A very common question I get is: “How do I know what makeup colors will look good on me?” People especially want to know what color eye makeup will look good on them, make their eyes sparkle and bring out the best in their coloring.
There’s a reason why I named this column Color Theory. There are many tricks and nuances that go into creating a beautiful makeup look, but before you learn those, any makeup artist worth his or her salt will tell you that it’s crucial to understand how colors work.
Welcome to the color wheel. Here’s what any makeup lover needs to know:
Primary colors: Red, yellow and blue. These colors make up all of the other colors on the spectrum.
Secondary colors: The colors you get from mixing the primary colors together:
yellow + blue = green
red + blue = violet
yellow + red = orange
GALLERY: Makeup Color Theory, Explained
Tertiary colors: These are the colors on either side of the secondary colors. For example, red-violet or blue-violet, which you get by adding a little more of the closest primary color.
Hue: The true color of primary colors mixed together, as well as the secondary and tertiary colors mixed together. These colors are basic and intense. Once you have the basic colors, you can adjust them by adding white or black or gray, changing the brightness and density of the colors. This is how you get pastel and muted colors.
Tint: Made by adding white to a pure hue. So if you have an intense purple and add white, you’ll get lavender. If you have a bright orange-red and add white, you’ll get a warm orangey-coral.
Shade: Made by adding black to a pure hue. If you have a bright red, and add a touch of black to it, you’ll get a deeper, richer red.
I love this color wheel because it has white in the center and darker colors around the rim. The colors closest to the center are more pastel-y since they have white added to them, and the colors closest to the rim are more muted tones because they have been mixed with black.
Tone: Made by adding gray to a pure hue. This isn’t very applicable in makeup, you just need to know that a tone feels more muted, like taupes, grays and neutrals.
Complementary colors: Colors that are opposite each other on the color wheel—colors that tend to “vibrate” when next to each other, such as blue next to orange, or purple next to yellow.
Tip For You: In the world of makeup, complementary colors don’t really “compliment” each other because they can be quite garish when used together. But they are great for a statement look. Mossy green eye makeup with a red lip can look stunning. It looks best when complementary colors are used on separate areas of the face, versus right next to each other. (But I am sure there are some amazing and brave drag queens who disagree with me on this one!)
Analogous colors: Colors that are found right next to each other on the color wheel and are generally in the same family.
Tip For You: You find a lot of analogous colors in eyeshadow palettes. They are great for adding depth and highlights because you have different tones of the same general color family. You can add the darker color in the eyelid crease or along the lash line for depth and definition, and you can use the lighter colors for highlights.
Warm colors: Colors with red, orange or yellow undertones. Warm colors are bright and energetic, and tend to pop forward—meaning they draw attention to whatever they are on.
Cool colors: Colors with blue or red undertones. Cool colors are more soothing and tend to recede a bit more.
Tip For You: How does all of this relate to you, your face and your makeup? How do the colors work with each other and with your skin tone?
You can think of skin as a filter. If you have cool, pink undertones, your makeup will be affected by that. Pinks will look pinker, blues will stand out more, etc. If you are a woman of color, it helps to see your skin tone as several layers of a filter, affecting the way color can be seen on your skin. Especially with bright colors—they tend to look more muted on darker skin. Using a light-colored base under a bright color will help keep the color looking true. You can use a lighter concealer or a light creamy eye shadow color—something that the shadow can stick to.
In general, I think that cool tones tend to not look as good on darker skin. The shadows can look ashy. On the other hand, warm, golden colors bring out the beautiful undertones of olive and darker skin tones. Of course, there are people who can pull off any color with incredible skill and style, but I think it’s a safe bet to stick with the colors that naturally look best on your skin.
For example: The reason a rich purple looks so good on darker skin is because it is warm and vibrant, so the color stands out, but is still flattering with the skintone. Cool violets look beautiful on paler skin tones because you get the vibrancy of the purple without the intensity. And the cool tones of a pale lavender flatter the pink/blue undertones of pale skin.
Red-orange lipsticks look great on women with olive skin because of the warmth of the color, where blue-reds look incredibly dramatic and flattering on paler women, because of the cooler color of their skin.
I know this can be overwhelming, and it can be a lot to take in. I hope that a little bit of familiarity with color theory and the color wheel will help make sense of the makeup counter, and make navigating the rainbow of colors offered at each counter a little less daunting, and a lot more fun.
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