Understanding color is basic to makeup, just like painting. It's a big subject, but this article should give you enough information to understand the most important facts about color. After reading it, you will know enough to select the best colors for a natural look that will flatter you the most. We are after simple, easy looks here. Something you would be comfortable wearing on the street or look good on a date. But this information is basic for more dramatic, editorial looks. Everyone who does makeup should understand color.
The Color Wheel
The color wheel is basic to color theory, but the way it's taught in art schools, where the canvas is always white, and the eyes are whatever color they decide, isn't that helpful for makeup. Let's start with our version of the color wheel:
Color Wheel Basics
The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. You can combine these three colors to create any other color, but no combination of other colors can create them. That's why we call them primary.
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 will be between red and yellow.
Tertiary colors are formed by combining a primary and a secondary color. The new color appears between the two colors used to make it. For example:
- Yellow + green = yellow-green; placed between yellow and green.
- red + orange = red-orange; placed between red and orang.
Warm and Cool Colors.
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. The picture below shows 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:
You can bring out the natural beauty of your features by using the color wheel and a tip from the great Leonardo da Vinci. 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. Today we call them complementary colors, which are the colors directly opposite each other on the color wheel. If your eyes are blue, using the bronze-orange or copper shades directly across from it on the wheel will enhance your eyes' natural color. Using blue eyeshadow with blue eyes will compete with the eye and might even make it look washed out. The easiest way to see these effects is 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 blends in. Even burgundy would work better than blue. In the photo below, notice how much better burgundy is at highlighting the blue than purple is:
Green Eyes are similar. Notice in the picture below that the green shadows blend into their surroundings, doing nothing to highlight the color of the background. The two shades of purple, 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 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 "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 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 combine green and brown, the most interesting color is green. Bring that out with warm browns, burgundies, and purples:
In every case, the complementary colors, the shades directly opposite your eye color on the color wheel, are the ones that will 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
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 the lightest ivory at the top to the darkest beige at 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 doing 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 skin tones in the ivory-beige category. If you want more intensity, you might feel the temptation of dark shades like 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. For more intensity, go 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) looks ashy. Ashiness is the danger with bronze-ebony skin. Of all these colors, the only one that could 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. The shimmery brightness keeps them from looking ashy.
Here's a palette of lipsticks that can work with our categories of skin tones. The ones "in-between" can work with both:
The color of the lipstick can make your lips look smaller or larger. Darker shades will make your lips look smaller. You can use this to your advantage if you feel your lips are too large, but if you already have small lips, either avoid darker shades or over-draw them substantially more than you would with a lighter lipstick.
With beige-ivory skin, using a shade of lipstick that is too dark for your complexion can make your whole face look older. That won't happen with bronze-ebony skin since the contrast between the skin and the lipstick is much less.
For both ranges of skin tones, I recommend starting with a brighter color that suits your skin tone. I know nude lips are popular, and I love them, 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 cool pink lipstick. But give warm pink a try; I think you will like it better. The same advice applies to bronze-ebony - pick a warm version of one of the darker lipstick shades.
If you're just unsure what lipstick to use and want to play it safe, then pick a warm color 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. Do let me know if there's anything that's not clear or missing so that I can fix it. I always love hearing from you!