July 29, 2010

A bit of color theory (for skintones, that is)

I have been doing research on skintones and, more generally, color theory. I kept on seeing explanations on how to identify your skintones, mostly cool versus warm and what that means in terms of colors that suit you or not for makeup, clothes, accessories etc...

The thing is, I couldn't figure out my own skintone. Or more exactly, I did know what my skintone is, but the "looks good/looks bad" reccomendations made for my shade did not work. Which is why I started investigating.
Along the way, I got some great help from a fellow blogger, Musicalhouses, who really studied the matter in depth. She also recommended some readings that are not accessible from here, but they were all so interesting I thought I'd share a summary.
All in all, we can divide color analysis in 3 parts:

High Contrast or Low Contrast?
That's the easiest aspect to determine, as it's about the level of contrast between your skin, hair and eyes. If you have pale skin and black hair, you're obviously high contrast. On the other hand, pale skin with pale blue eyes and light blond hair - or dark brown skin, eyes and hair would be low contrast. Just think about what your face would look like on a black and white picture, you'll immediately perceive the contrast or the absence of it.

Muted or Clear?
This aspect is relatively easy to understand.
Muted colors are colors that have a lot of brown or grey in them, while clear colors appear as bright, and include black and white. Muted skintones have a lot of brown or beige undertones, and they usually look bad in clear colors. They'll look better wearing burgundy or slate grey or any brownish greyish color.
Clear skintones are just not brown/beige - they can be pink, yellow or peach, and they look great in very bright colors like fushia, red, bright orange etc...

Warm or Cool?
Here comes the tricky part. Usually, people will tell you that you're cool if you have pink undertones and warm if you have yellow undertones.
Excepted it doesn't work that way, and that's because yellow can be cool. A pale yellow lemon, compared to a yellow schoolbus, will look cooler. And olive, which is a somewhat greenish shade of yellow, is mostly cool although it can become a tad bit warmer when it's darker.
That changes the whole deal, of course, because it means someone with very fair olive skin (example: me, since I have Mediterranean origins but am ghostly pale) can have cool undertones even though they're yellow. And so they will look better in bright cool colors than in very warm shades like burnt orange or amber.

How does this translate into color coordination?
Don't worry, it's quite simple: the colors that will look best on you (be it for makeup, for clothes, for hair color, nails etc...) are the ones that match the 3 aspects of you skin!
So for me, the colors that are cool, clear and very contrasted are the ones that work the best: bright blues or purples, black, fushia...

Colors that match 2 aspects out of the 3 will probably work as well. For example I can wear some warm colors if they're bright and highly contrasted, like a bright orange.
I can't wear gold jewelry (warm, not contrasted, muted) while silver looks great (greyish, but cool and more contrasted towards my skintone) so shades that match 1 or zero aspects should be avoided because they wash you out.

This made me reassess the content of my wardrobe (and of my makeup bag) and realize that I always get compliments when I wear certain colors and look totally washed out in some others. I can still make zero-matching items work, on condition that I mix them with totally matching ones. Ultimately, everybody needs to experiment a bit and figure out what works best for them. You can also decide that, depending on circumstances, you want to wear shades that won't make you stand out - we're all free after all.
But I thought this might be helpful to some of you like it has been for me!


  1. This is so true. I have cool undertones too and silver looks so much better on me than gold. Also if I go to blonde it washes me out completly because I have the yellow undertone.

  2. good post! really informative...

  3. wow that seems so complicated after two glasses of jack daniels lol must try reading in the morning. Helpful post though, thank you for taking the time :)

  4. I had my colors done when I was in high school. Basically, the lady sat me in front of a mirror and draped different colored fabrics across my chest and shoulders. Then she'd compare each color family between warm and cool, dark and light, etc. All you had to do was look in the mirror and you could see the changes each color made to my face. Some were shocking to see. For example, when she switched out a stark white for a slightly ivory white, my face looked like it fell forward in the mirror - most unflattering!

    As for the warm/cool debate, I've always been told that the best way to tell is to get a shiny fabric in both silver and gold - try to be as true to the real thing as possible - and hold one up next to your ears, letting it drape just beneath your chin. Take a good look at your face, then switch it to the other color. You'll see the difference immediately. Those who look better with the silver fabric are cool-toned. Those who look better with the gold are warm-toned. And those who look awesome either way are neutral.


I love getting comments, thanks for sharing your thoughts!