Reader Questions: Eye Makeup For Persons The Color Of Typing Paper

Julie writes:

Okay, here's a dorky one. I'm a pale person -- like you, I turn blue under spotlights. My eyes are pale, my hair is kind of light. So that's the background.

I often don't bother with makeup because, way too much work. But when I do want to bother with it, I want to emphasize my eyes and have found no good way to do it that doesn't end with me looking like a raccoon. The whole "black liner all the way around the eye" is way too much, but everything else I've tried is not enough. Help? 

And OtherBecky writes:

How do the various types of liners work? I've never been able to figure out eyeliner, and I really don't get lipliner either. (Is lipliner still a thing?)

There's nothing actually wrong with black liner all around your eyes, but unless you really feel like rocking the Bill Kaulitz/Taylor Momsen look, you'll look like you hate it, and hating what you're wearing pretty much automatically makes you look like you shouldn't be wearing it.

For the sake of completeness, this is the raccoon-eyes thing that Goths and punks and emokids and scenesters like to do. You get it by ringing your eyes with a very smudgy black liner, smudging the hell out of it, and loading on mascara like it's going out of style. For extra specialness you can also add false eyelashes, although I don't, since lengthening mascara already makes me whack my lashes against the lenses on my sunglasses. Generally you'd wear it over a dark eyeshadow, in something like deep plum, dark mahogany, navy, or black.

The best liners to use for this is pretty much anything that has the word "kohl" on the package. Actual kohl liners, like the L'Oréal HiP series, come in a little jar or pot and are applied with a little stick applicator or a brush. It's a grainy powder that sticks basically because your skin has moisture/oil on the surface, and if for some reason you think you're not caking on enough, you can get the applicator wet and draw an even darker, thicker, smudgier line with it. There are also such things as kohl pencil liners, which are very very soft sharpenable pencils, usually with fat tips. Rimmel makes a good one, as do many other drugstore brands. The only thing I'd avoid here are big fat ones from Physician's Formula whose tips are unprotected cones of compressed kohl -- everyone I know who's bought them started out asking, "How did they manage to squash kohl into a usable pencil?" and the answer is that they didn't, the things fall apart when you breathe on them wrong.

(In that picture, I also happen to be wearing liquid black on top of the smudgy kohl pencil, because later on in that shoot the 'tog wanted my makeup to run as if I'd been crying. It's not necessary to get the line that black, but kohl pigment is waxy and doesn't roll down your face when doused with water.)

This is another, less obnoxous all-round liner look, although not by all that much. This is a regular twist-up liner pencil in brown-black (yes, this is a color of its own, at least according to the cosmetics industry) lined very tightly all around my eye, plus mascara and what's called a smoky eye (a pattern of pigment application meant to be very smudgy and look like it's trailing off the outer corner of your eyes like smoke) in rosy browns and blacks. It's possible to use kohl or kohl pencils here as well, although it's not necessary. This is still fairly dramatic and is a bit of a pain in the ass if you wear contacts and lack both practice applying makeup and the wherewithal to just stick your finger in your eye and wipe smudges of liner off the part of the lens over your cornea, but it's probably just in the area of appropriate for a classy office job, and of course can be deployed at parties to great effect.

This is a more subtle way of going about things. This is eyeliner across the entire top lid in a dark brown-black pencil, hooked under to line the outer third of each eye, with a second color of eyeliner striped right above that -- in this case I think I was wearing a medium blue to go with the outfit. The liner here can be smudgy, but doesn't have to be, which means you can use a kohl pencil and don't ever touch it, or something like a waterproof pencil or a gel eyeliner (gels come in a little pot with an applicator that looks a lot like a DS or PDA pointer -- you use it more or less like a nib pen, dipping the stylus into the pigment and drawing until you run out) that is meant to go on and stay there. Eyeshadow colors above that were three shades of copper brown in approximately a smoky eye shape.

The big trick here, to make it look like you really meant to do this, is to make sure that the upper and lower lines of the dark color are very tight to your lashes, and meet to make a point at the corner of your eye. Mascara is on the top lashes only, or top plus only the bottom lashes where the liner is. This style has never really been trendy, that I'm aware of, but it's been around for many decades -- one of the odder places I've noticed it was actually when Mog and I were watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the dispatcher girl who takes their radio calls to HQ wears her eyeliner like this -- and does keep pale people from looking like they've been punched in the eye with a paint roller. It's understated enough you could get away with wearing it to work, or somewhere like a funeral where you're not supposed to be showing off.

