Monday, June 21, 2010

Eye shadow as contour: the theory

I'm probably getting really repetitive on the subject of neutral eyeshadow, but Sephora keeps filling my mailbox with catalogs showing models wearing truly outlandish colors--glittery turquoise stripes were featured in the latest--so it doesn't look as though I'll be shutting up any time soon.

So I'll say it again: neutral eye shadows are fantastic on women of a certain age. They do what eye shadow is supposed to do; shadow and sculpt the eyes to make them look bigger, brighter, and more expressive.

They do this by contouring the eye area. Now, it took me a long time to accept the fact that I was going to talk about using eye makeup to contour the eye area, because the old school notions of contouring seem hopelessly out of date.

You know what I mean when I talk about contouring the face with makeup, right? It's a makeup technique where you apply lighter makeup where you want a feature to appear higher or more prominent, and darker makeup where you want a feature to appear deeper or less prominent.

It's frequently used to make noses appear straighter and narrower, or make cheekbones look more prominent. But here's the thing about contouring: it's hard to make it look natural. It was first used in stage makeup, where the audience is very far away from the actors. Then it was used in black and white movies and stills, where you have dramatic lighting and a general aura of glamorous artificiality. But even then, makeup artists had to know what they were doing. Back then--and right now--when you shade and highlight an area, it's all about blending and soft, subtle shades.

As an example of what I'm talking about, take Marlene Dietrich. Her entire face was nothing but makeup and lighting. Here's a photograph of her standing next to Josef von Sternberg, the director who made her a star.

Notice the fairly flat planes of her face. Now look at her with von Sternberg's trademark lighting and a full face of contoured makeup:

I'm not a makeup artist, and I don't know how to do stage or film makeup, but it's pretty clear that Dietrich is wearing way more makeup than even the average Hollywood star of the 1930s--and they wore plenty.

Check out the contouring. I'm no expert, but I can see that a lighter shade of foundation is blended down the middle of her nose, with a darker shade along the side. In the first picture, it looks like she's wearing highlighter under her eyes, and in the second, it's obvious that the artist used rouge to contour her cheekbones (a trick that works very well in black and white photography, but is much less successful in color photographs or real life.)

Take at Dietrich's eye makeup. Her eyebrows are the stuff of legend, so we won't discuss them, except to warn you not to emulate her. Although tweezing her eyebrows off and drawing them on again much higher up did give Dietrich a much larger area in which to apply eyeshadow.

And what eyeshadow! She's wearing a medium shade from the lash line all the way up to the brows, with a lighter shade on the eyelid and a highlighting shade in the inner corner and in a narrow line under the eye. Her crease is shaded much darker. Her eyes are very wide set, and that, added to the increased height of her brow area, means the makeup artist could apply a ton of dark shadow in the U-shaped crease to the back wedge. Her eyes were big to begin with, but the eyeshadow makes them incredible.

And Dietrich was doing this before eyeshadow was commercially available. Instead, she or her makeup artist used soot mixed with baby oil or petroleum jelly.

There, now. Aren't you ashamed that you're not taking full advantage of the lovely, hygienic ready-made shades now available in stores?

Next on The Beauty Boomer: What I Do, or, I know Poppy Buxom, and she's no Marlene Dietrich.

Elsewhere on the web:

For more on makeup in films, see the article on makeup in Film Reference

For how to look more like Marlene Dietrich, go this article in Suite 101


  1. Ah, the temptation to tweeze has never been greater!

  2. We've come a long way, baby! I agree about the neutral eyeshadow. I never wore eyeshadow at all but recently I've been experimenting because as I age, I'm finding my eyes have less definition.

  3. I do so love the thought you put into shadow.

    Well Done x

  4. I'm terrible with eyeshadow and always use Mac Brulee. But I love seeing it on other people and how they use it. I think with age I need how to using it more with contouring. Thanks for the inspiration x

  5. Poppi Darling!
    One of my staples is something called Shade and Sculpt from Laura
    Geller (First admission publically, kinda like ommiting a key ingredient from a cake recipe). A little goes a long way but it does everything you would hope for like defining cheekbones, and jawlines and slimming the nose. I use the sculpting shade on the top of my cheekbones and lightly dust it on my eyelids and lashes before shadow, liner and mascara. Genius, promise.
    I am in total agreement with your love love of neutral shadows. While I have always used a medium toned darker shadow in the crease, I am noticing my eyes look brighter and younger with going at least 3 shades lighter in the crease.

    Loved these photos of MD!



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xxx, Poppy.