A Guide to Highlighting and Contouring

Everything you need to know about highlighting and contouring to amp up your wedding day glow.
by Crystal Martin
Wedding beauty makeup contouring
photo by iStock

Every bride wants to be radiant on her wedding day. And while a natural glow from all of the excitement helps, a couple of makeup tricks can really take your look to the next level. Check out the essential highlighting and contouring basics and how to make this technique work for you, below.

What is it?

Highlighting and contouring (or HAC-ing if you're into acronyms) is all the rage right now for a reason: It can instantly boost your bridal glow and play up your best features. Want bigger, brighter eyes? Cheekbones that would make Kate Moss blush? HAC-ing can help. This Hollywood-approved technique uses the illusion of light and shadows to sculpt your face. "Think of an artist who works with pencil. She uses light and shadow to create a 3-D image," says Grace Fodor, a UK–based makeup artist and founder of Studio 10 cosmetics. Contouring adds shadow to an area of the face with makeup darker than your natural complexion. "The classic places you'd contour are under the cheekbones, along the jawline and on the eyelid to make the eyes look bigger," Fodor says. Highlighting with a radiance-boosting, light-reflecting product is typically done on the bridge of the nose, tops of the cheekbones, inner corners of the eyes and the cupid's bow.

Why is it a good idea?

When done well, highlighting and contouring can make your face sharper, while still looking natural. The effect is not only beautiful, it's also a way to appear more photogenic. Basically, additional structure and color will help your features pop on camera. Without it, you could appear washed out in high-definition photos and video.

What products should you use?

Fodor's number one contouring rule: Do not contour with bronzer, which is by nature warm and orange. "Look at a natural shadow on a wall or the ground. The tones are bluish and cool. That's what you want to re-create when contouring," Fodor says. Use a powder or stick designed specifically for contouring, or a foundation that's two to three shades darker than your normal shade. A contouring product should not contain shimmer or radiance. "Again, think of a shadow created by light on any surface. We're trying to simulate that and there's no glitter there," Fodor says. You can sweep additional bronzer on for a sun-kissed glow, but a contouring product and bronzer are not interchangeable.

Highlighting, on the other hand, should be done with very fine, pearlescent products, suggests Jackie Fan, a manager of global education and artistry at Temptu, an airbrush makeup line. Formulas that are too glittery, though, will look unnatural in person and appear overly shiny when photographed. Creamy formulas, which can be buffed into the skin with a fluffy brush, tend to look the most natural.

How is bridal HAC-ing different?

Bridal highlighting and contouring must strike a very particular balance. It should both emphasize and shape features while still appearing natural to the eye. Since bridal makeup is more intense than an everyday look, your makeup artist might contour more areas of your face than usual (like your nose, chin and/or forehead).

That said, your highlighting and contouring should not reach the level of red carpet makeup. "When you see an actress on the red carpet, they may have very aggressive contoured lines. It's very harsh," Fodor says. Simply put: The red carpet set needs stage makeup that can handle hundreds of flashes, but the average bride doesn't have to go to that extreme. Brides, Fodor says, should "blend, blend, blend" to avoid harsh lines. Use a makeup brush to buff contour powder in circular motions. Fodor also notes that if you don't usually wear any makeup, you should start experimenting with different looks months before your makeup trials. "If you never wear makeup, anything at all will be a shock to you—even a very subtle, pretty look—because you're not accustomed to seeing yourself that way," she says. "Start wearing a bit of makeup every day to familiarize yourself with different products."

How do I do it?

Perfect: Begin with a flawless canvas. First apply primer (like Foundation Primer, $36, LauraMercier.com). "It's absolutely essential for brides," Fodor says. "It makes the makeup last longer and can soften large pores and fine lines." Then, use concealer and color corrector (like Ultra HD concealer, $27, MakeupForever.com) to fix any blemishes, like acne or rosacea. "There's typically a lot of darkness just above the inner corner of the eye, but most people forget to cover it because you can't see it when you look in the mirror," Fodor says. "People often skip the concealing step but it's one of the most important. Don't try to cover blemishes with foundation because you'll end up using too much on your skin and it won't look natural." Instead, apply foundation only in the middle of your face and blend.

Highlight: Sweep a creamy highlighter (like S/B Highlighter, $28, Temptu.com) across the bridge of the nose, inner corners of the eyes, the cupid's bow, brow bone and center of the forehead. For very fair skin tones, some makeup artists say skipping the contouring and only using a highlighter (a technique called "strobing") is enough. "On pale skin, contouring may be too harsh. The dark shade you'd use to create a shadow may look too much like a stripe," Fan says. For an even subtler glow, apply highlighter before foundation. "It looks very 'lit from within,' " she notes.

Contour: Apply a contouring shade (like The Sculptor, $24, TarteCosmetics.com) directly below your cheekbones. To find the right spot, suck in your cheeks and contour in the hallow. Other common contour spots: along the hairline from temple to temple, the jawline and on both sides of the nose. Where you should contour is determined by the effect you want to achieve. For example, to shape a round face, Fodor suggests contouring from the temples to the outer cheekbones and then along the jawline to simulate an oval. To soften a square face, contour the forehead as well as the jawline, creating a subtle shadow from the bottom of the jaw to the ear. Contouring can even slim down the neck: Simply blend two straight lines on either side beginning at the chin, extending down to the collarbone.

Keep in mind the main idea: Darkness surrounding an area will make it appear to recede (or slim). But you have to be careful. "Contouring products are often powder. If you put too much on top of tinted moisturizer or liquid foundation, it will just sit there and not blend in," Fodor says. If you're opting for a powder, make sure to tap off the excess from your brush to prevent over-applying. It's best to build in light layers because you can always add more.

Eyes: Start with groomed brows to give your face natural definition. To open up the eyes, Fodor suggests contouring right above the crease of the lid. "A lot of women have hooded eyelids, which hides the crease. So, you want to apply contour slightly above it—it's a trick of the trade," Fodor says. Then, highlight the inner corners of the eye and brow bone.

Finish: Once you're done blending, give yourself some last touches of color with a light dusting of bronzer and blush. "Sweep on a sheer bronzer and add a soft blush (like Soft-Pressed Powder Blusher in Pink Blush, $22, Clinique.com) to the apples of your cheeks for a healthy glow," says makeup artist Elisa Flowers. If you feel like the contour looks too strong, correct it with a dab of foundation onto the shaded areas. This will blend and fade intense color.

A finishing powder is crucial for making your look last since it sets your makeup. "But you must be particular about what you use," Fodor says. "Most professional artists use loose powder because it's very finely milled and won't look overly powdery and drying, which would be a nightmare for photography." In her Studio 10 line, Fodor has developed a finishing powder, Prime & Perfect ($40, Studio10Beauty.com), which wears like a loose powder but is in a convenient compact form. For very oily complexions, Fodor recommends applying this kind of powder before foundation.

How can I get the best professional results?

Go into your makeup trial with an idea of which features you want to play up or minimize with your makeup. Spend some time considering things that stand out to you, so you can go into your trial and say, "I love my eyes and I want to make them stand out," or, "I want my chin to look more prominent." A skilled makeup artist will be able to assess your face and sculpt it for you. Just remember: The point of HAC-ing is to emphasize what you already love, and not completely change your look. "When it's all done, you should be able to look in the mirror and not feel like you have a lot of makeup on," Fodor says. "The most important thing is to still look like you."


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