Understanding how colors work is obviously basic to makeup, just as it is to painting. This article should give you enough information to understand the basics of color as it applies to makeup and also to start thinking about what colors would look good on you. We're thinking of simple, easy looks here. The sort of thing that would work to make you blend in on the street or look good in a glamorous restaurant on a date. More dramatic looks, with more colors and shapes, will change some of the advice in this article, but I still I think the information here is a crucial starting point.
The Color Wheel
I haven't found most information about the color wheel to be that helpful to understanding how colors work in makeup. Most articles base their comments on what you learn in art classes, where the canvas is white, and the eyes are whatever color you want to make them. The real world of makeup is quite different. To see how let's start with our version of the color wheel:
Color Wheel Basics
The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. They are called primary because they can't be formed by combinations of any other colors.
You get new colors by combining the primary colors. Combinations of two primary colors are called secondary colors. Secondary colors appear between the primary colors used to make them. For example:
- yellow + blue = green, green will be between yellow and red.
- blue + red = purple, purple will be between blue and red
- red + yellow = orange, orange wil be between red and yellow
Tertiary colors are formed by combining a primary and a secondary color. The new color is placed between the two used to form it. For example:
- Yellow + green = yellow-green (placed between yellow and green)
- red + orange = red-orange (placed between red and orange)
It's pretty simple, really.
Colors are also divided into cool and warm categories. Warm colors (reds and yellows) are on the left, cool colors (blues and greens) are on the right. There can be a warm or a cool form of any color. To create the warm version of a color, mix in some yellow. If you want a cool color, add some blue. In the picture below, we have the traditional "cool" colors of purple and grey. By adding increasing amounts of yellow to the purple, we create the warmer shades of purple you see on the left. Adding yellow to the grey gives us the warm grey on the right:
The Eye Shadow Color Wheel
Here's a color wheel made completely of eye shadows:
We can use this wheel to help us decide what colors might work for us and what might not. Simple looks seek to bring out the natural beauty of your features. By using the color wheel and a tip from the great Leonardo da Vinci, you can make this happen.
They didn't have the color wheel in Leonardo's day (it had to wait for Isaac Newton to invent it), but he was the first to notice that what he called "opposed colors" provided the highest contrast. We call them complementary colors and they are directly across from each other on the color wheel. For example, to bring out a blue eye, use the bronze-orange or copper shades directly across from it on the wheel. Using blue eyeshadow around blue eyes will compete with the eye and might even make it look washed out. The easiest way to see these effects os to put some blue eyeshadow on blue-colored paper:
Notice how the coppery/orangey hues bring out the blue shade of the paper? By comparison, the blue eyeshadow just blends in. Even burgundy would work better than the blue does. In the photo below, notice how much better it is at highlighting the blue than purple is:
Green Eyes are similar. Notice in the picture below that, as with blue on blue, the green shadows just blend into their surroundings doing nothing to highlight the color of the background. The two shades of purple, the burgundy or even copper bring out the green much better:
If you have deep brown eyes, verging on black, you can use any color. Any and all of them will contrast with your eye shade (although you also have to pay attention to your skin tone - more on that later.) Some brown eyes are lighter and have a golden hue. If you want to bring that out, you can use warm coppery shades, burgundy or warm purples. Green will work with the brown of your eyes, but won't emphasize the gold:
Warm Brown eyes, which are a bit darker, look especially fabulous with blue shades. Brown shadows will just "blend in" and not do anything for your eye:
Some eyes have gold "flecks" or "spots" of color. These are very common with blue and green eyes and are so beautiful! Blue eyes with gold flecks look best with warm, coppery/orange shades or burgundy:
And for green with gold flecks, warm browns, purples or burgundy will work beautifully:
Hazel eyes are an interesting special case. Hazel eyes are actually two colors, either green and brown, or green and blue. You can choose to bring out one or the other shade.
