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How to Apply Eyeshadow: The 9 Mistakes You’re Probably Making

How to avoid the most common shadow snafus.

When it comes to doing makeup, nothing is more intimidating than eyeshadow.

Sure, we're attracted to the bright colours, rich textures and luxe packaging. Out of all the makeup categories, it's probably eyeshadow palettes (like these) that tug at our heartstrings the most. They're just so darn pretty!

But figuring out what to do with them, exactly—which colours to use, and how much, and where—is definitely an acquired skill.

Even celebrities don't always excel at it, as you'll soon appreciate. Whether it's bad blending, poor placement, a heavy-handed application or the wrong colour(s), there's a lot that can go wrong. 

No wonder so many of us decide to just skip eyeshadow altogether! 

But that would be a shame. Done right, eyeshadow is SO transformative: it can define your eyes, give polish to your makeup look, enhance your eye colour and (if you want to go bold) even change your whole vibe. 

If you can't book in with a professional makeup artist, the next best ways to develop your eyeshadow skill set are to:

  • a) set aside some time to play around at home with different colours, textures and application techniques, and 
  • b) observe celebrity photos. 

Friend, that is exactly why I made this post for you today. Dive in and you'll quickly get a sense for what looks good... and what doesn't.

Here are the biggest eyeshadow mistakes to watch out for. It's a long one, so pull up a chair!

Not Blending Enough

Blending is THE most important thing.

Often, what separates a rather amateur-looking eyeshadow application from a jaw-droppingly gorgeous, professional-looking one simply comes down to blending. Or not blending, as the case may be.

Here's what I'm talking about, on Adelaide Kane:

Adelaide Kane at the 2014 People's Choice Awards.

It's SO good. With her muted wash of taupe shadow, we can't see any hard edges at all. The colour transition is utterly seamless. So you actually notice her big brown eyes, not the makeup. I'm not sure what she is wearing, but Bobbi Brown Eye Shadow in Taupe would give you this look, and is an amazing staple colour.

Here's an example of great blending in a bolder colour statement on Ashley Benson:

Ashley Benson at the 2015 New York premiere of 'Pixels'.

If this shimmering pink shadow weren't blended so perfectly, it could easily look dated, tacky or overdone. But again, there are no hard lines or distracting blobs of colour. (Note: the way it ends on angle at the outer edges is deliberate, and a very trendy thing to do right now.) This colour is from the Tom Ford Eye and Cheek Compact.

Sometimes, you do want the colour to be concentrated in a particular area, like Gigi Hadid has:

Gigi Hadid at Maybelline's 100-year anniversary event in 2015.

Even though the black is in the one spot, it's a deliberate, artistic choice. The edges are super-soft, making the intense colour and dramatic shape much more wearable. Blending also eases the transition from black to champagne, so it doesn't feel jagged.

Next, let's take a look at some not-so-great blending. First up, Aubrey Plaza:

Aubrey Plaza at the 2013 Emmy Awards.

Uh-oh. We can clearly see the rounded shape of Aubrey Plaza's light brown shadow—and we shouldn't. The upper edge is just way too obvious.

Taraji P. Henson has a similar problem:

Tarajii P. Henson at the 2015 Emmy Awards.

This time, the roundness is at the inner corners, in a bright, light shimmer. If only that was diffused instead of a noticeable line.

Sometimes, it's not a matter of distinct hard lines, but just a sloppy-looking application. 

Ahna O'Reilly at the 2015 Lupus LA Orange Ball.

Ahna O'Reilly's shadow textures and shapes don't seem to match on both lids, and seem slightly patchy. It's distracting, and just doesn't look profesh. (I guess blending is an issue for her, as the lip liner needs attention, also.)

Here is Sienna Miller with a couple of blobs of colour:

Sienna Miller at the 2015 Oscars.

