Makeup Artist-Approved: Top Contour Palettes and How to Use Them

It's the age-old life lesson: when you want the truth, you have to go straight to the source. Thus, when we found ourselves on a challenging quest for the perfect contour palette (a feat that proved quite intimidating), we decided to lay our traditional “test, lament, repeat” method to rest. Instead, we called up three of the best cheekbone sculptors in the business: makeup artists Beau Nelson (Kristen Stewart calls on him for subtle contouring), Jake Bailey (Katy Perry’s red carpet makeup? All him), and Sarah Lucero (Rebecca Minkoff and Alice + Olivia owe their runway beauty looks to her…oh, so does Victoria Beckham). We begged them to divulge the contour kits they always keep on hand and their best tips for using them—lucky for us, they weren’t ones to keep secrets.

Keep scrolling to see their picks!

Who: Beau Nelson, celebrity and editorial makeup artist

Works with: Kristen Stewart, Gigi Hadid, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley

His Picks: Kevyn Aucoin The Creamy Glow Duo ($28), Tom Ford Shade and Illuminate Duet ($85)


When it comes to why these products made the cut, Nelson says it’s all about simplicity. “I’ve seen a lot of contour palettes released lately with a variety of shades in them that may be great for professional makeup artists, but they’re too much for everyday people,” he says. Instead, he suggests these two because they each come with just two shades: one for contouring, and one for highlighting. Kevyn Aucoin’s is best for fair to medium skin tones, while Tom Ford’s shade 1 is great for medium skin tones, and shade 2 is great for tan to darker skin, he says. Another deciding factor? The cream finish. “I prefer cream because it’s infinitely more easily manipulated and blendable than powder,” he explains.

Pro Tips:

1. Use a brush for cream formulas: Lest you think cream products should only be applied with your fingers, Nelson says he actually uses them the exact same way he would use a powder product, even using the same brushes. “Using a small, angular blush brush, I gently shade under the cheekbones, on the temples, and under the jawline with the contour shade,” he says. “With the highlighting shade, I use my fingers to gently tap the product onto the highlights of the face.”

2. Disperse the glow: He concentrates the highlight shade at the top of the cheekbones, but if he wants a more glowy look, he’ll add some down the bridge of the nose and above the cupid’s bow, too. “The great thing about both of these highlighters is that they make you look fresh and alive and have the effect of making you look like you are wearing less makeup, as opposed to more!”

Who: Sarah Lucero, celebrity makeup artist and Global Executive Director of Creative Artistry for Stila Cosmetics

Works with: Victoria Beckham, Eva Longoria

Her Pick: Stila Shape & Shade Contour Palette (Discontinued)


“I love everything about this palette,” Lucero says grandly. “I’m calling it a cream-to-skin finish—not cream-to-powder, it’s cream-to-skin.” She explains that the beauty of this palette is that you can use it over and under makeup because it melts so seamless and beautiful. “The most important thing about a contour palette is the texture and finish—if it’s powdery, it can sit on top of your skin,” she explains. “You need it to look like it belongs on your skin…this one is so easy to use, and a little goes a long way.”

Pro Tips:

1. Find the hollow: If you’re confused/nervous/scared about where exactly you’re supposed to contour to bring out your cheekbones, Lucero shared a genius trick to guide you. “If you touch the tip of your ear, then follow it into that little pomegranate-sized indent on the inside of your ear, that’s where you’re supposed to start your contour,” she says. “Start there, and concentrate the contour in that area—don’t go all the way to your mouth, because that’s where you’ll start to see it.” She applies the contour with a brush or her fingers, then buffs it out with a large, fluffy brush.

2. Mix it up: Overdid it on the contour? Just add some of the matte highlighter to add some extra light—or, mix the two shades together for a more subtle contour. “Think of it as dipping your toe in,” Lucero says. 

Who: Jake Bailey, celebrity and editorial makeup artist

Worked with: Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Chrissy Teigen

His Pick: Nars Contour Blush ($42)


Bailey says these cheek palettes are his current go-to because the colors are perfect and blend beautifully. “I’m getting a lot of use out of the palest palette,” he says. “It’s hard to find a contour color that doesn’t look too obvious on fairer skin tones. This one is perfect for subtle shading.” Another reason? These palettes give the most natural shading in person and on camera. “A good contour shade should essentially be the color of a shadow…the problem is that ‘shadow’ colored shades tend to be a little gray,” he explains. “I look for shades that are balanced with just the right amount of warmth to make the contour appear more natural.”

Pro Tips:

1. Powder Away: Bailey says that before using a powder contour, you need to powder the area you are working on first. Otherwise, the contour will stick to unpowdered areas and look blotchy. The opposite goes for creams—they’ll only blend well on a clean, un-powdered surface.

2. Prioritize Your Highlighter: Before you get too carried away contouring, don’t forget your highlighter! “Contours and highlighters play off one another to create dimension,” Bailey says. “I typically highlight first along the brow bone, cheekbone, and bridge of the nose, and use the highlights as a guide as to where to place the contour and how intensely to apply it.” If someone has particularly strong features and defined cheekbones (hi, Chrissy!), Bailey says he’ll only highlight and skip contouring for a softer look.


Need a visual guide? Click here for our step-by-step guide on where to contour!


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