If your eyes are a combination of green and blue, you can choose to bring the green out with burgundies or purples. Or you can highlight the blue by selecting warm, coppery orange tones:
On the other hand, if your eyes are a combination of green and brown, the most interesting color is the green. Bring that out with warm browns, burgundies and purples:
As you can see from this, in every case, the complementary colors, the ones directly across the color wheel from your eye color, are the ones that will best bring out your eye color. These will always be the best choice for a simple look. That's true whether you are just going to the market or want to glam it up for a night on the town.
The Bigger Picture
Of course, if you're like me, then you are interested in a lot more than just bringing out the color of your eyes. You can experiment with using black and white lines on your water line or even enlarging your eye with white to give the illusion of a bigger eye. The white will contrast with pretty much any color, although paler shades might suffer a bit from this (try black or brown, in that case). One thing that you do need to consider is how your skin tone works with the colors you choose. Your skin tone affects everything you use on your face, from eyeshadow to blush to lipstick.
I think of skin tones in two large groups, ivory-beige, and bronze-ebony. Here's a picture of some foundation swatches for each skin tone, along with some possible blushes that will work with that tone:
The ivory-beige tones are on the left, moving from lightest ivory at the top to darkest beige on the bottom. And bronze-ebony, in the same order on the right. On either side, we've placed some blushes/colors that would work well with that skin tone.
If you're looking for a completely natural look, then the best way to find the right color of blush for your skin tone is to look at your face after you have done some exercise. Your face will be red, and that color of red is the shade you want for your blush. The photo below shows some good and some not so good blushes for the ivory-beige range of skin tones:
The colors from 1-5 are soft, warm peaches and pinks, which will go beautifully with any of the skin tones in the ivory-beige category. If you want more intensity, you might find yourself tempted by dark shades such as 7, 8 or 9. The problem with using dark shades on ivory-beige skins is that they can look like bruises, or create a "muddy" look. So for more intensity, try brighter, not darker, using something like shade 6.
If we move some of these colors over to our bronze-ebony side, you can see that all the darker tones (7, 8, 9) suddenly look amazing, while the pink shade (3) just looks ashy. Ashiness is the big danger with bronze-ebony skin. The only color here that manages to work with both is the apricot (6), probably because of its brightness:
If you're a bronze-ebony girl and want to use lighter shades, try ones with a bit of shimmer or glow to them. That will help to prevent them from appearing so ashy.
Here's a palette of lipsticks that can work with our categories of skin-tones. The ones "in between" can work with both:
Remember that these are for simple looks, with just one shade of lipstick. More complex lip looks can change your color palette. For example, you can combine two or three shades to get a three-dimensional lip and include colors you would never use by themselves.
The first thing to remember about lipstick color is that it has a huge effect on peoples perception of your lip size. Darker shades will make your lips look smaller. You can use this to advantage if you feel your lips are too large, but if you already have smaller lips, either avoid darker shades or (if you are like me) over-draw them substantially more than you would with a lighter shade of lipstick.
With beige-ivory skin, using a shade of lipstick which is too dark for your complexion can make your whole face look older. It's different with bronze-ebony skin since the contrast between the skin and the lipstick is so much less.
For both ranges of skin tones, I recommend starting out with a brighter color that suits your skin-tone. I know nude lips are popular, and I love them myself, but they are harder to do than you might think. Go for a bright shade and be pretty.
Obviously skin tone is important. A brown shade can look amazing on bronze-ebony, not so much for ivory-beige. For both skin tone ranges, I find warmer colors more flattering. If you are ivory-beige, you can wear a cool pink lipstick. But give warm pink a try, and I think you will like it better. For bronze-ebony, the same advice applies - pick a warm version of one of the darker shades of lipstick.
If you're just not sure what lipstick to use and want to play it safe, then pick a warm color that is 2-3 shades darker than your natural skin tone. Use that as a base and then experiment. Lipsticks are addictive, and I have way too many. You probably will too.
That's it. I know there was a lot of information in this article, but I hope it helped you out. Do let me know if there's anything that's not clear or missing, so I can fix it. To do that, just message me on Twitter