My cosmetic bag is not a bag so much as it is a pouch. A pouch that is the height and width of a hardback book. A book about the width and weight of

War and Peace

.

I am not a Las Vegas showgirl or a drag queen, and being a drama queen doesn't require a good foundation so much as a fine layer of melodrama. And yet, every morning, I have 18 eyeliners to choose from: powder, liquid and pencil, in several shades of brown (espresso, chocolate luster, crème brulee and teddy), celadon, green, dark blue, gray-blue, blue, something called Starry Plum, violet, silver, smoke, "gray utility," and a goth collection of black offerings.

So there it is, a veritable beauty tool chest, and though I watch makeover shows with their five-minute faces and magic mirrors and step-by-step instructions, I usually leave the house with a smattering of lipstick, a streak of eyeliner, and maybe a flick of mascara. All of which is gone an hour later.

It was time for an independent contractor. Someone with a tool belt of experience who could point out the flaws and suggest both easy and long-term fixes - without the endless pressure to purchase a $300 seven-step moisturizing sequence.

Across the region, women of a certain age are relearning the art of face camouflage, often hiring experts to guide them through boot camp.

The biggest problem, these experts find, is an outdated look. Much like a house renovation to remove shag carpet, that shiny lipstick that looked so fab in the disco '70s now seems, well, like a lipstick from the '70s.

"Most women wear the same makeup in the same way with the same colors from when they're young and they first started," said Nives Riddles, a freelance makeup artist who has worked with O! Magazine and teaches cosmetic application at Rescue Rittenhouse Spa in Philadelphia. "Something isn't working for them anymore, and they come in and they want to learn something new."

That was the situation for Jennifer Jones, 32, a freelance hairstylist in Middletown, Del.

"I realized that I needed to change the colors and the way I was wearing it," Jones said. "The foundation was always too dark for me so I had that line around the chin. And I was big into blues and that turquoise blue eyeliner didn't always go well with my green eyes."

Two months ago, she approached Kirsten Sylvester, a makeup artist she had once worked with.

"I said to her, 'I'm getting these creases, and when I put on concealer, I look like a cake-face.' "

Pre-lesson, her beauty routine was the same as it was when she was 15, when she started shellacking on the products: moisturizer, foundation, blush, heavy eyeliner and heavy mascara.

An hour and $100 later, she'd learned about sponges, wet eyeliner, and how to match her foundation to her skin - in a way that didn't leave a crayon-colored outline.

Sylvester says the trick to looking natural is practice, and practice should be fun. After all, it all washes off.

But thanks to those makeover shows, many women come in with unreal expectations.

"I can't do my face in five minutes," Sylvester said. "I think, at most, it takes about 20 minutes."

In addition to time management, Riddles said, it's also important to realize that a lesson will help clients improve on what they wear and how they wear it, but it won't be identical to having an artist come to their house every morning.

Both Riddles and Sylvester said a majority of the problems they see involve foundation: too much of it, wrong color choices, too little coverage.

"A lot of women put concealer on under their foundation, but that's like putting the icing on the cake before the frosting," Riddles said. "When I'm done with the lesson, a lot of the women are wearing a lot less makeup, but they feel their skin looks better."

Lessons take an hour or two and cost anywhere from $75 to $150.

Some artists let clients bring their own makeup. Others prefer to use specific lines. But all should ask what type of regime you're looking for, and give you a face guide, outlining what was used where.

Women often find artists through weddings, where makeup professionals may be hired to work on the bride. Salons and spas often offer cosmetic services, so ask the artist if they have lessons.

Sharon Pollack won a session with Riddles at a recent fund-raiser. The fortyish Gladwyne mother of three said she would often go to the makeup counter at a department store for a lesson, buy all the products, and then never wear most of them.

"I have wrinkles and I wanted to look younger, but I didn't want to look like I was 40 trying to be 20," Pollack said.

"I've spent a million dollars on all this stuff, and I have it all and I never use it."

All she wanted out of the session was a basic daily routine and "a couple easy things I can use for night."

The basics were basic. Instead of a five-pound arsenal of candy-colored lipsticks and starry-night eyes, Riddles said women need seven things to look fabulous with ease: concealer, a concealer brush, creme blush, sheer powder, a powder brush, mascara and eyebrow gel. The rest is all icing.

After her session, Pollack was using less powder, lighter concealer, and a new night trick - eyeliner. So far she's happy with her new routine, and with the lesson, although she says she needs to practice with the eyeliner.

"You feel like you look good, and you feel good," Pollack said. "It's like getting new clothes."

I was sold. During my session with Riddles, she looked at the pile of powders, bronzers and lipsticks on the table. She rubbed a few on her hand. And she shook her head.

"Some of it, it's just too shimmery, it's too ...," she hesitated.

"Young?" I said.

"Yes," she said.

My dark eye shadows that I thought were dramatic were replaced by light mauves and plums. A light brown gloss took over from the vampire red I once thought sexy. And there was concealer, lots of concealer, painted on with a brush and a light touch instead of smeared on over the red spots in the hope that no one would notice.

An hour later, I looked, well, pretty darn good for a just starting-to-middle-age chick. Lighter, more professional. Less goth.

By accident, I left the entire bag behind. Maybe some 20-year-old could use a little purple liner?

Kirsten Sylvester can be contacted through her Web site, www.kirstensylvester.com. Nives Riddles can be
contacted through her Web site, www.nivesriddles.com.