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Contour: a reality check!

Written By: Brigitte on December 27, 2013 2 Comments

Although I try not to pay attention, I can’t help but notice an online proliferation of truly outrageous “inspirational” images and tutorials on the subject of contouring. Thinking of the maxim “If you say it enough, it will become the truth”, I have to speak up before war paint techniques of yesteryear become the new normal.



From my perspective as a proven expert in makeup and beauty, here’s my point of view:

— Unless they have a career in showbiz, most light-skinned women do not need dramatic contouring done with dots and streaks of multi-colored foundation and greasepaint.

— “Well, if you can’t see it what’s the point?” Contouring done with cream-based products has no chance of looking natural in natural daylight because of the discrepancy in colors and added texture. Be aware, the effect will look heavy and overly made up.

— Faces and colorings are different, so one mold absolutely does not fit all. The online tutorials tend to disregard that fact, and throw everybody into the same basket.

Here’s a bit of history as background:

Contouring traditionally comes from stage, film, and later, TV. It was created simply to give a face some depth and character because the professional lighting was so strong it tended to wash out the features of the actors.

The social scene of the late 1960’s into the 1970’s inspired a big movement of self-expression in fashion and the trends in cosmetics followed suit. Some pretty outrageous makeup looks were born at that time and pale complexion and heavy cheek sculpting was one of them. I still own some cheek sculpting palettes from the brand BIBA – they came with an elaborate technique involving several shades of taupe and burgundy, light powders and ended with a pale blue blush! Fashion slaves of the time (and I was one of them) reveled in the theatricality of it all.

The early 1980’s brought a general trend towards a more “natural” look. However, all the base products (foundation, concealer, powder and blush) were at the time quite rich and provided heavy coverage. Hence the persistence of the old concept that “the face is a blank canvas” — which implied one had to recreate the features with colors. And yes, it WAS absolutely necessary since one had just blotted every ounce of humanity right out with a plastering of foundation and powder!

In the late 1980’s into the 90’s the fashion runway and it’s super models became a trendy televised extravaganza that reflected atmosphere and style rather than simply display a collection of clothes. This big shift created an innovative platform for a multitude of hair and makeup trends. Retro-glam with contour were definitely part of the party, but they were just one of many trends and looks. The bare face and the no-makeup look were just as significant.

So, where does all this leave us today?

First, there have been tremendous advances in cosmetic technology. Skin color products are sheer and luminous, allowing for a natural look that reflects the youth and health-obsessed culture we live in. Also, as HD (high definition) has become the norm for film and TV, heavy makeup is now blatantly obvious. It means an out-of-context, heavily contoured look comes across as quite out of place both in and out of the studio and most of all, unforgivably aging.

There’s an exception to this. Some dark-skinned women feel they want to create some contrast under the eyes, on the nose area and the cheeks. The darker and warmer tone of their skin allows for a discreet blending. When I use those effects for clients such as Kerry Washington or Gabrielle Union, I can guarantee they are definitely more subtle than the ones I see featured online.

Does this mean that we can’t all get a little cheek bone enhancement?

Absolutely not! I propose a more realistic and modern approach that does not resemble the end product of a tribal war ritual.

It’s called shading.

It simply means that you apply your makeup as usual, then for a little extra drama, use a matte bronzer (make sure it’s not too orange) to add a bit of definition under the cheek bone, along the temples and perhaps under the chin. If you are adamant about thinning your nose, then try a light taupe shadow mixed with said bronzer and very lightly do just a little sweep along the sides of the nose. Subtle and light-handed is the way to go. The powder texture is more subtle and forgiving, as long as it’s matte.

For an extra boost I might use a matte white eyeshadow and brush it along the ridge of the nose and on the top of the cheekbones close to the eyes. No need to do a paint-by-numbers work of art. Shading with powder will help you achieve the sophisticated look you crave quickly without the ridiculously complicated techniques of the last century.

So, who does the idea of contour really benefit? Well, perhaps self-appointed beauty experts who feel they have discovered something new that the world has not caught on to yet. Although Kevin Aucoin explained contouring very well in his acclaimed book “The Art of Makeup” already in 1994. And the makeup brands are very happy to sell perhaps two or three foundations instead of one.

As for me, I’m still trying to figure out something that would actually be of value to women: how to help them to choose the one right shade of foundation for their skin tone. Because no matter how everybody claims to have the solution, I haven’t seen it yet!

Here are some products I like:
For shading:
MAC – Sculpting Powder
Chanel – Les Beiges de Chanel
NARS – Bronzing Powder

For highlightn
NARS – Eye shadow in Biarritz (palest pink)
Make Up for Ever – Eyeshadow in Chalk

I used the shading technique I mention on actress Greta Gerwig  ---  photograph by Max Abadian

I used the shading technique I mention on actress Greta Gerwig — photograph by Max Abadian

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2 Responses to “Contour: a reality check!”

  1. Eugenia on: 27 January 2015 at 11:48 pm

    Thank you so much for speaking up about this horrific trend…it seems that you can’t turn a corner these days, without some self-appointed beauty guru going on & on about “the right way to contour”. Ye Gods! Unless you’re a member of Cirque Du Soleil, why on earth would you want to de-humanize yourself to that degree? I much prefer your concept of shading – not to mention how much less time it would take in comparison, and probably achieve a much nicer – and more realistic – effect!

  2. admin on: 27 January 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Love your comment. We are on the same page. Thank you.

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