super vivid. Plus, cream contour can be blended out using either a makeup sponge or a brush, says Holm, depending on how defined you’d like your contour to be. For a more seamless look, use a makeup sponge. For a sharper, more defined look, use an angled brush.

This type of contour product is great for a dewier, more natural-looking finish. It's also ideal for anyone with wrinkles, fine lines, or dry skin as powder tends to settle and emphasize those features.

“For someone a little more advanced and wanting either a natural or glam finish to their makeup, I would recommend cream or liquid products,” Hurkman adds. Just be sure to apply cream contour on top of a liquid base like a cream or liquid foundation—not powder.

Liquid Contour

If you prefer, you can also use a cream or liquid foundation as contour. You’ll want to pick a darker shade than what you normally use to create a flawless finish, though. A good rule of thumb is that your contour shade should be about two shades darker than your natural skin tone. Be sure this shade also suits your skin's undertone. Using a liquid foundation or a concealer like the MORPHE Fluidity Full-Coverage Concealer that has the same (or similar) formula to your allover foundation will ensure a smooth blend and consistent finish. “Pro tip: Eyeshadow brushes are actually amazing for blending out creams and concealers,” says Holm. But if you’re more familiar with using a sponge, stick to that when blending out your liquid contour.

“Cooler tones mimic shadows, which look more realistic when sculpting the face,” says Levy—so start with a lighter contour color before choosing one that is really dark.

Close-up of a woman applying face makeup with a large fan brush

PeopleImages / Getty Images

How to Contour in 5 Easy Steps

Now that you've decided which type of contouring product is best for you, this is how to apply it to different parts of your face.

Step 1: Apply Primer and Foundation

First, you will want to begin your makeup routine just like you normally would—with moisturizer, primer, and a powder foundation or liquid foundation (depending on preference and skin type).

“Adding definition to the face after doing complexion typically works best for me, but everyone works differently. [It’s fine] as long as you're blending along the way and avoiding harsh lines,” says Levy.

Apply your foundation using a beauty blender or fluffy brush like the F.A.R.A.H Flat Foundation Brush. If using a powder foundation, you may want to apply a finishing powder or setting powder as well.

Step 2: Contour Your Forehead

“Whenever I’m contouring, I always start with my forehead because this makes a really great guide for the face,” Holm explains. Using a cream contour is easiest because the formulation is easy to blend and leaves little room for error. Holm suggests placing small lines along the hairline, blending the product smoothly from your temple to about one-third of the way to the center of your forehead. Remember: Less product is always better. Start off with a small amount and build your way up to your desired pigmentation.

Step 3: Contour Your Cheekbones and Jaw

After the contour around the hairline is well-blended, move down to the hollows of your cheeks. (If you don’t know where this is, suck in your cheekbones. See where the indentation forms just below the apples of your cheeks? That’s it.) Another pro-level trick to finding where to place your cheekbone contour is by “holding the [contour] stick at the top of the ear and bringing it downward,” suggests Holm. Placing contour here will give the illusion of sculpted cheekbones and will help give a lifted effect to the face (think: Bella Hadid).

Once the contour along your cheekbones is blended, Holm suggests placing your contour along the “natural shadow right underneath the jawline.” Taking your contour to your jawline will not only add structure to the face, but will also help pull the whole contour look together.

Step 4: Contour Your Nose (If You Want)

Adding a bit of contouring to the sides of the nose is a great extra step to add if you want to boost your contouring routine. “I like to take my brush and apply two lines on the sides of the nose,” says Holm. She also suggests applying and blending the contour with a tiny brush “for the most perfect placement.” To finish off your nose contour, apply highlighter along the bridge of your nose.

Step 5: Finish with Highlighter & Bronzer

As a final step, finish by applying highlighter and applying bronzer. For our top product picks, check out our lists that feature the best highlighters and the best bronzers for the ultimate sun-kissed look.

How to Contour for Your Face Shape

As you become more comfortable with using contour products, try customizing it to specifically accentuate your face shape.

“Every face is different, and every look calls for adapted technique. But I always think adding a deeper, cooler shade just under the cheekbones and under near the jawline adds a lifted effect to the face, blending away harsh lines to create a more natural effect,” says Levy.

He says the best way to contour for your face shape is by keeping your favorite features in mind at all times and asking yourself what you want to emphasize.

Round Face Shape

Close-up of Selena Gomez rocking a shimmery rose eyeshadow makeup look
Photo by Emma McIntyre / Getty Images

  1. “Round face shapes (myself included) tend to lose the shape of our cheekbones, so contouring under our cheeks is going to give us the illusion of sunken in cheekbones,” Hurkman says. Those with a round face will want to start by applying contour at your temples.

  2. Then, move down from there to the hollows of your cheeks, just underneath your cheekbones.

  3. From there, move back out to the edge of your face and down again to your jawline. When putting these two steps together, they should combine to make a small three-like motion, similar to the basic shape we outlined in the tutorial above.

Square Face Shape

Taraji P. Henson looking glam in a shimmery neutral makeup look
Photo by Jamie McCarthy / Getty Images

  1. Begin by sucking in your cheeks just slightly to identify where the hollows of your cheeks are. Once you find that line, lightly apply contour in that area on both sides of the face. “Softening the temples and the jawline with contour is a great area for placement,” Hurkman says.

  2. Next, move down to your jawline and dust contour from behind your ear to right along the edge of the jawline.

  3. Finish by lightly coating contour along your hairline.

Rectangle Face Shape

Angelina Jolie with smoky eyeshadow makeup paired with nude pink lips
Photo by Anthony Harvey / Getty Images

  1. Add contour to the hollows of your cheeks. For rectangle-shaped faces, try to avoid applying contour too far into the center of the face. Instead, keep it closer to the sides of your face.

  2. Move up to your forehead and apply contour along the hairline, starting in the center and stopping before you reach your temples.

  3. Finally, move down to your jawline and apply contour along the edges of your jaw, stopping about halfway to your chin.

  4. Finish with a light dusting of contour right at the center of your chin.

Oval Face Shape

Smiling Jessica Alba with a natural makeup look
Photo by David Livingston / Getty Images

  1. Those with oval-shaped faces will have the easiest time customizing their contour, as it’s really only needed in the cheek area. Simply apply contour in the hollow of your cheeks and blend until seamless.

  2. Because your forehead and jawline are both already quite narrow, you can skip applying contour to these areas.

Heart Face Shape

Smiling Reese Witherspoon with a no-makeup makeup look
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

  1. “Contouring around the temples of the forehead for heart shaped faces typically works best,” Hurkman says. “This will create more of a balance to the rest of the face.” Begin by applying contour from the center of your forehead and sweeping down along your temples on both sides, following your hairline as you move down.

  2. From there, swoop down into the hollow of your cheeks, moving in towards the apple of your cheeks, and then back out.

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About the author
Olivia Cefalu
Olivia Cefalu
Olivia is a freelance beauty writer. With experience in influencer marketing at Tata Harper Skincare and editorial at Very Good Light, she loves covering Gen Z beauty, wellness, and nail trends. Read her work on Very Good Light and Well + Good.
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Article Last Updated May 31, 2023 12:00 AM