Makeup 101: A Primer

The conventions of small Southern towns dictate that a lady doesn’t even run to the supermarket without a full face of makeup. Even my mother, who’s usually incredibly sensible, would say to me “Are you going out like that?” if I left the house sans lipstick.

When I was thirteen, I had a girlfriend a year older than me who’s mother more or less let her run wild. My mother was driving us to the movies when she overheard our conversation in the backseat.

“You’d look really great in blue eyeshadow,” my friend, fourteen years old herself, confided in me. “Really, I could apply it for you.” She herself was made up in poorly applied black eyeliner and some sort of bright pink glitter.

I thought my mother was going to have a coronary; I could see her visibly stiffening in the front seat not only from the realization that her daughter was old enough to start wanting makeup, but also the suggestion of blue eyeshadow in general.

“Mom,” I asked, throwing my voice up front, “Can I wear eyeshadow?”

She didn’t hesitate.

“No you may not.”

“But,” I protested, gesturing to my best friend, “Lissa-Ann’s mother lets her wear eyeshadow.” Lissa-Ann nodded enthusiastically and then fluttered her eyelashes to show that this was true. Little known to both of us, Lissa-Ann would be graduating high school a year early in a shot-gun marriage. Perhaps she foresaw this in her future, though, because my mother didn’t even glance in the rearview mirror.

“I don’t give a damn what Lissa-Ann’s mother lets her do,” she said, “You’re my daughter and I say no.”

But I’d started the wheels turning, and with my oily, Italian skin, it was soon apparent that I was going to need makeup or face endless teasing once I got to high school.

Did she let me run wild through the makeup section of our local pharmacy? No. Did she even let me choose what makeup I wanted to wear – which would have been blue mascara and silver eyeshadow? No.

She first took me to a dermatologist, who recommended Clinique’s line of products, because I was allergic to so many things. And then she took me to the Clinique counter at Dillard’s, where a flawlessly made up 60 year old woman made me up in a powder foundation, light mascara, and rose blush that doubled as eyeshadow. Then she took a half-hour to explain patiently how to apply everything.

Ironically, out of all the other girls my age trying desperately to look older, I was the only one who didn’t look like a thirteen year-old playing dressup.

As I get older, though, I appreciate her efforts more and more as I see so many women my age who obviously have no idea how to apply makeup or choose colors. And it’s not because they’re dumb – it’s because no one ever taught them.

I still use Clinique. And every once in awhile, I contemplate if their products are really worth so much money, and I go out and buy a drug-store brand, and then I regret it as soon as I make my face up. And back to Clinique I go.

But Clinique is not the only solution out there – and having great makeup still does nothing for you if you don’t know how to apply it. So here’s a little mini-guide to what I’ve learned over sixteen colors of eyeshadow and more than a decade of daily application.

Makeup 101: A Primer

Let’s start at the beginning:


Application: I apply my liquid foundation with clean fingers, as this has always worked best, but I also know many women perfectly capable of wielding a brush. Foundation brushes require daily cleaning, and so I use them as little as possible. When applying your liquid foundation, be careful to blend it lightly – pulling your skin many result in bruising, discoloration, and a loss of elasticity over time.

Products: I have oily, olive skin, hazel eyes, and dark hair and lashes. I know plenty of fair-skinned blondes who never wear foundation, but olive skin like mine can easily look sallow because of the yellow undertones, and so it’s important that I choose my foundation wisely. If you decide to wear foundation, don’t skimp on it. No amount of great eyeshadow or flattering blush will cover up cakey or uneven foundation.

For those of you out there with oily skin, I can not say enough good things about Clinique’s Oil-Free Superfit Liquid Foundation. ($19.50. If you’re counter-shopping, it should be the only liquid foundation in a plastic, not glass, bottle.) Their “moderately fair – neutral” shade works best for me, but if you are Latina, you may want to try their “medium” levels instead.

I follow this up with Clinique’s Gentle Light Powder ($22.50) in “Glow 3 Neutral,” because it has just enough sparkle to appear glowy. I don’t use compacts or pressed powders because it’s too easy for my excess oil to transfer back to the powder and breed bacteria. (If your pressed powder has that rugged look or has formed little ridges, throw it out – those are bacteria colonies multiplying by the microsecond.)

Beauty on a Budget: I work from home, and so on the days I’m not going to be seeing anyone particularly important, I wear CoverGirl’s TruBlend liquid foundation in buff beige ($8.64 at drugstores). It’s definitely liquid, but feels a bit like whipped cream when you apply it. This still freaks me out, but the coverage is perfectly acceptable for running to the bank, etc., and although it doesn’t hold up as long as Clinique’s does, it’s a fine inexpensive alternative. I stay away from their Clean Makeup line, because it never seems to have enough coverage for my uneven skin-tone.


Products: I also rely heavily on Clinique’s Soft-Pressed Powder blush ($18.50). If I had to recommend only three products to women, it would be foundation, mascara, and blush. Blush is about the only thing that keeps me still looking perky at five o’clock in the afternoon. Generally, if you’re fairer skinned, you can get away with brighter pinks. For me, I stick to the “tawnies,” which means more brown than purple. The same rule applies to lipstick.