Okay, this is not as problematic as the previous examples, but I still feel that more blending is required. The brown (which is from Charlotte Tilbury's Sophisticate Palette) is so dark and doesn't diffuse out. You definitely notice the shadow before anything else on her face.

To become an expert blender, you need the right tools—as well as the time to use them! I suggest investing in proper brushes instead of using those tiny sponge applicators that come with the package, which never produce great results. 

These are the three main eyeshadow brushes you'll want in your makeup bag:

Hourglass All-Over Eyeshadow Brush No. 3.

  • Blending brush: This has a domed shape that is perfect for blending out all your edges. Blend, blend, blend—and then blend some more. I use the MAC 217 Blending Brush, a GREAT brush.

MAC 217 Blending Brush.

  • Smudging brush: This brush has short, rounded bristles that smudge out shadow (and liner) close to the lash lines. Or, it can be used to dab a highlight on the inner corners. Once you have one, you won't be able to live without it! Try the Charlotte Tilbury Eye Smudger Brush.

Charlotte Tilbury Eye Smudger Brush.

The only time you don't want to blend is if you're doing something super-graphic like Lupita Nyong'o:

Lupita Nyong'o at the 2013 premiere of '12 Years a Slave'.

You might also have to BE Lupita Nyong'o to pull this off. This example is all about the angles and edges. But proceed with caution... usually, only professional makeup artists can execute with such precision.

Ireland Baldwin did a softer, more wearable take on this same idea:

Ireland Baldwin at PETA's 35th anniversary party in 2015.

There is still the graphic pointy shape, but it doesn't go above the crease, and the bronze colour is more forgiving. A gel format such as Tarte Clay Pot Waterproof Liner in Bronze or NARS Eye Paint in Iksander would be great for this, applied with an angled brush. You can use a card or piece of tape to get a sharp edge, or clean it up with a makeup wipe after to make it more precise.

Applying Too Much Product

Eyeshadow is definitely one of those areas where people tend go overboard. Smoky eye addiction IS a problem. 

Darker complexions are better at pulling off stronger, more intense looks, which tend to be overwhelming on light skin. But in general, my mantra is "less is more." 

Jillian Rose Reed has one of the more extreme examples of heavy shadow:

Jillian Rose Reed at the 2014 Spike TV Guys' Choice Awards.

Even without the extra touch of green along her lower lash line, this would be too much.

Jenna Ushkowitz also piled it on:

Jenna Ushkowitz at the 'Glee' 100 episodes celebration in 2014.

Fortunately, the blending is good and the colour choices are complementary. I don't think this is a bad idea for a big night out like New Year's Eve... but you certainly don't want to be sporting black and silver glitter shadows during daylight hours.

Speaking of glitter and shimmer, we need to talk about highlighting. It has long been standard makeup practice to add a dab of a lighter, more reflective eyeshadow colour at the inner corners of the eyes to "open them up." 

Sarah Hyland's highlighting goes well beyond that:

Sarah Hyland at the 2015 People's Choice Awards.

As a celebrity makeup artist I recently interviewed told me: "You shouldn't be able to see your highlighting from across the street." Highlights are really about mimicking the way light would naturally reflect off healthy skin. Our skin doesn't ever sparkle like a disco ball.

This is one reason why RMS Beauty's Living Luminizer has become such a cult product. I've never found a more perfect and natural-looking highlighter.

RMS Beauty Living Luminizer.

Now, I want to show you some more positive examples, of celebs wearing just the right amount of eyeshadow.

If we're talking inner corners, Bella Thorne's look remains one of my all-time faves:

Bella Thorne at the 2014 Teen Choice Awards.

This isn't the effect you'd get from Living Luminizer; it's a deliberate colour statement in gleaming gold. But notice how restrained it is compared to Sarah Hyland's glitter. The two little flashes of gold make the look. Not sure what it is, but Stila Eye Shadow in Oasis could give you a similar look.

Then there is my current beauty crush, Emilia Clarke:

Emilia Clarke at the Season 5 premiere of 'Game of Thrones' in 2015.

