How to Do Subtle Eyeliner for a Smudgey, Natural Look

Bella Hadid wearing subtle eyeliner

Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2018/Rosdiana Ciaravolo/Getty Images

While dramatic wings ooze retro glamour and neon eyeliners bring the party, subtle eyeliner has undeniable appeal too. Barely-there eyeliner is central to that casual, lived-in makeup look seen on off-duty models.

However, "there is a difference between a natural, no-makeup-makeup look and being 'au natural,'" says celebrity makeup artist and brand founder Jenny Patinkin. "Faking the look of no makeup is actually tricker than it sounds. You still want to look polished and put together, bright and even, but not like you're wearing makeup." That's why we called in the pros.

Meet the Expert

Sandy Linter is a celebrity makeup artist with clients like Christie Brinkley and Elizabeth Hurley. Her work appears in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and more.

Jenny Patinkin is a celebrity makeup artist, beauty expert, best selling author and brand founder.

Keep reading for an illustrated guide to creating a natural eyeliner look, with product recs.

Choose Your Formula

While you can create stunning eyeliner looks with liquid liner, gel liner, and everything in-between, However, Linter suggests using a pencil liner if you're going for that natural, barely-there look.

"I like to use a matte eyeshadow or a pencil eyeliner and a very fine tipped makeup brush to softly smudge,"  Patinkin says. For a "soft but elevated look," she reaches for Rituel de Fille Eye Soot ($39) or Mineral Fusion Eye Pencils ($18), then smudges the makeup out with her Jenny Patinkin Sustainable Luxury Pin Point Liner Brush ($13.)

make up for ever pencil

Choose a Shade

When it comes to choosing an eyeliner hue, "it all depends on your coloring," Patinkin says. "I generally think that a shade of taupe, which is a blend of grey and brown, can work for everyone." She points out that taupe comes in light and dark shades, "so you can decide if you want to look natural or a little more dramatic. I call that Natural Plus."

Prime Your Lids

Once you've selected your liner and shadow, "put a shadow base on your lid," says Linter. "Not under the brow, just the eyelid." This helps the eyeliner pencil better glide along your lash line for even, consistent application. As for the color of the shadow, now is not the time for Poolside Blue.

"The best thing you can do for a no-makeup look is to find a matte eyeshadow base color that looks like your natural skin color, to even out any discoloration and give a smooth looking lid," says Patinkin. "You don't want to veer too far away from what nature gave you or use anything with shimmer because that'll look like makeup." She points toward MOB Beauty's eyeshadow range for its good selection of skin-mimicking hues.

barely there eyeliner

Apply Liner in Short, Quick Strokes

Rather than dragging the pencil along your top eyelid, Linter suggests more of a connect-the-dashes approach. "Line the eye in tiny, little, short strokes," she says, taking three to four sweeps of product to fully line the lash line. Lining the entire eye with the pencil can create a heavily lined look, causing too much product to be applied.

barely there eyeliner

Thin the Line With a Pointed Q-Tip

Even a professional makeup artist like Linter finds that her first eyeliner attempt is usually a bit too thick, so she's mastered a hack for thinning down the line by using a pointed cotton swab dipped in moisturizer.

"Quite often when I start to line the eye, it gets thick," says Linter. "And then I don't have a barely-there eyeliner look. So I take a pointed Q-tip (there isn't a lot of fuzz on the Q-Tip), then take some moisturizer and put it on the back of your hand. Take the tiniest, tiniest little amount [of moisturizer] on the Q-Tip and you just shave it down. It works every time." Not only does this trick help to thin out the liner, it creates a perfectly smooth line every time.

"Using a very fine tipped eyeliner brush can give you a soft look without having to worry too much about precision," Patinkin adds. "The brush really does the work for you."

barely there eyeliner

Touch Up Blank Spots With Your Pencil

"After you've done your barely-there liner look... nestle the pencil in-between the lashes to make sure there are no white spots where the skin is showing between the lashes," says Linter. This can be done simply by lifting the lid and filling in any remaining spots.

barely there eyeliner

How to Create a Subtle Cat-Eye

Though a cat-eye isn't the most natural kind of makeup look, there is a way to create one that feels subtle. "There's a TikTok hack that I think actually works for this," Patinkin says. "Hold a sharpened pencil eyeliner at the outer corner of your eye, right at the intersection of your upper and lower lash lines. Then, turn your head quickly to the opposite side. It gives a small, subtle flick."

Subtle Eyeliner for Hooded Eyes

For clients with hooded eyes, Patinkin achieves the natural eyeliner look by tightlining (or applying the eyeliner to the waterline.) "Instead of taking up valuable lid space, use a brown or black eyeliner underneath the upper lash lines, depending on how dark your lashes are and your skin tone," she says. "This technique fills the gaps between your lashes to make them look thicker, gives more definition to the shape of your eyes, and the dark color will make the whites of your eyes pop."

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