Beauty on a Budget: Origins also has great blushes ($18.50), although they’re not a penny less expensive. In a pinch (like on our honeymoon, when I forgot all my makeup at home), CoverGirl’s blush works just fine. If you don’t do a lot of contouring or don’t wear a lot of blush, you can get away just fine with skimping. If you find yourself in the grocery store or pharmacy and don’t want to be that woman who breaks open the makeup to test it, go for CoverGirl’s Instant Cheekbones Contouring blush ($5.50 at drugstores). It comes with three shades:  a medium and dark shade will let you play, while a more beige shade will let you neutralize things if you put it on too heavy.

Application: If I’m guilty of one thing, it’s too much blush. What looks perfectly normal in Dallas, Memphis, and Atlanta looks increasingly heavy the further north you travel on the East Coast. Do your best to suit your blush application to yourself first, and then to your workplace or geographical region.

Because my skin is oily, cream blushes seem to work better on me that they do for my girlfriends with excessively dry skin.

Vanessa has a pretty great tutorial on blush on YouTube. She’s wearing a lot more makeup than many of you will be comfortable with, but she has a great explanation of all those tricky questions, like contouring (she has a round face, like me, and likes to narrow it), as well as how to avoid harsh lines (tap the excess off, ladies).

She recommends MAC products, and while I’ll stick with Clinique for my foundation and blush, they have incredibly fun, long lasting eyeshadows ($14.50 for one color, $36 for a compact of four colors) are, hands down, have the best selection of high quality brushes ($11 – $62). I’m also a total sucker for their loose-powder pigments ($19.50). If you simply must have blue mascara, this is the place to get it.


Products: If you’re going the high-end route, I’ve got a couple of recommendations. For the daytime, or if I’m going to be traveling, I wear Clinique’s Lash Power Long Wearing Formula ($14.00). It’s a nice, medium consistency and the brush is small, which helps in covering the small lashes closest to your nose and your bottom lashes. It truly does wear all day, but you do need warm water to get it off at night – even my eye makeup removers won’t touch it.

If I’m going out in the evening, I wear Clinique’s High Impact Mascara ($14.00). I am blessed with thick, long lashes, and so I need a thick, fat brush to achieve a dramatic look – otherwise it’s like trying to put out a fire with a watergun.

UPDATE (3/21/10): I recently flew into a Nordstrom’s to stock up on makeup for an overseas trip. I explained to the woman at the makeup counter that not only did I need mascara that would wear over a 14-hour flight, I also needed mascara that would stand up to an outside wedding, in summer, in a tropical beach country. Also, I wanted it to be waterproof and lash-curling.

She admitted that she didn’t have anything like that at her counter, but sent me over to Yves Saint Laurent instead. And man, has that become my go-to mascara ever since.

Application: Don’t pump the mascara brush in and out of the bottle eighty-seven times. You think you’re getting more mascara on the brush, but that’s not the way mascara bottles work – each time you do that, you’re adding air to the bottle, which will dry out your mascara twice as fast.

Start with clean lashes – no traces of last night’s girls night out. Hold the mascara wand horizontally and apply one coat, starting at the base and making a gentle sawing motion back and forth on your way up. This will fully coat and separate your lashes. Insert the wand back into the bottle and remove it, then move onto the next eye. When your lashes are dry, go back and do them again. Applying two or three coats while they’re still wet will just make your mascara clump.

Some experts recommend switching the mascara wand vertically to apply mascara to your bottom lashes. This always end up with too much mascara for me, and besides, I’m not dexterous enough to avoid stabbing myself in the cheekbone. Instead, I still hold the wand horizontal, but use a separate mascara with a thin wand and delicate bristles.

Beauty on a Budget: Origins Full Story mascara comes in a mere 50 cents cheaper, but is still a safe bet. Once again, CoverGirl is my “in a pinch” weapon of choice. While you can sometimes get away with cheap blush, cheap mascara will almost always bite you in the ass – it will clump or flake as the day goes on. CoverGirl Lash Exact ($8.00 at drugstores) has funky, flexible plastic bristles that tame my thick lashes nicely, and it wears well.


Products: It’s true that using a light, pearlescent eyeshadow in the inside corner of your eye and under your bottom lashes will open up your eyes, making them larger and brighter. (If six years of theatrical training has taught me anything, this is it.) For years, I bought Clinique’s expensive ColorSurge Eyeshadow in Sugar Sugar ($14.00).

Then, I got locked out of my apartment before an important event and had to beg a shower, makeup, and clothing off of my best friend across town. I discovered Loreal’s Wear Infinite Eye Shadow in Frosted Icing ($3.82 at drugstores), which is almost a perfect stand-in for Clinique’s Sugar Sugar.