She chose a muted warm grey and swept it super-sheerly from lashes to brows. How gorgeous with the bright orange mouth. The point is, your eyeshadow doesn't have to scream for attention to be beautiful. No word on what this shade is, but the closest would be Bobbi Brown Eye Shadow in Cement, a grey-beige.

That being said, here's one instance of a celeb pulling off lots of eyeshadow in the best possible way:

Rooney Mara at the 2013 New York Film Festival.

Leave it to Rooney Mara, right? This reason this much shadow doesn't look "wrong," even on her pale skin, is because of the colour choice, application and styling. Bold plummy purple with touches of gold is a fashion-forward combo, and by wearing it with clean skin and hair scraped back, she lets it make a statement. The blending is out of this world, and the shape is taken straight from the runway. If you're brave enough to try it, Laura Mercier Baked Eye Colour in Aubergine could do the trick.

Dated Application Technique 

I see a lot of advice floating around for how to do a traditional smoky eye. They say to put a medium shadow all over the lid, a darker colour in the crease and a light shade underneath the brow bone and at the inner corners. All matte, of course.

No doubt you've heard that before? Well, I want to encourage you to throw the rules out the window! 

Victoria Justice is going to show you how such a "paint by numbers" approach can look dated:

Victoria Justice at the 2014 MTV Movie Awards.

Her eyeshadow is safe, predictable and frankly, not even flattering. (The false lashes and heavy foundation aren't helping matters.) Under-brow highlights just aren't being done anymore, and if you're going to add a pale shade at the tear ducts, it needs to have some light-reflective qualities—not pale and matte.

Even still, it's better than the cut crease. 

Laura Vandervoort at the 2015 Humane Society Los Angeles gala.

A cut crease is an eyeshadow technique that exaggerates and defines the eyelid crease. It's a technique that was popularized by drag queens, and now—inexplicably!—Instagram and YouTube makeup artists. But the best celebrity makeup artists will NEVER do one on their A-list clients. See how harsh and aging it looks on Laura Vandervoort? It's just about the opposite of fresh and effortless.

Same thing with Cher Lloyd:

Cher Lloyd at a promotion for Sticks and Stones in 2012.

To me, this eyeshadow says "I went to makeup school!" Again, it's very rigid, very paint by numbers. If you pay attention to celebrity makeup—like we do on this blog—then you know that the world's top artists have much more ease and creativity. When you look like you spent three hours doing your eyeshadow, it can't be a good thing.

This is what I'm talking about, on Zoë Saldana:

Zoë Saldana at the 2015 Go90 VIP event.

Such a fresh and subtle smoky eye. Bit of shimmer on the lids, and a darker shade adding definition closer to the lash line. I love that it's all tone-on-tone, like a natural extension of her complexion.

Texture is also important, as per this Amanda Seyfried look:

Amanda Seyfried at the 2012 premiere of 'Gone'.

Shimmer definitely modernizes any smoky shadow look. It's more forgiving than matte shades, so is easier to apply, and can be taken right up to the brows. We are also moving to more monotone smoky eyes, and in lighter colours such as greys and taupes. For shimmers, I love the Giorgio Armani Eye Tints, Marc Jacobs Twinkle Pop Eye Sticks and Chanel Illusion d'Ombre.

Too Heavy Above the Crease

Even though a sharp cut crease looks terribly dated, that's not to say that you shouldn't define your crease with eyeshadow.

After all, shading the crease can make your eyes look bigger, more dramatic and more open (especially if you have hooded eyes and need to "fake" a crease).

Just be careful with the heaviness:

Cheryl Burke at the 2014 Young Hollywood Awards.

Cheryl Burke has a lot of space between her brows and her crease, so I get the reason for taking the grey shadow so high. I don't mind it being that intense to just above the crease, but anything above that I would prefer to be either softly diffused or not there at all. And NO white highlight under the brow tails.

