And get out your notebooks, because smoky eyes can be complicated!
But first, is it smoky or smokey, with the “e”, as many cosmetics marketers seem to believe? It definitely feels more Old English with the extra vowel, even though it’s not the preferred spelling anymore … Oh, bother. Smoky, smokey – you get the point.
Smoky eyes have been smoking hot for a stretch now. Don’t believe us, just check out the beloved Lena Dunham on all these magazine covers.
That means lots and lots of brushes – and brush sets – specifically designed and marketed for the purpose of helping pretty ladies everywhere tap into this trend, which does require a bit more technique than your routine eye shadow application. That’s if you want to prevent looking like a badly hungover Miss Hannigan.
You’ll really want to experiment at home first, because fallout and blending accidents can happen and — there’s a real reason we included Miss Hannigan here.
There’s also lots of styles of smoky eyes. You can go neat and clean, with softer tones — for work or a fresh spring look. Or, you can go dark, bold and Catwoman-like, in the badass style of Kat Von D, who, as it turns out, also has an excellent 5-piece brush set.
Color choices are aplenty, too. You can go literal with your smoky eye look, and do it up in black and gray. You can go gold or bronze. You can go plum. You can go taupe with jet black hard eyeliner lines. You can be colorful and decorate the different parts of your eye with, say, a serpent green or a peacock blue.
In fact, once you’ve mastered this style, there’s lots of options — and it’s really, really hard to go back to a boring eye. And that’s not just because the look is incredibly sexy, which it is. Rather, it’s more because a well-done smoky eye, even in neutral tones, really makes your eyes look bigger. So once you’re used to that, your eyes may feel a little small and naked without the extra effort. If you watch the videos below, you’ll see what we’re talking about with some of the before and afters.
Now, Onto the Brushes!
So what should one look for in a smoky eye brush or smoky eye brush set?
Overall, you want brushes that have relatively short toes that are somewhat stiff. Also, stiff doesn’t have to mean scratchy; it could just mean soft and densely packed. So keep that in mind as you go about selecting your brushes.
Why short and stiff? Pulling off a smoky eye means applying colors that can be dark, so you will want a fair amount of precision out of your brush. You will not want a brush with hairs that are long enough to sway or splay around too much — at least not until you get to the final stages of blending. Even then, we think short and on the stiffer side is still the way to go when doing a smoky eye.
Can’t you just use your regular eyeshadow brushes? Um, yes you can. But it depends, of course, on what brushes you already have in your stash.
Paint by Numbers
You will need at least five brushes, and we’ve bolded the ones here where we think higher quality or more thoughtful brush selection is important:
- A smoky liner or smudge brush.
- A short, flat stiff brush, for applying all over color.
- A crease brush, for your crease or outer-V.
- A highlighter brush, for your brow bone area.
- A blender brush, to tie it all together.
- Spare brushes for creative color jobs.
Now, onto the details!
1. A smoky liner or smudge brush. We think the very best choice here, hands down, is the Bobbi Brown Smokey Eye Liner Brush, which retails for $30 and has a very small and flat soft domed toe. Some other excellent choices are the Laura Mercier Smudge Brush ($24), which features a similar toe, and the Trish McEvoy #54 Va Va Voom Smudge Brush ($29), which has a similar, albeit wider, toe.
Some smoky liner brushes on the market have a pointy tip, which doesn’t work as well for creating a smoky line, so we prefer a small, flatter domed toe for this purpose. That helps the product go on right the first time, depositing a muted line that is not too thin and not too wide. You can tap and pull it across your eye line to deposit a lot of color or drag it like you would a conventional eyeliner to draw on a lighter wash.
To be sure, there are other options here, such as the one in the Kat Von D collection, the interesting Lancome Dual End Smudger and Liner Brush ($20). Sephora actually sells at least three different smudge brushes under its own brand that could work: the Sephora Collection Pro Precision Smudge Brush #29 ($18), the Sephora Collection Pro Smudge Brush #11 ($18) and, believe it or not, the Sephora Collection Classic Must Have Smudge Brush #70 ($14). But Bobbi’s is the one we recommend as a singular purchase — a versatile investment for many years of sultry eyes.
2. A short, flat stiff brush for applying all over cover on your eyelid dome. You may already have a brush for this, but if you don’t, some good choices include the popular MAC 239 Eye Shading Brush ($25), Make Up For Ever 226 Eye Shader Brush ($25) or the Sigma E55 Eye Shading Brush, a popular dupe of the MAC 239, which retails for $12 or half as much as its peers. On the upper end, there’s also the Shu Uemura Natural Brush 10 ($68) or his Kolinksy Brush 11 ($140)
The tap-and-pull technique at the left is best for depositing a lot of saturated color, which is usually what you’re going for with a smoky eye.
But if you just want a light wash of color with heavier color on the outer-V and crease, then wash or swipe the brush color over your entire lid. If you’re going with a lighter color here, you could also use a wider eye brush, such as the Sigma E52 Soft Focus Shader ($14) or the E.L.F. Essential Eye Shadow Brush ($1), which people swear by for the dollar-store price.
3. A crease brush for working color in your crease and outer-V. You will want this brush to have a little more movement or sway than the flat stiff brush mentioned above, so it can move with your crease. Now, what crease brush? Here, the choice will be highly personal.
If you think about a crease for a moment, it’s not just the curved line in the middle of the eye where the eyelid folds open and closed, it also involves all the skin that folds into the crease when your eye is open. That’s part of what can make crease work challenging for some people who have, say, hooded eyes or especially deep or shallow sockets. You may – or may not – want to engage all that skin in your crease color, depending on the look you’re going for. So you’re likely going to work the brush into your crease with eyes open, partly open and closed, repeatedly.