Application: If you can afford it, I recommend a primer of some sort for your eyelids. Almost none of them are inexpensive. It’s not utterly necessary if you start with a completely clean, dry eyelid, but it certainly helps your eyeshadow stay in place and wear longer, and usually prevents those little lines of shadow that can form in the creases of your lid. Your eyelids are incredibly porous (think several layers of tissue paper) and more prone to trapping oil than the rest of your face – just smearing regular foundation on your eyelids is not going to work like it will on the rest of you.

MAC makes a reliable primer ($16.00), but my favorites are still Clinique’s Touch Base for Eyes. They are entirely correct when they say “No smear, no fade, no creasing.” I buy mine in light colors (canvas, buff, petal) and then layer my eyeshadow over it.

Prime your eyes, whether this means applying a primer or simply making sure all your eye makeup is off. Then, choose your color. If you use only a single color, your goal should be to subtly draw attention to your eyes. Don’t necessarily try to match your eye color; instead, use a contrasting color. (My eyes are hazel, with a little bit of green; I choose shades of purple to play this up.) If you have brilliant blue or green eyes, go ahead and experiment with jeweled blue or green shadows, but don’t overdo it – the goal is for people to notice your eyes, not your shadow.

Two or three colors allows for a more bold or playful execution. My standard application is to apply a pearlescent light shadow on my lid, in the corner next to my nose, under my bottom lashes, and directly beneath my eyebrow on my brow-bone. Next, I take a darker color (violet, for example) and apply it on the outside of my eye to 1/3 of the way inward. Then I sweep a medium color (lavender, for example) over the rest of the lid. Be sure to blend well; you don’t want distinct lines between your colors.

Before and After TV has an excellent tutorial on getting an overall natural look; eyeshadow begins at 2:50 and continues with some good advice on eyeliner and blending.


Products: Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, I wore liquid eyeliner. It was an absolute pain in my ass, but I was having a “runway-dramatic, even at 3:00 in the afternoon, and fuck ya’ll if you don’t like it” phase. (What can I say? I was drinking a lot.) Since then, I’ve acquired a husband, a mortgage, a full-time job, and two small dogs. My makeup routine has been slashed from forty-five minutes to ten. And the best thing I’ve found for ten-minute makeup routines (on a plane! on a bus! while driving, although don’t tell the highway patrol I said that!) has been Clinique’s Quickliner for Eyes.

(My copy-and-paste ability has crapped out on this laptop, so you’ll have to go search for these products yourself from this point on. I’m sorry, I’m sorry!)

This eyeliner has an 1/8″ swivel pencil (no sharpening!) and a smudging tool on the other end. Brilliant.

Application: Eyeliner is tricky. Eyeliner is maybe the trickiest thing out there, if you don’t want to end up looking like Pam Anderson or Brigitte Nielsen. I’m not the woman to teach you this. Marlena at Makeup Geek is totally the woman to teach you this. She goes over liquid, pencils, gels, and eyeshadows as eyeliners. She also details high-end and drug-store recommendations.


Products: I have long-since given up lipstick in favor of lip glosses and more liquid colors. Right now, my all-around best bet is Origins Liquid Lip Color in Bonfire ($14.95). It adds a definite color without being overwhelming or harsh; it’s ideal for daywear. I also adore Clinique’s Almost Lipstick ($14.00); it goes on creamy but not heavy, and adds just the right amount of color.

Application: The general rule (compliments of my Mama) is to play up either your eyes or your lips at any given time – never both. This doesn’t mean to make one up and leave the other completely bare, it just means don’t be dramatic with both at the same time. I naturally have very dramatic doe-eyes, and so I tend to use more subtle, barely-there shades on my lips.

When I do play up my lips, however, I like red. (“Slut-red,” as Mama calls it.) It’s both vintage and classic, and very daring. If you do it right, it’ll set you apart from every Burt’s-Bees-Wearing Woman in the room. If you are going for dramatic, though, use a lip-liner. And here’s why:

A lipliner is a different formula than a lipstick. It’s not as glossy, and it will stay put. The idea is to use a liner to circle your lips, like a fence, to keep all that color from bleeding out or smearing.

Since I seldom wear “real” lipstick, I’m going to turn you over to the ladies at Real Simple for this tutorial.

As a final piece of advice, if you’re an older woman, stay away from frosted lipstick. It never occurred to me that women of different ages should wear different lipsticks until my mother was in the passenger seat of my car at the airport one day, and asked, “Do you have any lipstick?”

I tossed mine over to her, and she flipped down the little visor mirror.

“AHHHHHHHH,” she screamed approximately three seconds later.

“What? What?!” I asked.

“IT’S FROSTED,” she said, staring at her mouth in horror. And sure enough, she was right. What looked perfectly acceptable on a woman in her mid-twenties looked perfectly ridiculous on a woman with the same complexion in her late-fifties.

Beauty on a Budget: Time and time again, from professional makeup artists right down to my girlfriends, the best lipstick/lipliner bang-for-your-buck is proven to be Wet ‘n Wild. No, I’m not kidding. Don’t believe me? Go out and buy Wet ‘n Wild’s Perfect Pair (lipstick and lipliner on one applicator) for just $3.99 at your local drugstore.


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