It’s rare that makeup artist Mary Phillips has time for a live interview as she’s often jetting around the globe with clients like Jennifer Lopez, Hailey Bieber, and Kendall Jenner. But fresh from Dubai, she made it a point to hop on the phone with Vogue to discuss the recent TikTok craze over her tried-and-true foundation and contouring strategy. Best known as “underpainting” (a term with over 60 million views on the platform), Phillips’s method of contouring and highlighting skin before applying foundation is getting attention for its ultra-natural, lit-from-within effects. “I have to say the one thing I’m loving so much about this whole TikTok thing is that in mostly every video I’ve seen, everybody likes the technique,” says Phillips from her home in Los Angeles, noting that she’s new to the app and mainly in it for the cute animal content.
Of course, she knows better than anyone that pros have widely used the technique for decades. Though Phillips considers her version a modern take, applying products in ultra-thin layers that let skin show through. “I see a lot of comments like ‘so-and-so has been doing this for years, and you know, yes, I learned from looking at the Kevyn Aucoin books,” she says of Making Faces and Face Forward, the iconic ’90s makeup bibles currently experiencing a comeback. “When I started doing makeup there was no YouTube, there was no Instagram, there was no social media, so I would literally study pictures in Vogue or runway makeup,” says Phillips. “Kevyn Aucoin’s books were really one of the only things out there where he showed his steps.”
Over the years, her riff on underpainting has become a favourite of celebs like JLo, who was as radiant as ever at the Shotgun Wedding premiere earlier this month. “Anything I do, this technique is what I’m doing,” says Phillips. That’s certainly been the case through her many years working with Lopez, who has been a longtime fan of the strategic contouring style. “I know Scott Barnes contours under the foundation as well, and Kevyn Aucoin is someone that she worked with for a very long time before Scott or myself,” says Phillips. “That’s how she prefers it.”
When underpainting, Phillips always starts with at least three steps of skin care, the real star step of her method. It begins with SkinMedica TNS Advanced+ Serum before a layer of Crème de la Mer Moisturiser or Augustinus Bader The Cream (both work well under foundation without pilling up) and a few drops of Vintner’s Daughter Active Botanical Serum. “Then I’ll do gua sha all over the face,” she says. “Skin prep is a huge part of it because then you can use less makeup since the skin looks better.”
To create the “bones” of underpainting contour, Phillips starts with Westman Atelier Face Trace Contour Stick in Biscuit around the hairline, down the bridge of the nose, beneath cheekbones and the jawline to gently carve out definition before adding a bit of RCMA highlight on high points of the face (during the day, she might skip this step) and dabs of Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer under the eyes. Next, a veil of Chanel Vitalumière foundation, lighthanded enough for skin to show through, is applied with a fluffy, rounded brush and blended with a sheer flush of Nudestix Nudies matte cream bronzer in Sunkissed and Westman Atelier Baby Cheeks blush stick in Petal.
Truly seamless delivery relies on a soft-focus finish achieved only with a brush like her Hakuhodo Yachiyo (a style similar to Nars’s Yachiyo Kabuki brush). “I’ve seen people use a sponge, but I prefer a fluffy powder brush with rounded edges; I think it makes it look airbrushed,” says Phillips of locking everything in place with a featherlight application of Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder. The final effect is camera-friendly without looking unnatural in real life. “Film used to be so forgiving, and now with everything hi-def, you can see every pore,” she says. “I want the makeup to be as beautiful in person as it is in a photo.”
Ultimately, Phillips likes the digital shift toward enhancing, rather than covering, distinctive features. “I love that everyone is like, ‘I’m wearing less makeup than usual, and it works,’” she says. “That makes me happy that people are learning a different way of doing things, and their natural beauty is shining through.”
SkinMedica TNS Advanced+ Serum
Crème De La Mer Moisturizer
Augustinus Bader The Cream
Vinter's Daughter Active Botanical Serum
Westman Atelier Face Trace Contour Stick
NARS Radiant Creamy Concealer
Chanel Vitalumière Foundation
Nudestix Nudies Matte Blush & Bronze
Westman Atelier Baby Cheeks Blush Stick
Laura Mercier Translucent Loose Setting Powder
This story originally appeared in Vogue.com.