Finally, this style is what's called cat's eye liner. It's what you see on retro pin-up girls. For this, you really need gel liner and a brush or a liquid liner, and it needs to be dead solid black. Wear white, pale gold, pale pink, or nude eyeshadow over your whole eyelid, then draw a line across your upper eyelid only that goes from a point at the outside to a fat stroke across the middle of the lid, down to a point again on the inside. Think of it as being a very narrow rhombus, or like the slanty-ended lines of a calligraphic pen nib. You need the end of the line to slant away from your nose on both sides.

This takes a fair amount of practice and however much eyeliner you think you should be loading on to accomplish this look, you need at least twice that -- the first time you do this you will check yourself in the mirror when it's partway done and think you look like a drag queen with a parkinsonian tremor. Real liquid liners come in itty-bitty bottles with very narrow paintbrushes, like nail polish only tinier, but you can make it a little easier on yourself by buying a liquid liner that comes in felt-tip format. They work like Sharpies. (Don't actually use Sharpie. It's not rated for use on faces, it'll never come off, and it'll sting like all hell if you manage to poke yourself in the eye with it.) They're not as opaque as true liquids, but they're an acceptable substitute if you're one of those people who can't even use watercolors without somehow unaccountably getting paint on parts of you that never got anywhere near the brush.

Put on at least three coats of mascara, top only, and add false lashes as the mood suits you. You want to be able to see those suckers hanging vaguely over the top of your field of view by the time you're done.

If you're not experienced with makeup and you can't seem to find a look between 'yawn' and 'deranged clown', it's probably not actually the liner that's the problem -- weird as it may seem, the issue is likely with your eyebrows. It sounds ridiculous, but filling in your eyebrows slightly darker than normal makes a huge difference, especially if you're one of those people with hair so light your eyebrows and eyelashes vanish in flash photos. Eyeliner styles that look stark and out of whack with your natural eyebrow color look much more intentional and balanced when there's not such a wide disparity between your eyes and the brows framing them.

And just as a note, there's no law saying you need to wear black, brown-black, or brown eyeliner. This shit comes in sparkly electric blue and neon lime green for a reason, and if you still can't find the color you like, you can wet a small makeup brush and paint on the lines with eyeshadow pigment. You can match it to your outfit if you want. If you specifically want your eye color to look more vibrant, it usually works best to use either an intense version of the same color, or the opposite color on the wheel. Blue eyes pop with royal blue or a rosy mahogany brown, and brown eyes with either a rich chocolate or navy blue. Other colors have a little more leeway. Gray and lavender eyes are caused by a base blue with various kinds of tissue structures in the cornea scattering certain wavelengths of light; green and hazel are the same thing with a moderate amount of pigment in the base layer instead of none. You can choose which tint to emphasize by finding the matching/contrasting color by just staring at the pencils in the display until you find one that looks right, more or less -- amethyst purple often seems to work as an antipode for green, for example. My base eye color is a sort of wedgewood blue and comes out anywhere from light sapphire to gray depending on the light and the makeup I choose.

Lip liner is indeed still a thing, and it works about the same as a standard eyeliner pencil. The pigment is waxy, and in addition to being used to create a sharp outline around the outside of your lips (protip: if you think your lips are too small or unbalanced, you can draw just outside of your real lip line) can be used as straight lip color, or to provide a base coat on the lips that other lipstick will stick to better than skin. It's less common to use liner than it used to be mostly because of newer 8-, 18-, and 24-hour stay lipsticks that come in both the traditional twisty tubes or as a thick liquid to be painted on with a brush. You can control the lines fairly well and if you find the right stuff it'll stay without the waxy base coat, which makes the liner unnecessary. The style nowadays is to match the liner to the lipstick so it's not visible in its own right. They're mostly used with opaque lipstick, although if you're careful you can use the lip stain felt-tip pens to line/fill in under glosses and other sheer colors.


  1. I totally agree about the eyebrow thing. What was that film that had Charlize T. in it, where she shaved her eyebrows so she would look bad? Those are my eyebrows. They are so thin hair-wise that if I don't pencil them in, I look like I don't have any. It makes a huge difference in your appearance, and frames the eye makeup so they don't look so clownish.


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