How to Curate Your Dream Eyeshadow Palette

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If you’re an average, non makeup-obsessed person, there are probably a lot of makeup junkie habits you could give the serious one-eyebrow-raise to. Are those ten nude lipsticks really all that different? Is it actually necessary to set your face with a different powder from your under eyes? And what the heck is with this contouring business? Trust, as much as I love the stuff, I will never tell you you need to own more than a single cosmetic bag’s worth of makeup (or any makeup for that matter, you do you boo). But if there is one thing us makeup junkies have unlocked the secret to that I think the average person should totally get on the bandwagon with, it’s building your own custom eyeshadow palette.

Am I getting the eyebrow now? Just hear me out. I know it may seem intimidating and potentially expensive, but I promise the investment is so totally worth it.

If you’re reading this and feeling totally lost in the dark, let me back track a little. In the makeup world there are such things as customizable eyeshadow palettes. The general idea is that most pressed pigments (eyeshadows, blushes, highlighters, etc.) are actually housed in metal pans that have been glued into pretty packaging. And actually, if you go into your makeup bag right now and dig out one of those products you can probably see the ring of the metal pan around the edge.

Since bottom of most customizable palettes are giant magnets, the pans will stick inside without the need of any glue, and its super easy for you to shift things around or swap things out. The process of freeing your makeup from its packaging to expose the metal pan is called “depotting” and, while it can be a lot of fun, can also be quite tedious and messy (you can read about my adventures in depotting here).

Fortunately for the sake of today’s post, depotting is entirely unnecessary. There are tons of makeup retailers that sell eyeshadow in their naked pan form already. Not only does this save you a lot of time and hassle, it can also save you money. For example, one MAC eyeshadow in packaging will set you back $16. But if you buy it in naked pan form, it’s only $6. That’s the same amount of money you’d pay for a L’Oreal shadow at the drugstore.

So let me bring it back to the question at hand. If you aren’t a makeup junkie, why should you bother taking the time to build your own custom eyeshadow palette? Because you, my friend, of all people, don’t need to waste money or space on product that you don’t absolutely love and use. Rather than have a drawer full of eyeshadow singles with clunky packaging, or expensive palettes that you only touch half of the shades in, why not build one perfect little palette you’ll adore?

So where should you start? Good question! I’m going to break things down step-by-step so that the whole process is way less intimidating and WAY more fun.


When it comes to choosing the right size palette to start out with, think about your typical makeup style. If you’re relatively minimalistic and tend to stick to one look all the time, a palette with anywhere from 3 to 9 pans is probably all that you’ll need. If you’re a true lover of eyeshadow and want plenty of room to grow, a medium or large sized palette will tide you over for a long time. There are TONS of retailers out there with different options for you to house your custom palette in. If you want something a little more durable, a metal or plastic case like these from Make Up For Ever or MAC are a solid option. Or you could also grab a cardboard palette like these ones from NYX or Ulta. I would also recommend keeping an eye out for special promotions or deals where you can get a palette for free with the purchase of a certain number of shadows! Given my general makeup obsession, I have both a 9 pan AND an Extra Large Palette at home. The XL palette is perfect to store my entire collection of singles, while the 9 pan is what I fill to take with me on-the-go.


Even though there are hundreds upon hundreds of beautiful eyeshadows out there, picking shades at random will probably land you with an eclectic collection that only gets partially used. The easiest way to create a cohesive palette is to think about the kind of shades you’ll need to create a look you’ll love. Ultimately there are no rules in makeup, so consider these suggestions as merely a guideline.

For a 4 Pan Palette:

  • Lid – a shadow in any finish (matte, metallic, satin, etc.) that you would LOVE rocking everyday
  • Crease transition – a matte color a few shades darker than your natural skin tone
  • Lining & defining – a deeper, matte shade (a dark brown, gray, or black are always solid choices)
  • Highlighting – a light, shimmering shade

For a 9 Pan Palette: 

  • Base – a matte color that’s close to your natural skin tone
  • Lid shade (x3) – again, here’s where you can get a little more creative or go for something more shiny or metallic. Since we have more room, give yourself a few different options. If you want a pop of color for your palette (even if its just to put on your lower lash line) use one of these slots.
  • Crease transition (x2)– two matte colors a few shades darker than your natural skin tone. You could include one warm shade and one cool shade, or a neutral shade and something with a bit more color
  • Lining & defining (x2) – again, since we have more room, you could opt for two deeper matte shades or one deeper matte and one deeper metallic shade
  • Highlighting – a light, shimmering shade
If you’re still feeling super overwhelmed, look for inspiration from a palette already in existence. Maybe you’ve always had your eye on one of the Urban Decay Naked Palettes, for example. Which shades would you absolutely love to have? Which could you do without? What do you think is missing? Use that palette as a starting point and change it up to your personal preferences!


So you’ve got the blueprints laid for a perfect palette. Awesome! Now it’s time to do your homework and figure out which shadows you’re actually going to buy. One of the things I found most helpful when picking out shadows for my own collection was looking through a swatch library. I think Temptalia has THE BEST website for searching and comparing swatches of different products. Looking for a matte brown shadow? You can set those parameters and look through every matte brown shadow in her library. Pretty sweet, right?

Now, looking through dozens of swatches can be pretty intimidating. To give you some frame of reference, here are some of my favorite eyeshadow brands you might want to hone in on.

