Eyeliner is a finicky thing. In fact, it might be the most finicky makeup product out of them all. I say that as a beauty editor who's spent countless hours testing different formulas and applying precise wings, only to make a mistake, try to correct it, make everything worse, and start over. (It always hurts the most when one eye is perfect and then you mess up the other one.) So in an effort to improve my makeup game and minimize mess-ups, I reached out to two experts—fashion and celebrity makeup artist Katie Mellinger and Bobbi Brown cosmetics global artist in Residence Nikki DeRoest—to ask them to share eyeliner application techniques.
And that they did. Ahead, learn how to apply eyeliner like a professional makeup artist, no matter if you're using a gel, liquid, or pencil formula. After learning these techniques (and shopping expert-recommended products), you'll be a genuine eyeliner expert.
How to Choose the Right Shape
The first thing you have to know is how to create the most flattering shape for your eyes. According to Mellinger, the fold of your eye is what determines that. "Those with a hooded eye may need a thicker wing in order to see the line when the eye is open," she says. For those with a heavy fold, you may need to create a sort of “bat wing” shape in order for the liner to look complete with an open eye. If your eyes are particularly small, you really only want to apply the liner on the outer half of the eye, maybe just the outer third. This will make the eye appear more open.
DeRoest agrees, saying smaller eyes can benefit from only applying eyeliner to the top lash line. Large eyes can benefit from liner on top and bottom lash lines. "If your eyes are narrow, you will only want to add liner to the outer half and extend the line to create more length on the outer edges," she explains. "If you have almond eyes, most eyeliner shapes and looks will be complementary."
No matter which style of liner is most flattering for your eye shape, feel free to mix it up. After all, it's just makeup, and makeup should feel fun and expressive. "At the end of the day, I think liner shapes and looks are more about personal style and preference as well—not one shape or look is 'wrong,'" DeRoest says. "It's more about what makes you feel confident. I like to play with makeup looks before I shower in the morning. That way, I can discover new shapes or effects, and if I don't like it, luckily, I am showering immediately. If I do like it, I can re-create it for my makeup look that day."
How to Apply Gel Eyeliner
Now let's get into the nitty-gritty and talk about how to apply every kind of eyeliner like a pro. We'll start with gel eyeliner. "Gel liner is actually my favorite," Mellinger says. "You can tap on gel liner, or draw it accordingly. It’s very versatile!"
Mellinger recommends using an angled brush with gel liner. "If you use an angled brush you can use the angle of the brush to construct your wing by tapping out the shape and then drawing along the line with the brush to smooth out the edges," she says. "If you’re nervous about your gel liner application, start small. You can always add more. And for both gel and liquid liner, you can always draw your shape with a pencil or a shadow first so you’re not having to draw your shape freehand."
DeRoest suggests focusing on the blend when it comes to gel liner. "With gel liner, you want to work one eye at a time and blend immediately," she says. "Gel liners are amazing because they truly stay all day long, but once they set, they set, so you want to blend quickly. I would say you have about 30 to 60 seconds of playtime."
Mellinger loves this line from Rituel de Fille. "It’s super black and applies like a dream," she says.
"I love Bobbi Brown's Long Wear Gel Eyeliner," DeRoest says. "It's a must for your waterline because it's a gel formula that stays put all day without transferring. It is so smooth and has a lot of depth, so you can create multiple shapes or finishes. You can blend it out into a smudged smoky eye or keep it sharp for a cat eye with a lot of depth. My favorite shade is Chocolate Shimmer, which is a dark brown with a little bit of shimmer."
This gel liner is a Who What Wear team favorite. We like that it's dual-ended. One side features a velvety gel liner, and the other side features a soft blending brush, so it's easy to use on the go.
How to Apply Liquid Eyeliner
"For liquid eyeliner, I am just as scared as anyone else every time I do it—and I am a professional!" DeRoest says. "My advice is to use light pressure and create small strokes to etch in the shape. Once you have the shape, you can fill it in. I also like to have a small Q-tip with Bioderma ($19) on hand to clean up any mistakes or make your lines razor-sharp."
Mellinger prefers a liquid liner with a marker tip, which she says is easier to control. "You can use the shape of the marker to help with creating a wing, and the super-pointy end gives you more precision as you release on pressure," she says. "I always apply liquid liner with a minimum of two strokes. I first draw across the length of the lash line, and then I build from there. Sometimes I get it in the first two strokes, but it usually takes more. Liquid liner is all about the pressure, so if you want it thicker, apply more pressure. For a thinner line, keep the pressure from your hand light."
"I like using the Tom Ford Eye Defining Pen because it is double-ended, and the brush applicator tips are so easy to use," DeRoest says. "There is a standard-size brush on one side, and a micro brush on the other for thinner liner looks or detail work. I find that using a brush applicator tip as opposed to a felt-tip applicator gives more control and less room for error."
Mellinger's liquid eyeliner of choice is this budget-friendly one from Nyx.
Another favorite, this liquid liner offers jet-black pigment and impressive staying power.
How to Apply Pencil Eyeliner
For me, pencil eyeliner is the easiest to use. Maybe it's because it offers the most control and it's super blendable, but I seem to have the least issues with it. Still, there are ways I can improve my pencil liner game, too. First, I can keep cotton swabs on hand. This tip comes from Mellinger, who says, "I always say that pointed Q-tips are your friend when you’re starting out with an eyeliner application. Even as a pro, I often don’t it right the first time and need to use Q-tips to adjust the shape."
Second, I can start layering different types of eyeliner on top of pencil ones. (DeRoest says this is a red carpet secret.) "I like to use these specifically for the lash line and smudge them in with either fingers or a brush," DeRoest says. "I like to use a pencil before I add a gel eyeliner on the top of it for more staying power or depth or mix a gel eyeliner in the waterline and a pencil on the lash line with a little bit of liquid liner on the outer corner for the flick of a cat eye. So the truth is, for a lot of the looks that you see on the red carpet, we artists could be using multiple mediums to get one effortless-looking eyeliner look."
"My favorite pencil liner is the Chanel Stylo Yeux in 88 Noir Intense," Mellinger says. "I love a waterproof liner, as it doesn’t smudge, and I love the staying power on this one. I always reach for it. It’s great for water line, smudging, or just adding definition. It’s all around the perfect pencil."
"For pencil liner, I like a true classic pencil that you have to sharpen," DeRoest says. "My favorite that I use in my kit is the Smooth Silk Pencil Eyeliner by Armani."
One of my all-time-favorite pencils is this one from Urban Decay in the jet-black shade, called Perversion. I can use this both on my waterline and my lash line to create dark, dimensional, and dramatic lines. When I want something subtler, I smudge a little bit on the outer one-third of my upper lash line and blend it out with a brush.
3 More Must-Haves for Applying Eyeliner Like a Pro
Remember when Mellinger said pointed cotton swabs are a must? You should take her word on that. They always come in handy when I'm creating detailed lines and shapes and I need to correct mistakes.
Here's the product DeRoest recommends for cleaning up mistakes (I like to pour this onto an angled brush or one of the aforementioned pointed cotton swabs for easy cleanup.)
If all else fails, you can invest in an eyeliner guide, like this one from Half Magic Beauty. Place it against your eye and fill it in with your liner for a perfect (and effortless) shape.