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All Things Eyeliner

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The Violet Files

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Three makeup artists explain the art of perfectly lined eyes.

Written By
Erica Lopez

Call it the kohl conundrum. Our enchantment with the coquettish eyeliner of icons like Brigitte Bardot and Anna Karina is outmatched only by our own struggles to apply it without incident. Indeed, in the ongoing quest to ace smudge-proof, symmetrically lined eyes (some go so far as to incorporate Scotch Tape into their makeup routines), the pitfalls are many—but the effects are worth the effort. Get it right, and eyes will appear wider, brighter, and undeniably alluring. It may even take years off your face. To that end, The Violet Files enlisted makeup artists Mai Quynh, Gregory Arlt, and Charlotte Tilbury to lend a (steady) hand and demystify the art of the lined eye. 



A good liner is the LBD of beauty products—versatile and transformative. As makeup artist and cat-eye devotee Charlotte Tilbury explains: “Eyeliner can create many different looks and magically morph the shape of your eye.” And, she adds, “there’s one for every occasion.” Here, a glossary.

Liquid liner, as the name implies, is the wettest formula and is usually packaged as a thin pen. Tilbury considers liquid liner your best friend when creating an elongated, sexy cat-eye, while Arlt favors MAC’s waterproof Liquidlast version in Point Black for people with watery eyes or allergies.

How to Apply: To achieve Tilbury’s signature Feline Flick (inspired by Japanese calligraphy), start in the inner corner of the eye and draw a very fine line as close as possible to the lash line until you are two thirds of the way across the lid. At this point, start to thicken the line, sweeping the pen up and out. “Next, look in the mirror,” advises Tilbury, “and draw a dot where your flick should end. Compare the symmetry of the dots on each eye, and then connect the end of your liner with each dot with a simple ‘flick’ of the pen.” Beginners, keep cotton swabs nearby for touch-ups.

Kohl liner, which dates as far back as 10,000 B.C., remains the best texture for creating a smoky eye. “True kohl contains soot, and was used in ancient times to protect the eyes from the harsh glare of the sun,” says Arlt, who is partial to MAC’s Feline shade, which he calls “the blackest of the black.” Tilbury’s Rock ‘N’ Kohl pencils were also inspired by the pigment’s rich history: “Cleopatra crafted one of the first self-made kohls, believing it warded off evil spirits and made her eyes even more mesmerizing,” she says.

How to Apply: Tilbury recommends using the Feline Flick method with kohl as well. Make sure the pencil is freshly sharpened to get the perfect line. Arlt favors kohl when highlighting the waterline, as it’s a waterproof formula.

Although eyeliner was moderately used in the early 20th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it was considered acceptable for daily wear. Pencil liners offer the most variety in color and texture (wax, powder, and cream bases), and they create a softly defined look, making them similar to kohls but offering a smoother finish.

How to Apply: “Make sure your pencil is sharpened,” says Arlt, “but buff off the pointed tip [by rubbing it against the back of your hand] before applying so the line isn’t too thin and to prevent crumbling.” When applying to the upper lash line, Arlt advises tilting your head back and looking down into a mirror, like “a queen looking down at her subjects.” Start from the inner eye and work outward. For the bottom lash line, “Apply a little thicker on the outer corner, and make it thinner on the inner eye,” he says.

Gel liner is similar to liquid liner in its precise, opaque finish, but offers more control in the application. “Gel liner is my favorite,” says Quynh, “because it leaves a defined, dark layer like a liquid, but it dries faster.”

How to Apply: Arlt likes to apply MAC’s Fluidline gel liner in Blacktrack using his queen-like gaze technique: “Take a small amount of the product onto an angled brush and, looking down into the mirror, start at the tear duct and apply across the lid.” If a cat-eye is what you desire, Arlt suggests bringing the line out and upward, using the longest end of your angled brush. Add more product to connect the point to the lower lash line, filling in the winged shape to get the thickness you want.



“I intuitively use complementary-but-opposite shades to bring out eye color. I call it the ‘Laws of Contrast,’” says Tilbury. Employing this philosophy, she prefers champagne and black tones with a shimmering finish against blue eyes to make them appear bluer. Quynh, meanwhile, likes to consider skin tone and hair color, using taupe-gray on blue-eyed clients with fair skin for an icy effect. For freshly tanned clients, “a golden-bronze shade against the blue looks great,” she says.

Per Arlt, purple eyeliners are a great way to make green eyes stand out thanks to the reddish undertones (after all, red is green’s complementary shade on the color wheel). Tilbury agrees, suggesting her Rock ‘N’ Kohl Eyeliner in Elizabeth Violet for green eyes—the very subtle black-purple makes them sparkle. Quynh also prefers purple shades on green eyes, suggesting a lighter shade of purple to maximize brightness.

Tilbury likes to use amber tones on brown eyes, as they pick up on the iris’ subtle golden flecks and make the color sparkle. Arlt also recommends navy and eggplant shades as alternatives to black liner for a defined look that is less harsh. A brown-eyed beauty herself, Quynh personally favors purple hues: “The warmness of the plum shade complements my eyes really well,” she asserts.



Tilbury and Quynh both enlist flesh tones along the lower waterline when they want the eyes to look more awake. Alternatively, Arlt recommends using a lighter frosted pencil in the inner corners and tear ducts to make eyes appear wider and alert.

Dramatic liner (take Kate Lee’s Calligraphy Eye, for example) can make an excellent accessory. Quynh suggests picking a bold color that coordinates with your ensemble without matching exactly: “I think it’s fun to match your liner to an accent color—like one of your accessories—for a look that’s exciting, but not overboard.” Arlt also suggests considering the time and place for bold liner; what works for a night out with girlfriends might not be suitable for a job interview.

Nestle your liner tightly into the lash line to make lashes appear thicker, suggests Tilbury. “You never want to see any gaps of skin!”

Quynh uses soft gray metallics and taupe for daytime, and recommends employing a pencil liner for the softest finish: “It’s so smudgy and the color is almost nonexistent, making it subtle enough for daytime wear.” FOR MATURE

Quynh avoids harsh looks by swapping black liners for charcoal grays and warm browns on mature clients who desire a bold line. Arlt also recommends using a softer pencil formula instead of liquid liners, which tend to get caught in the creases. And, of course, Tilbury reminds us to tend to the delicate skin around the eye with a hydrating cream, as this is one of the first places to show the effects of aging.