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How to Contour and Highlight Your Face

how to contouring and highlighting your face

Please welcome makeup consultant Erin Gerlach, who kindly agreed to this special guest post + tutorial!

So, you weren’t blessed with razor sharp cheekbones, a defined chin, slim nose, or perky eyes? I hear ya. Regardless of genes, there is a way to enhance and even change your face structure with makeup – this technique is called contour and highlight and basically means playing with depth and dimension. This is very much about using the face as a canvas and applying the principals of light and dark, emphasizing the natural hallows and heights of the face for a serious — dare I say almost surgical looking —  impact.

The theory behind it is a basic one: Highlight adds space and light while contour adds depth and shadow. See? Pretty simple, right?

Attempting this technique is not for the faint of heart, and takes practice and skill to execute. If you’re into the 5-minute face, this may not be for you. That being said, you can use the fundamentals of the technique to cherry pick your own (lower key) look. Pull out pieces of the method for a targeted desired result like a slimmer nose, defined cheekbones, or a more chiseled jaw. I can promise you that most of the makeup you see on a red carpet, in photoshoots, or on the runway have employed the contouring and highlighting technique with varying levels of intensity.

The first person that springs to mind when I think of this technique is Kim Kardashian. While we don’t necessarily want the full face of makeup Kim K. always dons, we can learn a thing or two about placement and outcome from her tricky makeup methods.

In the real world, try this process for an evening out; daylight will show the depth of the makeup, while dim lights showcase a more diffused appearance. We want the final look to be creamy and natural, so using cream formulations will be easier to work with. This is also a great time to experiment with products you have on hand. Do you have a too-light concealer hanging around? Use it as your highlight. Bronzer that was too dark for your complexion? This is the time to break it out for the contour shade (just make sure it’s a matte bronzer – the radiance comes from the highlight, only).

Here’s how to execute:  

guide how to highlight and contour your face step by step guide

Step One: With frontal, natural daylight, note where natural shadows appear under cheekbones, nose and jaw. These are the spots to contour. The spots where light bounces off of are where you will place the highlighter

Step Two: Start out with your favorite foundation and apply it as you normally would. Let it set for 15 minutes so it doesn’t slide around.

Step Three: Apply the contouring product (always with a light hand at first, you can add more if need be but it’s difficult to remove pigment) as in the diagram above marked with the 1. At the temples, blend into the hairline, at the sides of the nose blend down toward the center of the face and add contour under the jaw bone to slim the chin. Blend the cheek contour toward the ears, and down toward the jaw.

Step Four: Blend the contour with the damp beautyblender, using light but intentional movements. Blending well is essential to create a flawless finish so if it looks heavy, keep blending!

Step Five: Apply the highlight product as in the diagram above marked with the 2. Highlighting around the mouth, as shown, will make the lips appear fuller.  At the chin and jaw, the highlight pronounces these features. Adding a highlight to the center of the nose and forehead draws out and gives structure to the middle of the face. Under the eyes, the lighter color will pull the eyes upwards (this is my favorite effect!), so blend upward, toward the temples.

Step Six: Blend the highlight with the other end of the damp beautyblender into your contour shade until the seams  disappear. If this isn’t happening, you’re not done blending (tired hand or not!).

Step Seven: Finish the face with blush, applying on the apples of the cheeks and sweeping the color up and out toward, but not on to, the temples.

Step Eight: Set the makeup with a light dusting translucent powder.


{contour}: Illamasqua Cream Foundation | LORAC Touch-Up and Go

{highlight}: M.A.C. Prep and Prime Highlighter | L’Oreal Magic Lumi Highlighter

{tools}: Beauty Blender


About the author

Erin is a Makeup Artist, Beauty Blogger, Beauty Editor (for Glitter Guide) and has consulted for some of the biggest brands in beauty such as Moroccanoil and Aveda. She recently founded Sparkle Beauty Styling which is new service is designed to empower and educate women about beauty through one-on-one in person or Skype consultations, targeted beauty solutions, personalized product picks, lessons, tutorials and beauty seminars.

{Image Credit: Amaranth Wedding Photography via Style Me Pretty, makeup by Linda Wagner}


23 responses to “How to Contour and Highlight Your Face”

  1. christin, on July 16, 2013 at 4:33 am said:

    i’m totally going to try this!

  2. Rachelle, on July 16, 2013 at 5:15 am said:

    And to add to this if you have dark skin you only need to highlight.

    1. erin (@erincg), on July 16, 2013 at 2:59 pm said:

      it depends how dark one’s skin is, for sure. thanks for the suggestion to the post, rachelle!

  3. meg, on July 16, 2013 at 6:01 am said:

    Wow! What a difference this makes.


  4. Lauren (Stylized Existence), on July 16, 2013 at 6:59 am said:

    Wow, Victoria! This is brilliant! – great job Erin. What an awesome post.

  5. ame, on July 16, 2013 at 7:28 am said:

    Great tutorial Erin! Thanks for posting, Victoria!

    1. erin (@erincg), on July 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm said:

      thanks so much, ame!

  6. {The Design Daredevil} Jessie D. Miller, on July 16, 2013 at 7:41 am said:

    Thank you for this! I know NOTHING of makeup, it’s so intimidating to me. Will study for sure.

  7. Rachel, on July 16, 2013 at 7:44 am said:

    I do this for big events and it makes a huge difference!

  8. FripperyVintage, on July 16, 2013 at 8:23 am said:

    Great post, I always have trouble with this, thanks for the advice.

  9. Alison Dulaney, on July 16, 2013 at 11:57 am said:

    This is great, I love how Kim K’s face is perfectly mapped!

  10. Jessika, on July 16, 2013 at 2:47 pm said:

    This was the best explanation of contour and highlight! Better than any video i’ve ever watched! Can’t wait to try it!

    1. erin (@erincg), on July 16, 2013 at 2:58 pm said:

      that’s awesome to hear! thank you, jessika! x

  11. Caity @ Moi Contre La Vie, on July 16, 2013 at 3:00 pm said:

    Great post!

  12. Weekend Links + The Best Pep Talk, on July 19, 2013 at 8:50 am said:

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  13. weekend sparkles, on July 19, 2013 at 3:24 pm said:

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  14. Weekend Reading | Stripes & Sequins, on July 20, 2013 at 10:18 am said:

    [...] to contour + highlight your [...]

  15. Alejandra, on September 22, 2013 at 5:00 pm said:


    You stated to put foundation on first, does it matter if I wear BB cream & bare minerals powder? Should I switch to liquid foundation to do the highlight & contour on top? Thanks :)

    1. erin (@erincg), on September 25, 2013 at 1:13 pm said:

      hi alejandra!

      as a rule, putting liquid over powder creates a cake-y paste, so i would definitely skip the bare minerals powder if you are going to use liquid products to contour and highlight. alternatively, you could use powders to contour and highlight, and stick to your current complexion routine. let me know if you need further clarification! x

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