My most-used brushes from L-to-R: Fine gel liner brush, flat angled brush, smudger brush, blender (oval), flat shader, pencil brush, small blender, and regular tapered blender.
I used to be a fan of "finger-painting". I.e. applying most of my eye shadows with my fingers. Part of it was laziness, and part of it was just ignorance about how the heat, moisture and oils from your fingers can destroy your shadows by sealing the surface over, and/or breeding and re-applying bacteria to your face.
If you've ever seen the surface of your shadow going darker, shinier, or sort of bumpy like tarmac after a few uses, you'll know what I'm talking about.
Unfortunately, this usually means the color pay-off (intensity) of the shadow is gone.
Now, I only use my fingers for loose pigments because those do not contain absorbent fillers like titanium dioxide and talc, which are the main reasons eye shadows "seal over" when touched with your fingers. For pressed shadows, there are plenty of good brushes you can find that will not break the bank or make a mess on your face.
The trick is getting familiar with how each shape and type of bristle works. The rule of thumb is you get more precision with firm, tightly packed brushes (smudgers, flat angled liner brushes, gel liner brushes), but you need looser, softer brushes for blending and smoking out colors. Brushes with a combination of these (soft bristles packed tight in a flattened/oval ferrule) is a great multi-tasker. More on this below.
If you're starting out in makeup or want to keep things simple and fuss-free, these are the essentials:
- Small pointed liner brush (synthetic hair)
- Smudger brush (natural)
- Soft shader (natural/synthetic)
- If you're starting out in makeup, gel liners are the easiest way to get very strong and controlled lines without a whole lot of skill. Pencils tend to be less long-wearing and don't always give as strong a line.
- A good gel liner brush should have a small, tapered tip with a flattened ferrule (point of the barrel that holds the brushes) so you can use it flat for a thick line or side-ways for a thin one. Of course, this is only applicable if you use gel liners. For a good sense of relative size, look at the left-most brush (in a cap) in the top image.
- These are more versatile than the long ultra-fine brushes sold by many makeup brands, because those are harder to handle in general.
- My ALL-TIME favorite is the one that comes with the Maybelline Lasting Drama gel liners. Good as the high-end brands, and so much cheaper because you're getting 2 products for one!
TIP: These are FANTASTIC as concealer brushes for hiding spots and blemishes because they are firm enough to pack on product, but small enough for precision.
- This type of brush deserves a whole lot more love than it does. The name "smudger" is slightly misleading because I find it much more useful as a tool for applying dark shadows close to your lash line as a smoky liner. They usually have a flat, wide ferrule (barrel) and firm, natural bristles.
- I feel that defining your lash line is very important when you're wearing lots of colors or shimmer on your lids, because all that makeup can really overwhelm your lashes and make your eyes less defined.
- A good one should be firm when you press down on the tips, and the bristles should not bend easily, or you will get a mess when you try to apply shadow to small areas.
TIP: You can use this to apply a cut crease in your socket line.---
- Shader brushes are a staple for packing on color, as well as blending and softening looks. These are usually flattened and cut in a rounded paddle-shape. The bristles should be soft enough to hold and deposit a lot of pigments onto your lids, but firm enough to grab a lot of color. The most famous shader is probably MAC 217, but you can find this from most brands and price ranges.
- Take note that the size can vary greatly from brand to brand, so I'd suggest something no wider than than your thumb nail as the really huge ones can mess up your eye look by muddying everything together.
TIP: Some makeup artists like to use these brushes to apply concealer for a very natural finish.
OPTIONAL BRUSHES DEPENDING ON YOUR NEEDS:
- Flat angled brush
- Flat shader brush
- Fine detail brush
- Tapered blending brush
- Used similarly to the smudger brush, this gives a more precise line, but the short, stuff fibers tend not to grab as much pigment, so it works better (in my opinion) as a brow brush when I want to avoid overdoing my brows.
- The big, flat older-cousin of the soft shader, this type of brush is also good for packing on softer colors and pigments. Unlike the soft version above, the flat shader is not good for blending out colors and harsh lines because it's good for packing colors down, not ruffling them up.
- A pointed tip is great for aplying color to the crease. Just dip the tip into shadow, then into the hollow of your socket and then sweep in and out along your socket line. Also good for applying highlight to the inner corners of eyes.
- The second-last brush from the right looks like a rounder, softer version of the pencil/detail brush, but functions more like a mini-version of the below blending brush.
- A staple for many people, the longer, tapered blender brush is very soft, and better for smoothinng and blending out color than for applying color because the super-soft bristles will not grab much pigment. My favorite alternate use for this is applying mineral powder concealer onto spots by lightly stippling down.
Do note that I collected my brushes from a whole mix of places, including Sigma and Sephora, and these are the ones that I consider to have good brushes for good value, although Coastal Scents has a good range of smaller detail brushes and smudgers.