If the brush hair is too long, the look may get too messy as the brush deposits color outside of your crease area. It’s a little tougher to go wrong with a brush that is short for your crease area; you’ll just have to work the brush more.
All this to say, you really will need to figure out what works best with your eye shape and the depth of your socket. That could be a domed pencil, a crease brush or an angled eye brush. You basically want to choose a brush whose hair length fits fairly neatly into the depth of your crease socket. If you buy online, rather than testing out in a store, err on the shorter side. Some good choices include the Laura Mercier Crease Brush ($29), the MAC 219 Pencil Brush ($25), the Smashbox Definer Brush #15 ($24) and the Stila #7 Precision Crease Brush ($20).
4. A highlighter brush for your brow bone area. This brush need not be complicated. Seriously, any small brush will do. This is a perfect place to choose a $1-ELF brush or a second MAC 239. But there is some discussion in the videos below about not using a highlight color with shimmer in it, as the sparkle may detract from the intensity of the smoky eye. We think it depends on the look you’re trying to achieve, but it’s worth considering as you play around …
5. A blending brush. Another area to keep it simple. You want a MAC 217 Blending Brush ($24) or one of its many dupes. This is to make sure all your colors and lines work or blend together in an attractive way. A blender doesn’t just blend, it actually removes a little bit of product. So sometimes, you can blend, reapply and blend some more … Which is all good. Don’t expect everything to be perfect on the first shot.
6. Possibly more of the brushes above. Most smoky eye brush sets have 5 brushes which is all you technically need. But some creative people will do different colors on their inner, middle and outer lid. If that’s your plan, you will need more brushes. Or you will need to clean your brushes along the way. (Bleh!) Again, we recommend short and stiff, to avoid getting colors all over the place in a manner you do *not* intend.
If you want some spares, you might want to pick up this Essential Eye Set from EcoTools for $7.99, a price you really can’t go wrong with, especially when the set gets 5-star reviews.
Now, do you want to use your brush wet or dry? Some people say damp because it helps with better control and color saturation for a smoky eye. While that is certainly true, and you could similarly go with a cream eye shadow, it depends on the look you’re trying to achieve. As you can see from our more spring-y smoky eyes above, dry powder may be preferred for a more fresh-and-airy look.
The clever cosmetics marketers of the world recognize that it can be challenging for some folks to pull off smoky eyes, especially when you start adding up the cost of various brushes and the task of assembling them. So, they have created an absolute bevy of delightful products and packages to help you achieve a smoky eye with ease. Let’s break them down!
Smoky Brush Craze = Marketing Craze
The award for the most literally marketed smoky eye brush set has to go to Sephora for its “Smoke Machine Smokey Eye Brush Set,” which retails for $39 and comes in a glittery smoky gray clutch that just screams “Hey, I’m the Smoky Eye Brush Set!” … It also comes with a handy cheat sheet inside for creating smoky eyes. Because, seriously, this look does require some technique in order to avoid looking like a hot mess.
When you consider the price you could pay for buying really good brushes separately, this does feel like a good value. Where sets start to lose value, however, is when one of the brushes isn’t quite right for your face. Or, if the brush quality isn’t great — say the brushes don’t do a good job holding product. Which some have complained about for this set.
But our biggest issue with this set is that it comes with two smudge brushes and no blending brush. Which makes little sense.
Meanwhile, the award for the most expensive smoky eye brush goes to Claudio Riaz patented Instant Smoke brush, which retails for $95.
We think the brush looks cool and there a gif here that shows it being used quite successfully, but this blogger pointed out how difficult it is to get product on the centermost part of the brush. She calls this brush her “bad purchase of the year.” While her criticism makes sense, other people rave about the brush below, so just be aware …
The award for MVP smoky eye brush set goes to the Coastal Scents Smoky Eyes Brush Set ($9.95). A lot of folks rave about this 5-brush set for the price, and we thank Coastal Scents for actually disclosing the fiber material, too. The large shadow, dome smudger and medium shadow brushes are all made with pony, while the blender is goat and the angled liner is synthetic.
If you are new to smoky eyes, it might make sense to buy a set like this and then supplement with an awesome liner brush or crease brush. We think this liner brush is too thin and the dome smudger is probably better for crease work. In any case, we think this is a good value.
Also worth mentioning here:
The Sonia Kashuk Smokey Eye Brush Set. ($14.99) Although we have never been disappointed with Sonia’s brushes, we like the Coastal Scents kit better. Sonia’s kit also comes with a handy step-by-step card. And one reviewer says this kit is worth the price just to get the flat brush that looks like the MAC 163 Flat Top Contour Brush.
The Bdellium Tools Green Bambu Smoky Eyes 5-Piece Brush Set. ($27) Of its “Green Bambu Series,” the company says the brushes are made with “sustainable bamboo handles and all vegan soft synthetic bristles with an anodized aluminum ferrule. Bamboo is one of the most sustainable resources and environmentally sound plants on Earth.” It adds that this brush series is made with “soft synthetic filaments” that are cruelty-free.
This set is missing a blending brush, but it comes with a brow brush, so there’s a trade off there.
Now, onto the videos!
Top Ten Smoky Eye Videos!
Even More Information
- Bay Area Style File: Claudio Riaz Instant Smoke Brush
- Oprah’s 6 Steps to a Smoky Eye
- Essential Eye Brushes: A Deep Dive Into Eye Brushes
- WikiHow: Smoky Eyes
- More Smoky Eye Videos!
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