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The Amazing Techniques I Learned At Korean Beauty School

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Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Kong.
The work of a beauty writer may seem like a walk in the lipstick park — and don't get me wrong, there are plenty of perks — but there's also the pressure to be an expert on everything and anything beauty. There are expectations to have the product knowledge of a Sephora buyer, the expertise of a licensed dermatologist, and the transformative skills of a professional makeup artist. To some extent, I can juggle these, but I’ve always clung to skin care as my speciality because, ultimately, that’s what K-beauty orbits around. Even eyeliner here contains eyelid-nourishing serum.

But, as a reporter, it's my job to be constantly educating myself and my readers. Which is how I found myself enrolling in a Korean beauty academy. For my mission, I went straight to the best, Jung Saem Mool. If you’re Korean, you’re sucking in your breath in awe. For the rest of you, I’m going to skip over having to attempt putting into words the sky-high reputation of the school's founding makeup artist by saying she’s like a Korean Lisa Eldridge in terms of career trajectory and influence. There isn’t a Korean celebrity’s face she hasn’t touched with her magic makeup wand.

Walking in barefaced and ready to try loads of cool new products, I was expecting a Disney-musical version of beauty school and not the gruelling hours upon hours of attitude adjustment it turned out to be. If I was thinking "insane YouTube makeup transformations" going in, I quickly realised this is not the Korean way. Going to Korean beauty school is an exercise in patience and self-control in learning how to put on makeup as though it’s not there. It’s a subtle art of looking exactly the same as you did without makeup but somehow way better. Toward the end, I felt like that guy in Jiro Dreams of Sushi who made egg tamago 200 times before getting it right.

Read through for a detailed account of the best tips I gleaned from my time at K-beauty school.
Photo: Courtesy of Joyce Kong.
Prep Is Everything
I’ve heard this from every makeup artist I’ve interviewed in Korea: Base makeup doesn’t start with a foundation or even a primer — it begins with properly prepped skin. At the very least, this means toner, essence, and cream. Toner sops up any dust or dirt on the skin. It also preps your complexion for an essence — which is basically a nutrient-packed skin fertiliser — and the moisturiser as your hydrating finale. Jung Saem Mool has her own line of these basics, and I am absolutely smitten with the Mool Cream, which has a consistency that melts beautifully and plumps up skin. Happy, well-hydrated skin is the first step in expressing a beautiful, even skin tone, making it so less foundation is needed in the next step.

Surprisingly, this three-step process was the most awkward for me to learn. I know how to rub and pat products onto my own face, but having to do this on someone else teaches you a lot about the right way to do it. The first rule of thumb is to follow the hair growth of your face to smooth on product. This generally means swooping symmetric half-circles across your cheeks, forehead, chin, and down the nose. This is important in getting face fur to lay down flat and out of the way, a small distinction that makes a difference when using minimal amounts of foundation.

Colour Pop
When it comes to Korean makeup, if you’re not applying blush on the centres of your cheeks like Pikachu, you’re doing it wrong. Part of the rationale for this is that Korean faces often tend to be rounder and less angular, so applying blush on the apples of the cheeks and sweeping it out just looks like Nike swooshes sitting awkwardly on the face. But this doesn’t mean you can’t do this look if you don't have a round face. Applying blush just on the centres of your cheeks, right under your eyes, gives the face a romantic blush that’s softer than the contoured sweep that's currently all the rage — this gives the face a more youthful glow. Again, the slightest touch of pigment will suffice here, since having bright orbs of colour right in the centre of your face can only be pulled off with barely-there shading. Or by a Pokémon.

Easy Does It
With all the makeup we used, I noticed the brush was never “loaded up.” Whereas makeup application has always been about getting whatever it is on your face and then buffing and blending out, the technique here was more about building featherlight layers. So for the blush, a small tap of color was swirled on to lend the softest glow to the face.
Straighten Up
Koreans know it’s all about the straight browsno arches here. This is partly because that’s the direction in which our hair naturally tends to grow, but also there’s an argument that straight brows make the face appear more youthful. Notice how babies don’t have arches? No? Well, now you do.