Anastasia Beverly Hills ($12, 1.5g per pan) – Far and above the priciest option, while these shadows are definitely a splurge, they seriously deliver on quality. The best bet if you’ve got your heart set on any of these shades is to order a bundle deal and save a few bucks (you can also get these shadows 4 for $40 at Ulta). Sephora and Ulta both retail ABH eyeshadows, so you can head to either location to swatch these in person.

Colourpop ($4, 1.2g per pan) – these shadows JUST hit the market in early 2017 and are seriously blowing people away. Their products are super affordable and orders over $30 ship free in the US. The only downside is that Colourpop is an online-only brand, so you aren’t going to be able to swatch their shadows in person.

MAC ($6, 1.5g per pan) – a true cult classic. So many people talk about MAC shows like they’re the be-all-and-end-all, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. I think they have a lot of beautiful shades, but their formula is nothing I’d consider leagues above the rest mentioned here. If you’d like to swatch these shadows in person you can head to your nearest freestanding MAC store, or MAC location inside of Nordstrom’s and Macy’s. However, pan-only products are only available for purchase online.

Makeup Geek ($6*, 1.8g per pan) – now, I will be honest. I have no personal experience with Makeup Geek shadows. They’ve been on my to-try list for ages, because everything I’ve seen and heard about their formula is pretty exceptional. Their traditional shadows retail for $6, but their new foiled shadow formula is a little more expensive and retails for $10. Like Colourpop, MUG is an online-only retailer, so you don’t have the luxury of swatching these in person.

NYX ($4, 1.5g per pan) – If you thought NYX eyeshadows were already affordable, you’ll be pleased to know these pan-only versions are even more inexpensive. My personal favorite formula of theirs are the Prismatic shadows, which are ultra pigmented and gorgeously metallic. Unfortunately the only way you can get your hands on the packaging-free version of their shadows is to order them online or pick them up at a freestanding NYX location (where you also can swatch to your hearts content).

For me, one of the best things about a custom eyeshadow palette is that it can always grow with you. If you run low on a specific shade, or end up becoming bored or disappointed by one, you can easily replace it with something else. Or maybe you want to rotate in a seasonal pop of color? Piece of cake.

But what about value? If you’ve been doing the math along the way, you’ve probably realized that a custom palette will set you back a pretty penny. Not only do you have to pay for the case, but the individual shadows themselves can add up quick. Because I’m a nerd, here’s the breakdown of cost-per-gram of the shadow singles I mentioned earlier:

Anastasia Beverly Hills // $8 per gram ($6.67 per gram w/bundle discount)
Colourpop // $3.33 per gram
MAC // $4 per gram
Makeup Geek // $3.33 per gram ($5.56 per gram for Foiled shadows)
NYX // $2.67 per gram ($3.22 per gram for Prismatic shadows)

Now, I went and did the cost breakdown for some of the most popular eyeshadow palettes on the market, just for comparison:

Urban Decay Naked Palette // 16.92 g total weight, $3.19 per gram
Anastasia Beverly Hills Modern Renaissance // 8g total weight, $5.25 per gram
Tarte Tartelette in Bloom // 18g total weight, $2.55 per gram
Too Faced Sweet Peach // 15.3g total weight, $3.20 per gram
Natasha Denona 28 Pan Palette // 70g total weight, $3.41 per gram

This is one of those moments where even I was a little shocked to see what I discovered. While Natasha Denona’s 28 pan palettes cost a whopping $239 a pop, they also have 70 GRAMS of product and are a better value for the weight than MAC. ABH is by far the most pricey option all around, and Colourpop, while being touted as a super inexpensive brand, is the second most costly by weight. At the same time, you can then look at buying an Urban Decay eyeshadow single for $19 (a 1.5g pan) and all of a sudden that just seems insane!

Basically, here’s what it comes down to. When it comes to value by weight, it’s pretty hard to top a pre-made palette. However, its worth noting how much of that palette you’re actually going to use. If you only love half the shades, is it still a solid investment? You will spend more money curating your own custom eyeshadow palette for sure, but if you love 100% of the shades that you’re buying and using them all it may be worth the extra up front expense. Plus, no one is telling you to go out and buy nine shadows today. You can always build your collection slowly and at whatever pace you (or your wallet) is comfortable with. As for regular eyeshadow singles (especially from prestige brands)? They’re kind of a total rip off. You’re basically paying a premium for packaging.

So what’s in my custom palette? If you want to get a glimpse at my larger collection you can check out this update from last year, but for my current top-shelf rotation I’ve been going all warm and colorful. I created this firey eyeshadow look more for the fun of being artistic. You could definitely do something more subdued with these same shades!

Swatched from left to right: 
Anastasia Beverly Hills Legend // Anastasia Beverly Hills China Rose // MAC Amber Lights // Colourpop Paper Tiger // Colourpop Stay Golden // MAC Red Brick // MAC Brule // NYX Prismatic Eyeshadow in Sunset Daze // MAC Swiss Chocolate

I can honestly say that I LOVE each and everyone of these shadows SO MUCH. They all are so beautiful and buttery and easy to work with and I seriously look forward to using them. As a makeup junkie I also have an appreciation for the fact that these shades are a little off the beaten path because I can always pair them up with the neutrals in the rest of my collection.

If you’ve ever built your own custom palette I would love to hear what shades are in it! Also, if there is another brand of eyeshadow that I need to check out, please tell me about it in the comments down below. You know I’m always on the hunt to play with new and different things!

What shades would be in your dream eyeshadow palette?