beauty lessons:

lessons on 
sheer makeup

Warmer temperatures call for makeup to be applied with a lighter hand. Here, three artists explain how to get the look.



The heat of summer calls for less of everything: Featherweight linen sheets on the bed, gauzy clothing on the body, and, most importantly, the sheerest, barely-there makeup on the face. And while August, with its perpetually sticky weather, gives the lighter makeup mandate greater urgency, it’s a mantra that has year-round appeal. Sheer makeup doesn’t shout, but rather whispers its presence, and when done successfully, it can take years off the visage. Here, three seasoned artists (Tim Quinn, celebrity makeup artist for Giorgio Armani Beauty; Gregory Arlt, director of makeup artistry at MAC; and Rose-Marie Swift, the natural makeup pioneer behind RMS Beauty) share a few rules for lightening your makeup load.


First things first: Do not ruthlessly purge your makeup drawer just yet. A sheer look is about smart makeup, not zero makeup. “It’s like lingerie,” says Arlt. “It’s about transparency with hints of luminosity, and there’s a beautiful, see-through quality, but just enough to cover what you don’t want to show off.” In other words, the complete antithesis of all the heavily contoured looks being peddled on Instagram and YouTube nowadays. “Makeup like that looks like a mannequin, flat and too heavy, and if you saw it in real life you’d probably barf,” says Swift. “Sheer makeup allows your natural skin to shine through and the face to have movement.” Think of it as makeup for real life.


The attention we pay to our skin has evolved over the years and, in turn, affected our relationship with makeup. “Women are taking much better care of their skin, so rather than looking to hide it, they want to amplify its beauty,” explains Quinn. Go backstage during any Fashion Week and you’ll find that makeup artists spend the majority of their time on prepping, not painting. Quinn advises incorporating a brightening serum, like La Prairie White Caviar, into your everyday routine to boost glow. Before a special event, he recommends using a sheet mask to add a dose of hydration. And Quinn is very much pro-primer, specifically the ones (like Armani Maestro UV Primer) that will create a smooth base but disappear on the skin. Swift instead prefers to go the holistic route. “I’m all about starting with a nice natural oil that works synergistically with the skin,” she says.


Putting a bit of muscle into your product application can have its own payoff. “Most of us just dab on our creams and go, but you should give yourself five extra minutes for a mini facial massage while you’re putting on your skincare,” Quinn says. “It gets the blood circulation going so your skin looks healthier, and you end up using less makeup.” And the same holds true for cream colors, which are ideal for creating a sheer look. “Don’t just tap it on the skin; work it in a bit so it doesn’t float on top,” says Swift, who advises applying products using gentle circular motions—taking care not to pull or tug at skin—followed by a firm patdown. 


Whether you’re using a BB or CC cream or a foundation, Quinn advises looking for one with a moisturizing benefit—these formulas tend to blend more naturally into the skin rather than sit on top of it. Or, says Arlt, for maximum translucency potential, pick up a foundation that is water- or mineral-based (he loves MAC Waterweight Foundation). “They can be applied sparingly so they won’t look heavy,” he explains. And while your fingers are a quicker solution, for a more sheer, natural feel, Quinn says to pick up a brush. “It will give you a much more airbrushed effect,” he explains.


The key to concealer success is understanding that different areas call for different formulas. “An undereye concealer should be a lightweight fluid texture with a bit of a reflective quality for a dewy effect,” says Quinn, who is partial to Armani’s Maestro Eraser. Gently tap on the concealer, taking care not to drag it all the way to the lashline (an immediate ager, according to Swift). Use the least amount possible, and only in the areas where you need it. “The inner corner is often where people have the most darkness,” adds Quinn. Reach for more traditional (read: dense) concealers when camouflaging a pimple, an insect bite, or any other red spot. Two crucial rules of engagement: use a little brush and apply concealer last. “A lot of times these new foundations have light-reflecting qualities that do a lot of the work of softening imperfections, so you will need less concealer,” explains Quinn. Or, says Arlt, you can blend concealer with a bit of your foundation for a more seamless coverage. “Mixing concealer on a brush with foundation will sheer it down but still keep you covered,” he says.


For definition in a sheer look, it’s about highlighting, not contouring. “Once you start adding contour or darkness, the effect is gone,” says Arlt, who explains that your key highlighting points should be the high planes of the face (aka upper cheekbones, brow bones, bridge of the nose and chin). And always—always—use a cream highlighter. “Dimension doesn’t come from these powder highlighters that you can see from space and are just sitting on the surface of the skin,” Swift insists. She will even add a dab of cream highlighter (like her iconic RMS Luminizer) to the center of the eyelid just above the iris: “It catches the light in a beautiful way.”


From eyeshadow to blush to lipstick, the key to a successful sheer look is choosing the right formula and dialing the color volume way back.

For eyes:

Instead of using eyeshadow as a tool for building and defining the eye, imagine color as a wash. “When you think sheer you automatically think nude, but it could be something that amplifies your natural color,” says Quinn, who tends to favor cream shadows with a hint of rose-gold for its warming potential. “It’s essentially the anti-smoky eye.” And brows and lashes can get a similar soft-focus treatment. “For a sheer brow I like to use shadow to color in any spots because it gives you a softer overall look than a pencil,” says Arlt. As for lashes, Quinn counsels avoiding formulas with volumizing or lengthening promises. “You want a simple defining mascara so you just get a bit of separation to the lashes that still looks natural,” he adds.

For cheeks:

The ideal blush formula for a sheer look is a cream with a bit of translucence, like Tom Ford’s, applied high on the cheeks. “That looks more like a real flush, whereas applying it on the apples can feel more made up,” says Quinn. And don’t fret if your blush and your highlighter intermingle. “Sheer makeup isn’t a paint-by-numbers thing,” adds Swift, who notes there are no rules regarding application order. “Blush going into luminizer or vice versa just makes it look more natural.” 

For lips:

Dense pigments have no place in this look. “Sheer is about seeing a hint of color on the mouth without any true definition, like you just ate a popsicle or, even better, drank a glass of Merlot,” says Arlt. Try a tinted lip balm or a stain, or DIY your favorite heavily pigmented lipstick. “Just mix it with a bit of balm to sheer it down,” Arlt recommends.


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