Makeup Color Theory, Explained

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. I’ll explain to you how color theory works, using the best visuals I know: makeup.

For more information, check out my article Makeup Artist Basics: The Color Wheel

1Primary colors:

Red, yellow and blue. These colors make up all of the other colors on the spectrum.

Make Up For Ever Eyeshadow, $19 each,  Shown here in Matte Cold Red, Yellow 2, and Matte Blue. Try: Makeup For Ever Eyeshadow in Copper, $19, for Fall

2Secondary colors:

The colors you get from mixing the primary colors together:

yellow + blue = green

red + blue = violet

yellow + red = orange

Urban Decay Deluxe Eyeshadow, $18.  Shown here in Grafitti.

Try a Complete Box Set, $29.

3Tertiary 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.

Yellow-orange: Make Up For Ever Eyeshadow, $19,  Shown here in Rust Orange. (Try: Copper)

Red-Orange: Lancome Blush Subtil, $29.50,  Shown here in Bronzed Rose. (Try: Shimmer Mocha for lighter skin tones)

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Red-Violet: Make Up For Ever Eyeshadow, $19,  Shown here in Wine Red. (Want a softer shade? Try it in Honey, $18)

Blue-Violet: Urban Decay Deluxe Eyeshadow, $18, Shown here in Ransom.

Blue-Green: Stila Eyeshadow Compact, $18, Shown here in Mystic.

Yellow-Green: Illamasqua Eyeshadow, $20,  Shown here in Dare. (Try it in Dizzy)


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.

L’Oreal Paris Studio Secrets Professional Eyeshadow Quad, $7.15, Shown here in Eva’s Violet. Try it in a more subtle palette, $5.


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.

Smashbox Cosmetics Eyeshadow, $16, Shown here in Cabernet.


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.

Maybelline Cosmetics Expertwear Eyeshadow Quad, $5, Shown here in Charcoal Smokes

7Complimentary 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.

Nars Cosmetics Duo Eyeshadow, $33, Shown here in Blade Runner.

8Analogous colors:

Colors that are found right next to each other on the color wheel and are generally in the same family.

Lancome Eye Brightening All-in-One 5 Shadow & Liner Palette, $48 each,  Shown here in Jade Fever (green) and Kissed by Gold. (Also Try: Sapphire Ice, $6)

9Warm 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.

Givenchy Le Prisme Eyeshadow Quartet, $56, Shown here in Khaki Egerie.

10Cool colors:

Colors with blue or red undertones. Cool colors are more soothing and tend to recede a bit more.

Rimmel Glam Eyes Trio Eye Shadow Palette, $4.92. Shown here in Maritime. (Also try: Orion, $4.92, for more natural tones)

READ MORE: Makeup Artist Basics: The Color Wheel