"Why didn't anyone tell me makeup was an art form?"

I’ve been working in the beauty section of this website for two years now, and there’s something I should own up to: for the most part, I find makeup application difficult. Very difficult, in fact.

Regardless of how many tutorials I watch and read, I still can’t quite work out where to put blush and bronzer — and don’t get me started on my failed attempts to ‘contour’ my face.

It’s not that I haven’t tried to learn. I’ve spent many a Saturday afternoon perched in front of the bathroom mirror armed with an eyeshadow quad and a set of instructions, only to wind up looking like a particularly festive raccoon. Raccoons are adorable, but I’m usually aiming for “smokey”.

At 27 years of age, I’m getting a bit frustrated. Shouldn’t I have mastered this makeup thing by now? Did I miss something?

makeup is hard

PSA: Makeup is not easy. (Image: iStock)

I was a late bloomer where makeup is concerned — as a teenager I barely wore any, partly from lack of interest, partly from lack of access (there's not a lot of foundation and mascara to play with when you have two brothers).

Then, when I hit my late teens/early 20s, I became more cosmetic-curious. ‘How hard could it be? Everyone else seems to nail it,’ I figured, only to arrive at a rather rude awakening: it was so much harder than it looked. My years of magazine-reading led me to believe putting on ‘a face’ was relatively simple - all it took was a “swipe” of this here, a “dab” of this there. I figured once I put my mind to it, it’d come easily, if not innately.


Alas, it did not. And almost a decade on, I’m still struggling with many of the basics.

Thanks largely to pop culture's portrayal of us, you’d be forgiven for thinking women are all born with the knowledge of where to put highlighter and how to blend foundation into your jawline embedded in their brains. Which is, of course, completely ridiculous (and besides, not every woman enjoys or wants to wear makeup, and nor should they be expected to).

Watch: Actual makeup pro Shev Kelly dispels some foundation myths. (Post continues after video.)

What’s become increasingly clear to me is that makeup is an art form in and of itself — and that's something they don't tell you.

Watch any of the millions of makeup tutorials on Youtube and you’ll notice there’s a considerable amount of artistic skill required to blend three coloured powders across an eyelid without it resembling a bruise, or to subtly create the illusion of cheekbones that are otherwise hidden away. A steady hand, knowing how to use a brush, and having a good grasp on colour, shading and shape goes a long way in makeup — and, incidentally, art.

Take winged liquid eyeliner, for instance - the one makeup technique I can manage with pretty good (not perfect, mind you) results.

It's a notoriously tricky one, and a few friends have asked me for my “secret” to successful eyeliner. Honestly? That secret is a steady hand from years of drawing and playing with my mini calligraphy set as a kid (yeah, calligraphy - I was a hit in the playground). Drawing a line along your eyelid and filling it in isn’t that different to meticulous lettering or carefully outlining a drawing with a felt-tip pen, so it wasn’t much of a leap for me.

Yesterday, I had my eyeshadow professionally done. Clearly, the pros are called "makeup artists" for a reason.

Blending eyeshadow, on the other hand, completely stumps me — but for someone else it might be the makeup equivalent of a piece of cake.

Reassuringly, I've learned I'm not alone in feeling this way. Take US writer Chelsea Fagan, for instance, who wonders if she's somehow missed a memo.


"I am often left feeling as though there is a secret course that many other girls are all invited to in the evenings when I’m home watching TV — maybe at the Learning Annex? — which instructs them on how to do all the various aesthetic sorcery that seems so impossible," Fagan wrote in a Thought Catalog article aptly titled 'Why is Makeup So Hard?'

A deep dive into Reddit confirmed that for the non-makeup artists of the world, these cosmetic skills can take a long time to hone — everything from 12 months to 13 years of solid trial and error. (Post continues after gallery.)

Again, this would have been handy to know when I started learning the ropes myself.

Another writer, Emily Armstrong, has argued that the entire concept of "pretty" (aesthetically speaking) is simply a set of skills that takes in makeup, hair styling and sartorial choices — and that we don't all have equal abilities.

"Pretty isn’t about how my face happens to look due to my genetic makeup. Pretty is about what I do with that, about my skills in the makeup department," Armstrong wrote in a post on Bitchtopia.

As one commenter on Jezebel pointed out, the assumption or expectation that women should have this ability — and being "penalised" if they can't — is pervasive and pretty bloody unfair. "I don't know how to put on make up. I never wear it. And I'm probably judged poorly because of it. And I hate that," she wrote. Right on.

Beauty bloggers like Nikki Tutorials have some serious skills. (Still via Youtube/NikkiTutorials)

Just like art or sport or design or any kind of skill, makeup ability isn’t going to come easily to everyone — for most of us, it'll probably require a lot of practice and concentration, and even then you might never become great at it. And that’s perfectly OK. You haven’t missed out on some crucial strand of female DNA just because you can’t figure out which foundation brush does what.

This isn’t a groundbreaking realisation by any means, but I wish I’d arrived at it much earlier. Because I would have tackled my makeup self-education from a different angle and managed my expectations.

Ultimately, though, I wholeheartedly believe makeup should be fun, and failing spectacularly at it is just part of the learning process.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to attempt (and probably massacre) a “smokey” eye for the 514th time.

How would you rate your makeup skills? How long did it take you to reach this point?