How to apply eyeliner: expert tips for neat, flattering liquid or pencil liner

Pro makeup artists reveal how to apply eyeliner plus the best products from pencil to gel and liquid

A blonde woman who has learned how to apply eyeliner and created feline eyeliner flicks
(Image credit: Getty images)

Learning how to apply eyeliner is one of those life goals some of us would happily spend one of three wishes on should we encounter a magic lamp.  World peace, unlimited champagne and the ability to draw perfect feline flicks every time? Yep, sounds good to me.  

Whether you are a habitual liner wearer or have been scared off by unsuccessful attempts, gaining solid eyeliner skills is an ambition that—unlike a free champagne tap—is very much achievable for all. All you need to do is pick the right product, learn which look will flatter your eyes and take on board a few professional application tricks. 

And what if it all goes wrong? That's fine too. Much like loading on the best mascara, the road to eyeliner success is paved with smudges. Even the pros keep a clean-up kit handy for when the inevitable happens, so just know that whatever comes your way we've got you covered. 

How to apply eyeliner: your complete guide 

Picking a liner—pencil vs liquid and gel

The first step in learning how to apply eyeliner is much the same as learning how to apply concealer or picking the best foundation (opens in new tab)—a lot rests on selecting the best eyeliner for the job. Broadly speaking liners fall into three categories; pencils, gels and liquids, which then branch out into their own little subsets of felt-tip style nibs, inky pen pots, paint-on vinyl gels, and more. 

"Both pencil and liquids are wonderful and depend on your choice of result. Just as you do not wear the same clothes every day, this is the same with make-up," says A-list make-up artist Ruby Hammer.  Here's how to decide which will suit you:

  • Pencil eyeliner: "Pencils are more forgiving and can be blended or set with a matching eye shadow for longevity and more emphasis," says Ruby. MAC Cosmetics Artist Carly Utting agrees that pencils offer more margin for error. "Lining the eyes with a soft pencil can give the same defined look as a liquid with a softer, more romantic feel and without the ‘hold your breath and hope for the best’ fear of using a liquid."
  • Liquid eyeliner: "Liquid liners are dramatic by nature, so once you get the hang of using them they are great," says Ruby. "The striking simplicity of liquid liner allows you to be completely in control of the look you want to achieve, but beginners could perhaps use a pencil to start out and build up confidence." 
  • Gel eyeliner: Your third option, gel, offers the glossy, lasting pigment of a liquid but is usually painted on from a pot with a brush. Despite appearing a bit more fiddly than pencils or liquids, gels can actually be very beginner-friendly as they glide on smoothly and work particularly well on creased or less firm eyelids. 

Generally, the softer the eyeliner, the more experimental you can afford to be with shades. Warm copper, aubergine and forest green might be a bit extreme as an opaque liquid line, but look beautiful in smoked-up pencil or creamy gel form.

Our beauty editor recommends...

Bobbi Brown Long-Wear Gel Eyeliner | RRP: $28/£21

The original gel eyeliner is as long-wearing, glossy, and easy to apply as ever. Use a firm, sharply angled brush to smoothly paint it on and you can't go wrong. 

MAC Eye Kohl in Costa Riche | RRP: $19/£16
A super soft and smudgy eyeliner that glides over skin and sets down very impressively for a non liquid formula. This shade, a warm brown, should flatter most eyes. 

Ruby Hammer Precision Liquid Liner | RRP: £19 (UK only)
"My Precision Liquid Liner has the best nib for control," says Ruby—and we don't disagree! Ultrafine with an inky black formula, this makes mastering how to apply eyeliner with a liquid pen as easy as it'll ever be. 

How to apply eyeliner—three techniques

No matter which product you're using, a steady hand will serve you well. "Do not rush or hold the eyeliner too tightly, steady your elbows on a surface or tuck them into your body. Keep your eyes open and use a magnifying mirror if it helps," advises Ruby. 

Technique one—pencil liner 
Pencil liners have a naturally smudgier look than their fluid friends, which makes them more novice-friendly. "The great thing about using a pencil liner is that it doesn’t have to be neat!" explains Carly. "If using a pencil, look to simply dot or scribble along the lash line to fill in the gaps between your lashes, don’t try and draw a straight line. Then softly run a brush back and forth over your scribble to break up the product and soften the line. This gives definition in a quick and easy way."