Isabelle Fuhrman is a nice example of shadow going just enough above the crease:

Isabelle Fuhrman at the 2015 Teen Vogue Young Hollywood issue launch party.

I like how this follows the shape of her eyes. Even though her edges are soft, this look is a bit graphic because of the mono colour. Also a good one for hooded eyes!

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From The Skincare Edit Archives

It's also modern to take one lighter, shimmering colour all the way up to the brows:

Emma Stone at the Louis Vuitton Fall 2011 show.

How beautiful is this gold-grey eyeshadow, OMG! This works on Emma Stone because the colour is just a few shades darker than her blonde hair. Sometimes ignoring the crease issue altogether is the way to go. You could get this look by layering Surratt Beauty Artistique Eyeshadow in dore over a warm grey such as Urban Decay Eyeshadow in Mushroom.

Or, even easier:

Marion Cotillard at the 2015 amfAR Cinema Against AIDS Gala.

Marion Cotillard went for the simplest solution of all, a sheer shimmery shadow close to her skin tone. Impossible to ever mess up. Make Up For Ever Aqua Matic in Satiny Flesh-colored Pink S-52 would give you the same effect.

Too Heavy Below the Eyes

A few years ago, it used to be that you'd never put eyeshadow underneath your eyes. It was a product strictly for the upper lids only.

That's changed now, as one of the biggest trends in eye makeup is a 360-degree application all the way around the eye.

Problem is, sometimes that can drag down your face, give you dark circles and make your eyes look smaller.

Emmy Rossum at 'Chelsea Lately' in 2013.

As you can see, Emmy Rossum had a decent shimmery-smoky eye going on. But then she added strokes of black shadow underneath the lower lash lines. It closes off her eyes and emphasizes the bags underneath.

Elisabeth Moss did a big wash of sheer, sooty shadow:

Elisabeth Moss at the 'Mad Men' Season 7 premiere in 2014.

While I appreciate the flawless blending, I wish she didn't take it underneath her eyes. It only makes them look sunken and like she hasn't slept in days! 

Finally, there is Jennifer Lopez and her bizarre new application technique:

Jennifer Lopez at the 2015 Fox All-Star Party.

I don't know where this came from, but she does it a lot! It's the 360-degree idea on steroids.

This is more what you want to do:

Keira Knightley at the 2015 Critics' Choice Awards.

Thank you, Keira Knightley. Her purple shadow goes all the way around her eyes and up to her crease, but oh how well it is blended! The lines are not too thick nor too sharp, and they don't drag down her face or create areas of darkness. Well done! It's definitely a Chanel colour, possibly from 228 Tissé Cambon palette.

Too Heavy at the Inner Corners

So besides taking shadow underneath the eyes, there's another application technique emerging lately. It's to dab a colour at the inner corners of the eyes.

The idea is not to mimic light or make it look natural at all. It's more just a new idea for concentrated colour placement.

And man, can it ever go wrong:

January Jones at the 2011 premiere of 'X Men: First Class'.

The problem with January's green eyeshadow is that it's making her eyes look so close together. Kind of beady, right? Also, there's the problem we already talked about of the eyeshadow underneath her eyes being too heavy. 

Mayim Bialik is a less dramatic example:

Mayim Bialik at the 2015 Critics' Choice Television Awards.

I don't mind her wearing purple eyeshadow, but it's awfully close to her nose. The effect is messy, and again, it makes her eyes look closer together.

Then there are the people who don't put a dark colour at their inner corners, but instead go crazy with bright glitter:

Jamie Chung at the NBA 2K15 launch celebration in 2014.

Jamie Chung is one of them. The lilac sparkle is so jarring, and it cheapens her whole look.

Also Kellie Pickler:

Kellie Pickler at the 2015 ACM Awards.

Could she be wearing any more gold eyeshadow? We get your point, Kellie. Loud and clear.

Here's a way to do the inner corners that is so much more elegant and tasteful:

Kristen Stewart at the 2014 screening of 'Still Alice'.

