Skip to contentSkip to footer

Complexion 101

Share this

The Violet Files

Filed under




For anyone who thinks primer is random and foundation is not for them, Sarah Brown has some news for you.

Written By
Photography By
Creative Direction By
Makeup By
Hair By
Styling By
Nails By

Dear Valued, Skin-Obsessed Customers:

As you know, VIOLET GREY exists to make you feel confident in your purchase decisions. And, in my experience, foundation exists to make you feel confident. After all: When your skin looks great, most everything else falls into place. Inner light. Dewiness. Peace, love, happiness.

I love foundation. Most people don’t and I can only guess it’s because (a) they haven’t found the one for them, or (b) they don’t know quite how to use it, or (c) they’ve seen it done very, very badly (this happens).

Foundation and its friends—primerconcealerhighlightcontourthe right brush—are magic. They are like a behind-the-scenes complexion construction crew dedicated to making your skin look on-point even when it’s not. Rosacea? Exhaustion? Hormonal breakout? Bye. Deftly used—light touch, strategic application, flattering texture and tone—they are invisible; they are weightless; they deliver your skin but, you know, better. If you could have glowy, great-looking skin most every day, wouldn’t you? Me, too.

I would never tell you to put anything in THE BAG that I did not feel would seriously improve your life. Which is why I insisted that I write our Complexion Guide, because this stuff is quite frankly a passion, and I feel compelled to share all the tricks with you that all of the pros have shared with me.

What is all this stuff, why might you need it, and how do you use it? Here we go!


If you are perplexed by the concept of primers, think of them—the best ones, of the VIOLET CODE APPROVED ilk—as kind of like SKIMS, but for your face. Everything you put on top glides on a little easier, looks a little smoother. They’re a seamless, secret layer working for you overtime.

Primers exist to make foundation look its best. For me, they have become a critical step between my skin care regimen—these days it seems that my skin drinks up whatever moisture I put on it within seconds—and makeup application.

Makeup artist and clean beauty pioneer Rosemarie Swift never really gave them a second glance—until one day she did. “I didn’t use primers at all for years. And then I started to use them—I changed my mind,” she says. Swift created her new RMS Re-Evolve Locking Primer as a layer to “lock in” skin care and “grip” on to foundation for longer wear. The silicone-free formula, bolstered with vegetable squalane, hyaluronic acid, and a proprietary firming ingredient, has a subtle pink hue that tempers sallowness and adds a touch of luminosity under foundation, or alone on bare skin. “You can’t see it,” says Swift, “but it’s doing something. It gives foundation a little added radiance and a soft quality—diffusion.


If you think you are not a “foundation person,” please consider the following wise words from editorial makeup artist, esteemed VG Committee member, and all-around girl crush Romy Soleimani:

“We all would love to be living a perfect lifestyle where we get no sun exposure, drink enough water, and have eight hours of sleep every night. Foundation is kind of like that in a bottle. It has an amazing way of blurring imperfections, toning down redness, warming up where you need it, adding glow. You can create your ultimate skin if you use it correctly, and minimally.”

Yes to all of that. 

Choosing the correct texture and formulation is key—what’s right for your skin type? What sort of finish and amount of coverage are you after?—and application is everything.  “You shouldn’t be able to see it on the skin,” says Soleimani. “It should be, ‘wow, you look great.’ That’s the beauty of great foundation and technique.”

Whether she’s doing her own makeup or a client’s, superstar makeup artist Gucci Westman’s aim is for “skin to look alive, not made-up. I always, always have the outlook that I want to create a complexion that’s not covered in foundation.” No one’s face is one single color, so covering it in a uniform layer is what can create the dreaded ‘mask’ and look ‘foundation-y,’” she warns. She’s developed her own less-is-more method—highlighting the best aspects of the skin, then going back to cover and spot-check where needed—with the simple goal each time of “creating the skin I wish I had.”

Westman loves her culty Westman Atelier Vital Skin Foundation Stick for its radiant finish and ease of application. “I learned to do makeup using sticks. They’re very fast, and you have a lot of control,” she says. “You can apply it from the stick directly to your skin and blend with your fingers, use a brush, or whatever feels the most unintimidating to you. Just know that anything is blendable. If your quality of skin is really nice, it’s super-beautiful to start with a highlight stick under the foundation so it creates an ethereal finish from within that’s not makeup-y. When I do my makeup like that, if I have very little on except a highlight stick and some cheek color, I get so many compliments. It’s not opaque, just light and airy.”

To keep skin looking natural and to avoid an all-over “makeup” look, Soleimani advises starting from the center of the face, the sides of the nose, and diffusing outward. “I love to start with a brush and then blend. I’m a big finger-tapper person. I like things to melt into the skin,” she says.

Ami Colé founder Diarrha N’Diaye-Mbaye wanted to create a foundation formula so flexible, sheer, and intuitive, there would be no way to get it wrong. “I was trying to look like myself, not to transform,” she says. Her editor favorite Skin Enhancing Tint “works with your skin to enhance what you already have,” she explains. “It’s almost like a filter, but not masking. We pay attention to the texture and, especially for women of color, the undertones. This helps neutralize the redness or blueness that can come through, and creates an even base. I call it the blue jeans of makeup, because I wear it every day.”


I have a wardrobe of concealers. They are my relied-upon trouble-shooters, and I keep a variety of different textures (and slight shade variations) for different issues and different parts of my face. Some days I gently “pat” a tiny dab on here or there with my fingertips—Bobbi Brown told me once, emphatically, that when using concealer, only pat, never rub!—and when a little more precision or spackle work is in order, I go in with a brush.

