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Everything You Need to Know to Become a Smoky Eye Expert

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Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff/Getty Images

Mastering a smoky eye is a right of passage for beauty amateurs and pros alike—it's one of those eye makeup looks that work for everything from a red carpet to date night to drinks with friends. While this classic look may seem like something only makeup pros can master, it's actually quite simple to perfect the smoky eye when you break it down step-by-step. Below, we'll walk you through how to create this classic beauty look with the help of some experts.

About the Experts:

Lauren Berlingeri is a New Jersey-based makeup artist. She has worked with luxury makeup brands, high-end salons, weddings, and events like New York Fashion Week, New York Bridal Fashion Week, commercial shoots, and television shows including Say Yes to the Dress.
Lennie Billy is a makeup artist whose work has been featured in publications such as Vogue, ESPN Magazine, and TIME Magazine.

What You'll Need for the Perfect Smoky Eye:

  • Concealer: A full-coverage concealer like YENSA BEAUTY Skin on Skin BC Concealer can be used to prime and smooth the eye area. Or, if you prefer to use an eyeshadow primer instead of concealer, that'll work too!
  • Shader Eyeshadow Brush: Before you start blending your smoky eye, you'll want to use a densely packed eyeshadow brush like the INMO Eye Shadow Brush to effectively transfer pigment from the eyeshadow pan onto your lid.
  • Blending Brush: A fluffy blending brush like this TETRIS™ X IPSY Blending Brush is key to ensuring that your shadows all blend together seamlessly with no harsh lines.
  • Eyeshadow Palette: To create a classic smoky eye you'll need three coordinating eyeshadow shades: an all-over shade, a crease color, and a highlight. A palette like the HUDA BEAUTY Obsessions Palette in Smokey offers a mix of shimmer and matte shades that can create a wide range of smoky eye looks.
  • Gel Eyeliner: A gel formula like the SMASHBOX COSMETICS Always On Gel Liner makes it easy to create a rich, blendable color that you can smudge for a dramatic smoky eye or leave sharp for a cleaner, more minimal version of the look.
  • Black Mascara: To ensure that your mascara never runs, try using a waterproof mascara that will stay totally locked in place until you use makeup remover.

Here’s How to Do a Smoky Eye:

1. Prime your lid.

Begin by priming the eye area to avoid any shadow fallout and smudging later in the day. To prime, you can use either an eyeshadow primer or a brightening concealer— both will help to smooth out your eye area and will give your makeup something to grip onto.

Out of the two options, makeup artist Lauren Berlingeri prefers using concealer. She applies it all over the lid–wherever she’s planning to apply product. "This will smooth the eye and create a flawless base for your shadow," she says.

2. Pick out your eyeshadow shades.

A classic smoky eye includes three different shades: a shade for your mobile lid (the part that moves when you blink) a crease color, and a highlight shade. The crease color tends to be the darkest, the highlight shade the lightest, and the mobile lid shade is usually a mid-tone. A classic smoky eye typically uses matte shades in the black, brown, gray, navy, or green family, but don't be afraid to experiment with light or more colorful shades.

If you have small eyes, makeup artist Lennie Billy warns that going too dark may end up making your eyes appear even smaller. To prevent this effect, she says, "I would say to stay away from a straight black smoky eye. Instead, try using dark browns or even gray to lower the intensity of the black shadow."

3. Apply your all-over eyeshadow shade.

Using a flat eyeshadow brush, press the color you've chosen as your all-over eyeshadow shade (i.e. mobile lid shade) onto your lid. "Blend it very well from the lower part of your lid to the middle of the lid so it looks more like a gradient and not like a huge saturated patch of color," says Billy. To create a more eye-opening effect, she also recommends applying this eyeshadow shade closer to your brow than you normally would. "This gives the illusion that your lid space is bigger and opens the eyes more, especially if you have hooded eyes," she says.

4. Apply your crease color.

Next, let’s add dimension to your look by incorporating a crease color. Pick a coordinating dark shade that's one to two shades darker than your all-over shade. Then use a blending brush to blend the color into the outer corner of your eye. Move toward the center of your eyelid as you blend the shade in small, circular motions, adding layers to intensify the pigment until you have a smoky blend. You'll know you're ready to move onto the next step when there is a smooth transition between this color and your all-over shade.

5. Apply your highlight.

Finally, apply a light, neutral shadow that’s one to two shades lighter than your all-over color from your crease up to your brow bone. This highlight shade will help smooth out the look and really polish off that gradient effect you're going for. For a little extra glow, dab your highlight on the inner corners of your eyes to make your eyes look bright and awake.