Kristen Stewart chose a shimmery white, so it's not like this look is about being natural. But the lightness of the colour really opens up her eyes and makes them sparkle. It is also applied in just a dab right at the tear ducts, then blended out across her upper and lower lash lines. Perfection! The colour is Make Up For Ever Artist Eyeshadow in Pearl.

Matching Your Eye Colour

I'm not a fan of colour rules—like, if you have a certain hair colour or skin tone, you have to limit yourself to certain makeup shades. Where's the fun in that? 

But there is one thing to keep in mind when it comes to eye colour and eyeshadow. When you make them match exactly, people are going to notice the makeup first, then your eye colour. (Brown eyes are the exception; they can wear any colour.)

Take Darby Stanchfield, for example:

Darby Stanchfield at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner.

She already has creepy coloured contacts that do her no favours. But it's the icy blue eyeshadow that grabs your attention first. Her eye colour isn't making the statement here at all.

Carla Gugino did the same thing in green:

Carla Gugino at the 2015 White House Correspondents Dinner.

She has such a unique eye colour, but it's overshadowed by the even more unique eyeshadow. I've never seen someone wearing this shadow shade, in fact.

Here's what you would do if you wanted to emphasize blue eyes:

Dakota Johnson at the 2014 Met Gala.

Right? Dakota Johnson's soft coppery brown shadow is the opposite of her blue eyes, so that's what brings them out. The palette used was Lancôme's Color Design Shadow & Liner Palette in Kissed by Gold.

The opposite on the colour wheel to green is purple:

Dianna Agron at the 2013 premiere of 'The Family'.

I'm in love with this Dianna Agron look, which is pretty bold but could also work in a muted plum. Even though she is wearing a bright colour, it's not competing with her eyes—it's enhancing them. This is NARS Eye Paint in Tatar with Make Up For Ever Aqua Eyes in Purple 11L.

Using Too Many Colours

So this next bit is about using colour in a flattering way. Creative is great, but there's a fine line between creative and clownish. 

Like I said, we are moving to more monotone shadow looks instead of multiple colours at once.

So the rainbow eye is probably not something you want to try at home:

Mae Whitman at the 2015 Teen Choice Awards.

Mae Whitman... no.

Alicia Witt did a slightly less cray version:

Alicia Witt at the 2015 premiere of 'Shameless', 'House of Lies' and 'Episodes'.

But it's still two obvious blobs of chartreuse at the outer edges of her lids. I think we can be much subtler about it.

Take Angie Harmon, for example:

Angie Harmon at the 2015 Critics' Choice Television Awards.

She did a rainbow eye, but it works because the colours are soft, metallic and well-blended. Nothing jumps out as being too concentrated or bold against her skin.

Another great (and easier!) way to involve colour is what Joan Smalls did here:

Joan Smalls at the 2015 Cannes premiere of 'Youth'.

Her upper lids are very neutral—a combo of taupe shadow and a soft golden shimmer. But the burgundy underneath her lower lash lines takes it to a whole other level. Very cool, but still wearable, huh? 

Charli XCX also incorporated just one bold colour into an otherwise neutral look:

Charli XCX at the Flowerbomb 10th anniversary party in 2015.

It's your standard smoky, but with an orangey-gold shadow dabbed only at the tear ducts. With red lips and bronzed skin, it's a fun touch! And less predictable than a champagne highlight.

Of course, if you REALLY want to go for it and wear a crazy-bright, unusual shadow shade, then I think something like Barbara Palvin's application is the way to go:

Barbara Palvin at the 2013 Cannes premiere of 'All Is Lost'.

I love the single shadow right up to the brows, and clean fresh skin everywhere else. (But maybe you have to be a supermodel like Barbara to pull off this particular hue, a combo of the oranges from L'Oréal Paris Colour Riche Eyeshadow in Hollywood Icon and What Happens in Vegas!)