Charlotte Tilbury’s Vanish Under-Eye Color Corrector is my new superhero since it genuinely melts into the delicate skin under eyes, instantly brightening up the whole area. Crucially, this creamy, magical formula that comes in a little golden compact, resists sitting on top of the skin and settling into creases later in the day—the irony of ironies being when under-eye concealer actually makes you look worse, instead of better.

I have recently made another critical addition to said concealer arsenal: Jillian Dempsey’s new Spot Sticks. Densely pigmented and designed not to budge, these are what one keeps on hand to temporarily erase a stubborn blemish. Or an après-derm bruise. Dempsey designed the formula to be “something creamy enough that it would stick to your skin but with the finish of a powder,” so it would stay put once applied. For the most seamless application, she recommends first warming up the naturally dry formula using the heat of your index finger to make it creamier. “Then, you can drop it and drag it and move it and blend it. You can use a brush, if you want. Once it’s room temperature, it settles. To cover a pimple, it’s genius,” she says. “They’re like little sticks of putty, really convenient. Just tap where you want in tiny areas, cover it up and go. The smallest amount can do wonders.”


In prehistoric days, this was called blush. And then it was called bronzer. Now it is a category unto itself, but the concept remains the same: Adding definition to the planes of one’s face with strategic, complexion-illuminating highlights. These are the quick tweaks that can make it look like you are radiant, relaxed, and the sun is always shining.

“With contours and highlights, you are creating shadow and light. You’re sculpting the face,” explains Soleimani. These days, options abound—sticks, creams, drops, finely milled powders—and everything goes. “Your bronzer can be your contour. Your highlight can be something shimmery—like Westman Atelier’s Lit Up stick, or a very dewy eye cream,” says Soleimani. “The question is, what’s your vibe? Where do you want to go with it?”

Ami Colé’s N’Diaye-Mbaye conceived her colorless Light Catching Highlighter as a universal balm designed to impart a dewy glow to all skin tones. “It looks like you came from the gym, as opposed to applied a glob of sheen,” she says of the clear, mica-flecked stick.

But, in defense of globs of sheen: If we have learned one thing here, it’s that complexion perfection is all about the application. In fact, it was RMS’s Master Radiance Base, which is like a little pot of air-whipped molten gold, that caused makeup artist Nam Vo—the queen of glow, the Dewy Dumpling herself—to literally cross the room at a recent event to demand, “whhhat is that?” Placed high on the cheek, it makes my face come alive. It’s almost supernatural. I love it. 

Swift designed it to be used on bare skin, under or over foundation, on cheeks, under the brow bone, as an eye shadow, blended into matte blush, lipstick, you name it. “As a makeup artist, I wanted something refined I could mix into any product to bring in that little bit of luminosity, to reflect light. You have to blend it well, and you don’t need much because it’s so concentrated,” she says. (Truly, it’s become my very unexpected new staple.)

There is a time and a place for shimmer-packed powders, too. Westman reserves her Super Loaded Tinted Highlight for “when I want to look a little more together. It’s the finisher. It gives skin more depth and dials it up a notch. Playing around with contrast is so flattering, for anyone. It can change everything in skin quality and contour,” she says. “When I use my Super Loaded, I might also want to do something with my eyes, have more of a finished brow, more polish.”


I love a pressed powder compact because what is more boudoir-y and ladylike than slipping a mirrored compact out of one’s purse for a casual, yet vaguely Gilded Age, touch-up? Historically, powder has been the closer: a finishing tool for invisibly setting a look in place and cutting down on any unwanted sheen that may develop—because there is a marked difference between dewy skin (oui) and shiny skin (non)

The best powders have a whisperweight finish and do their job invisibly. Leave it to Westman to raise the bar a few notches with her brand-new Westman Atelier Vital Pressed Skin Care Powder, a super-light, micro-milled, talc- and silicone-free formulation.“I wanted to push the boundaries,” says Westman, who added a proprietary blend of skin care actives, which includes vitamin C, quinoa seed extract, and probiotics. “This is the best powder I’ve ever used in terms of ingredients and performance. It addresses unwanted oil and maintains skin’s radiance without looking cakey or heavy. The finish looks like an elegant, velvety veil,” she says.

And don’t forget blotting papers: a great option for discreet oil-control-on-the-go, and something I recommend you tuck into every evening bag, cosmetics case, and even pocket. Tatcha’s Japanese-inspired Aburatorigami sheets do not disturb makeup and are pressed with flecks of 23-karat gold. 


Let me begin by saying that when you buy quality tools, you pretty much never have to buy them again. The right brushes can last a lifetime. Or at least many, many years. We call this Expensive But Worth It. We also call it Investment Shopping. Both concepts are distinctly VIOLET CODE APPROVED.

Tools are really important—the right brushes can be a game changer,” agrees Westman. She calls out her Spot Check Brush as her “favorite brush ever” for its ability to customize color and target imperfections in a way she can’t with just a fingertip. “You can be so refined when you have the perfect brush in the perfect shape,” she says. “You can access more control, more perfection.”

In my estimation, everyone needs a good bronzing brush, and I’m honestly not sure what I would do without my favorite eye shadow and lining/smudging brushes (which I have had for years. See: Investment Shopping).  My recent revelation, though, is the concept of a foundation brush. I’d never used a foundation brush until I tried one on a whim a little while ago and… I think it might have changed my life.  I aspire to the candle-lit poreless look (that’s the dream, every day), and I find that the right brush gets me very close. I use a truly tiny amount of whichever foundation formula I have chosen that day, applied as a dab to each quadrant of my face (I promise, you will oddly use much less product than before, not more), and, following Soleimani’s advice, I just buff gently outward. It takes about six seconds, and it’s pretty much perfect.

Share This File