Technique two—liquid liner 
"Hold the pen horizontal and flat to your eye with the tip facing your nose. Using the tip of the pen, start in the very inner corner of your eye. Lightly drag the pen slowly towards your outer eye and stop," says Carly. "If you wish to create a flick this should be placed where your last eyelash would be. Switch the angle of your pen so the tip is facing your ear and draw your flick, this can then be joined with your liner."

Technique three—gel eyeliner 
Gel eyeliner is many makeup artists' choice for superior control. Follow Bobbi Brown's protocol: "Begin by lining in the middle of the lash line and move to the outside corner of the eye. Gently lift the lid to get close to the eye. Apply the liner in smooth strokes. Next, apply all the way to the inner corner of the eye. Make sure the eyeliner is thicker at the outer corner, gradually thinning the line toward the inner corner. Try not to leave space between the eyeliner and the lash line. If there is a space, fill it in with the same shade of powdered eyeshadow."

Our beauty editor recommends...

Tweezerman Tweezermate 10x Lighted Mirror | RRP: $26/£18
Everyone should have a good magnifying mirror in their kit, and this one is great. Portable, reliable and boasting strong, clear lights, you'll never miss a makeup mistake again. 

MAC 219 Pencil Brush | RRP: $28/£21
This very useful little brush works as well for smudging out a kohl eyeliner as it does painting on a gel formula. Keep it clean between uses by dipping in the best makeup remover (opens in new tab) and wiping with a facecloth. 

How to apply eyeliner on creased lids

Creased lids can give a puffy eyes appearance and make learning how to apply eyeliner tough, but not impossible. "If eyeliner doesn’t compliment the shape of your eye, you just haven’t found the right product or style," explains Carly. "Makeup should evolve the way our faces do. As I have gotten older, I use a softer brown pencil and place it in the top outer corner rather than a full black line across the whole eye. I’m still defining my eye, but now I use it as a way of lifting the eye and adding a more fluttery feel." 

Ruby agrees the basic principles can be adapted to any eye. "If you have creased eyelids, you can still wear eyeliner. Just keep it close to your lash line and in between the hairs and skin—no need for dramatic wings." When applying makeup for hooded eyes (opens in new tab) Ruby recommends a similar protocol, "Follow your natural eye shape and kick it upwards at the end to lift the eye." 

Mastering how to apply eyeliner for your eye shape isn't the end of the story, your liner should represent your personality too. "Think about what you want your eyes to say," says Carly. "Twiggy used eyeliner to create a doe-eyed look by bringing it lower on the outer corner. Adele uses liner in a more cat-eye solid flick to elongate her eyes, Sophia Loren's liner enlarged her eye shape by including a bottom liner. Have a play around, try different styles and have fun!"

What do do if you make a mistake

Don't panic. There's no need to wash the whole thing off and start from scratch, tempting as that may be. Having a few tools handy for swift clean-up will make it feel less stressful when the inevitable happens. "If you're anything like me, eyeliner and mistakes come hand in hand!" laughs Carly. 

"Keep a few pointed Q Tips (I like the ones from Muji) and the best micellar water (opens in new tab) for tidy-ups," advises Ruby. "Or you can tidy up the edges with concealer and a fine brush." 

As with most things in life, it's prudent to apply the philosophy that mistakes will happen but it's how you deal with them that counts. So go forth, try not to get flustered, and define those beautiful eyes! 

Our beauty editor recommends...

Muji Thin Cotton Buds 200s | RRP$1.90/£2.95

A pro favorite for their slimline, compacted heads, these 100% cotton buds with an eco-friendly paper shaft make light work of cleaning up eyeliner smudges.


woman&home thanks Ruby Hammer, Carly Utting and Bobbi brown for their time and expertise 

Fiona McKim
Fiona McKim

 As woman&home's Beauty Channel Editor, Fiona Mckim has tried more products than she’s had hot dinners and nothing makes her happier than raving about brilliant finds on womanandhome.com or her instagram grid (@fionamckim if you like hair experiments and cute shih-tzus). Fiona joined woman&home as Assistant Beauty Editor in 2013 under industry legend Jo GB, who taught her everything she needed to know (learn about ingredients and employ extreme cynicism). She has since covered every corner of the industry, from interviewing dermatologists and celebrities to reporting backstage at Fashion Week and judging the w&h Beauty Awards.