To fill in the brows, we used a pressed powder that matched the brow hairs' shade and achieved definition by using a pencil to draw in hair-like strokes. This is an important distinction from the brow trend in the US and UK in which there is a super-crisp boundary between skin and brow, typically achieved by drawing and filling in a perimeter and further enhancing the demarcation with concealer. I’m not saying the brow should be a muddy blob above your eye, but drawing in individual hairs that mimic and follow the direction of the hair growth achieves a softer, more natural look while still providing definition.
Shadow Play
Natural makeup for Korean women usually doesn't involve a lot of eyeshadows because of the shape of our lids — known as a "monolid," where the skin folds over on itself causing a lack of a crease. This means that annoying eyeliner transfer on the upper lid and a whole lot of smudging away of a painstaking eyeshadow effort, something I’ve shrugged off as just one of those things I’ll always deal with. Wrong! My instructor taught me eyelid primer is indispensable and recommended NARS Pro-Prime Smudge Proof Eyeshadow Base. It’s been a smudge-free life ever since.
Liner Note
The trickiest part of achieving the no-makeup look is wearing eyeliner like you aren’t — meaning eyeliner should exist to enlarge and elongate the eye without waving its obvious inky tail around. The go-to shape in Korea tends to be a reverse cat-eye, a.k.a. a “dog-eye.” Instead of flicking the line up at the end of the lid, you follow the trajectory of the top lid down and out. Angling down too much can make eyes look saggy and downright sad, so the trick is to bring the eyeliner out in a small, realistic flick. This means not starting the eyeliner until mid-lid and bringing that line across.

Another important tip is to make sure there are no harsh edges. The eyeliner should be as thin as possible along the eye to create the illusion of more eye-surface area and enlarge the eye. For the outer corner of the eye, it’s important to use shadow to blend and taper the liner — no harsh lines.
Finally, it’s important to create a “reflection” eyeliner on the bottom lid to make the upper line more realistic. To do this, you use a pencil or gel liner (anything smudge-able) and from the bottom, outer corner draw a line that comes just short of the upper line without actually touching it. Then, you smudge the hell out of it. This creates a kind of reflection that makes the illusion of a larger eye all the more real.

Lovely Lashes
When it comes to eyelashes, I am genetically bankrupt. My eyelashes are sad little stumps sparsely peppering my upper lids. So even after all the eyelash curling and fibre mascara-ing, my sad little lashes are in desperate need of another curling boost. But trying to curl them AFTER I’ve already applied mascara can pull them right off.

This genius little trick is widely used in the K-pop industry and involves some pyromania, but with practice, its subtle effect is everything for opening up and framing the eyes.

You take a wooden skewer (uncoated, because you don’t want fumes), and keeping the stick horizontal, light it in the center of the stick. As soon as it catches fire, bring the stick vertical with the pointed end facing up and gently twirl it while letting it burn a few short seconds until the top half of it is blackened. Then blow it out, touch to test that it’s not too hot, and holding it horizontally again, roll it on the underside of the lashes where the heat from the stick will gently curl them.

Check out the video below to see it in action. Obligatory safety note: Use at your own risk. Refinery29 does not recommend sticking a burnt stick in your eye, etc., etc.
My mind was seriously blown throughout this course, and I was amazed at how much I learned. To start, the models we were assigned did not have perfect skin — some blotchiness, dark circles, and acne were present. And each time we would learn a new look, I was alerted to how flat-out wrong I had been applying cosmetics. There is no pumping of foundation that is smeared onto the skin. Everything is painstakingly tap-tapped and stippled on in the most featherlight layers, until whoa, flawless skin.

By the end of the course, I had an entire notebook smudged with bits of lipstick and filled with the face-changing knowledge of Jung Saem Mool’s top makeup artist. No beauty school dropout here.
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