Not Balanced With the Rest of Your Makeup

The last point I wanted to make about eyeshadow is that no matter what, it needs to be considered in relation to the rest of your makeup, hair and even outfit.

Balance is the key. You know that rule about taking one accessory off before you head out the door? I think the same thing is true for makeup. If your eyeshadow is strong or colourful, you don't need equally intense lipstick, blush, earrings, etc. (Although there are exceptions, which I'll get to in a minute.)

Christina Aguilera is perhaps the worst offender I can think of when it comes to this stuff:

Christina Aguilera at a Season 8 event for 'The Voice' in 2015.

Oh my goodness! Every mistake I talked about is here on one face. With dark heavy shadow, red lacquered lips and insane contouring, you truly can't focus on any one feature. Is there an actual living, breathing person under here?

This is a less extreme example of eyeshadow not being in balance with the rest of the makeup:

Millie Thrasher at her Sweet 16 party in 2015.

No idea who this is, but can you believe she's only 16? All the product is making her look much older! I don't love the eyeshadow colours or application to being with, but if they were paired with fresh dewy skin and bare lips, we'd have a fighting chance. 

Allow Léa Seydoux to show us how it's done:

Léa Seydoux at the 2014 BAFTA Awards.

Her dramatic shimmering navy and silver are given the spotlight against fresh skin, sheer lip gloss and gently flushed cheeks. Nothing competes with the shadow. This is Lancôme Hypnôse Doll Eyes Palette in DO4 Lumière d'Azur, which is no longer available, but the Burberry Complete Eye Palette in No. 20 Slate Blue would be similar.

However, you don't have to always choose between strong eyeshadow or strong lipstick:

Olivia Wilde at the 2013 London premiere of 'Rush'.

Olivia Wilde's look here is one of the greatest examples of emphasizing eyes and lips at once. A few reasons it works: her skin is really fresh; there's barely any blush, the shadow is strong but not super-dark; and the shadow has a shimmering, light-reflective texture. This was the Yves Saint Laurent Ombres Duolumières Two Color Eye Shadow Duo Palette in No. 1 Heavenly Beige/Astral Brown, which is no longer available. I would try NARS Duo Eyeshadow in Belissima

Kerry Washington did something along the same lines, just in a lighter palette:

Kerry Washington at the 2015 Disney ABC Summer Press Tour.

Not into her false lashes, but what I do love is the pairing of shimmering soft green shadow with an equally shimmery pink lip. They match in intensity and are completely balanced. Plus, the colour pairing is so much more unique than the usual combo of grey or brown smokies with nude lips. For this shadow colour, you could try Buxom Eyeshadow in No Faux.

To wrap up, here's one of the best eyeshadow looks EVER, in my opinion:

Emily Blunt at the 2013 Met Gala.

Again, totally balanced. But obviously, context is key—Emily Blunt wore this to the Met Gala that had a punk theme. The graphic shape and hot pink hue against her natural skin texture and defined lashes are incredibly cool, and will be for years to come. Ironically, it's not even eyeshadow... it's NARS Satin Lip Pencil in Jardin des Plantes and NARS Powder Blush in Desire. So yeah, you can totally try lip and cheek colours on your lids if you want to!


By now, after looking at these celebrities, you should have a really good idea of the most common eyeshadow mistakes out there. Yep, there's a lot that can go wrong—from not blending enough to using too much to putting it in the wrong spot.

Even still, eyeshadow application doesn't have to be hard. It's simply not true that you need a lot of product or a complicated technique to look good. In fact, I think you'll agree that some of the simplest looks here are the freshest and prettiest.

That said, if there is one thing I hope to see more of, it's creativity! I would love for people to look to the red carpet and the runway for their eyeshadow inspiration, instead of copying the dated, "one size fits all" makeup techniques circulating in certain YouTube and Instagram circles.

I hope these examples provide plenty of inspiration for your eyeshadow experimentation at home.

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