6. Blend, blend, and blend some more.

The key to creating a great smoky eye is a seamless transition between the three shades. "The biggest mistake I tend to see people make is not blending the shadow enough," says Berlingeri. "This can make a smoky eye look more like a black eye." To make sure this doesn't happen to you, use that fluffy brush and continue blending until you can see no clear division between the three shades.

7. Line your eyes.

Before you break out the eyeliner pencil, Berlingeri likes to first line the eyes with a black eyeshadow. "This will ensure that you like the shape before you go in with a liquid or gel liner," she says.

Once you're happy with your liner shape, top what you've just created with gel liner, making sure to apply along your upper lash line and lower lash line. Gel liners are great to use for smoky eye makeup because they can quickly produce a bold, black line that can either appear super sharp or be smudged out with a smudging brush.

If you're looking to create a light smoky eye, you may want to try using a pencil liner instead. If you're after a crisp cat-eye, liquid eyeliner is the way to go. And don’t forget, you can perfect your look with your eyeliner color choice. Black eyeliner will give you a super smoky, dramatic look, while Billy notes that using a dark brown pencil on the waterline instead of black can open up the eyes a bit, making them appear larger.

8. Apply the rest of your makeup, then circle back to mascara.

Instead of diving straight into mascara, Berlingeri says she likes to apply the rest of her makeup and then circle back to mascara as the final step. "This way, makeup powder doesn't get all over the eyelashes and ensures they are very black." She also adds that you should always apply mascara to your bottom lashes before your top lashes. "This way you don’t end up getting mascara all over your lid when you look up while applying mascara to bottom lashes."

And voilà! You've mastered the smoky eye. The beauty of this makeup look is that it can be tweaked and adjusted to suit whatever look or level of intensity you're going for. Feel free to add your own personal flair to make yours look as unique as you are!

5 Smoky Eyes We’re Loving Right Now:

Need a little bit of visual inspiration before getting started? Here are five celeb smoky eye looks we love:

1. Shimmery Smoky Eye

Gigi Hadid rocking a shimmery smoky eye makeup look
Photo by Steven Ferdman / Stringer/Getty Images

This illuminating smoky eye gets a fun, flirty spin thanks to a shimmery silver shadow that's used on the mobile lid and along the lower lash line. This could be a great option for anyone with smaller eyes. Billy says, "I always recommend adding a hint of shimmer or light matte shade to the brow bone and inner corners to return the light to the eyes."

2. Classic Smoky Eye

Zendaya rocking a classic smoky eye makeup look
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff/Getty Images

Here's an example of a perfectly executed classic smoky eye. The eyeshadow shades are blended seamlessly, the eyeliner is smudged just a touch along the lower lash line, and the long dramatic lashes keep the eyes looking bright and open while bringing the whole look together beautifully.

3. Black Smoky Eye

Jennifer Hudson rocking a black smoky eye makeup look paired with berry lips
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris / Staff/Getty Images

When you really feel like amping up the drama, ditch all the mid-toned neutrals and reach for dark eyeshadow colors like charcoal blacks or very dark browns to use as your all-over shade and crease color. While this eye makeup look definitely goes dark in those two areas, notice how it still features a lighter brown as the highlight and long lifted lashes to open up the eyes.

4. Colorful Smoky Eye

Joan Smalls rocking a mauve smoky eye makeup look paired with nude lips
Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Staff/Getty Images

This look is proof that a smoky eye doesn't always have to consist of super dark shadows. Shades of green, blue, purple, and even red can work to create this sultry look. As you get used to using colors for a smoky eye, try first creating monochromatic looks like the one Joan Smalls is sporting here. Pick one color and choose a medium tone for your lid, a darker tone for your crease, and a light color for your highlight. Easy as that!

5. Minimal Smoky Eye

Shay Mitchell rocking a wet look hairstyle and subtle smoky eye makeup look
Photo by Chance Yeh / Stringer/Getty Images

If you tend to be a no-makeup makeup kind of person, ease into this eye look by creating a minimal smoky eye. Choose lighter shadow shades, don't go quite as dark with your crease color, and don't smudge your liner. You might even do as Shay Mitchell does here and skip applying a dark liner along your lower lash line in lieu of something brighter—or just skip it altogether.

Want to discover all the best makeup products for smoky eyes? Take our Beauty Quiz now to get started. Already an Ipster? Refer your friends to earn points, which you can use toward products. Either way, don’t forget to check us out on Instagram and Twitter @IPSY.

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About the author
Cortney Clift
Cortney is a New York-based freelance writer who has written about beauty and wellness for more than six years. She was previously the senior writer and special projects editor at Brit + Co where she covered a wide range of news and lifestyle topics.
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Article Last Updated November 28, 2022 12:00 AM