How did you learn to determine colors and undertones in your makeup?

Some colors just always seemed warmer and others cooler to me, and a lot of it is becomes very, very apparent when you swatch things next to each other – particularly in the case of browns or reds, you can really see the differences in undertones when you put a warm, neutral, and cool shade side-by-side. More recently, I read more about color theory and what undertones are to get a better idea of classifying shades like purple and fuchsia.

— Christine


Comments that do not adhere to our comment policy may be removed. Discussion and debate are highly encouraged but we expect community members to participate respectfully. Please keep discussion on-topic, and if you have general feedback, a product review request, an off-topic question, or need technical support, please contact us!

Please help us streamline the comments' section and be more efficient: double-check the post above for more basic information like pricing, availability, and so on to make sure your question wasn't answered already. Comments alerting us to typos or small errors in the post are appreciated (!) but will typically be removed after errors are fixed (unless a response is needed).

We appreciate enthusiasm for new releases but ask readers to please hold questions regarding if/when a review will be posted as we can't commit to or guarantee product reviews. We don't want to set expectations and then disappoint readers as even products that are swatched don't always end up being reviewed due to time constraints and changes in priorities! Thank you for understanding!

Comments on this post are closed.
Katherine T. Avatar

Yes, best way is to swatch colors next to each other. Earlier this year, I took inventory of my makeup collection, and swatched all my shadows by color and grouped them into categories, so I could figure out what I had and how to pull looks together. So for purples, I had shadows grouped under cool blue purples, pink purples, brown purples, etc. So for a pink purple, I pair it with a pink blush/lippie in same color family, so you get a gradient of colors that pull into a cohesive look.

Katherine T. Avatar

I had to do it! Because in the mornings, I was grabbing purple products at random, and since they can all look the same in the pan, I ended up with some of the weirdest looks for work! My eyes would have a clashing combo of cool blue purple and warm purples, my purple pink blush would clash with my blue purple lippie, it was kind of all crazy looking LOL

Lulle Avatar

I think I probably first learned about warm vs cool colors in arts class in middle school. When it comes to makeup a lot of shades are actually a bit of both, so sometimes whether a product looks warm or cool on someone will depend on which other shades they pair it with or the undertones of their own complexion. Almost all blushes end up looking warm on me, unless they’re very cool like blue-based pinks.
I don’t believe that people with cool-toned skin tones should only wear cool-toned makeup or the opposite with warm. I have warm undertones myself and some of my favorite colors to wear on the eyes are actually cool shades: blue-based purple, gray, cool brown, khaki… In my opinion sticking to your undertones is only important with foundation, for the rest just play with colors and see what looks good on you.

Erica Avatar

Or that if you have neutral skin tone you can wear any color. I definitely prefer warm to cool. Though sometimes a cool tone blush can be more brightening and very flattering where warm can come off more muddy. Def true to not to be so rigid with rules!

Hayley Avatar

I would have disagreed this time last year, because I was so set in that if your warm you wear warm, if your cool wear cool. Im a cool.
This year, I have discovered that I do have some shades that are warm that I have mixed – and they have actually been some of my better make up days!

Katherine T. Avatar

I agree! I’m cooler toned, and used to avoid warm tones because they can make me look sick, but I’ve found that warm tones can be very flattering, it’s a matter of finding the right colors.

Bonnie Avatar

I agree. I’m actually pretty neutral, but I prefer warm tones on the eyes and cooler ones on the lips. (Plus warmer tones on the lips can make the teeth look yellower). Cheeks can go either way, and nails – anything goes.

Erica Avatar

You look at your veins. More green, you are warm. More purple/blue , you are cool. Cannot determine, you are most likely neutral. Warm toned people tends to have more yellowy to olive overtones. Cool toned people have more pinky/red overtones. Warms tend to tan easily. Cools tend to not tan easily and burn.

Wednesday Avatar

Generally yes.
Erica your post gives me an opportunity to clarify and help some of my fellow green or cool yellow gals save some themselves some money and horrible foundation matches:
I’ve been lumped into warm skintone for decades wearing foundations far too dark (running oompa loompa orange) for me. I have light cool yellow and green tones about 20 level. I look darker than I am because of all the pigment. It is easy to get confused by this. Olive skintones actually run the gamut from cool to neutral to warm and from the palest to the darkest. I understand Asians are also familiar with MUA’s lumping them into the warm skin category because many have surface yellow on their skin, but yellow runs the spectrum of cool and warm as well as do all colours. Here are a couple of excellent resources for people who can’t seem to find any foundations that work despite being ‘colour matched’. Chances are you are olive skintone or yellow skintone running on the cooler side.
P.S. You may be neutral, but most neutral foundations are a combo of pink and yellow tones. They may look okay against your skin (you don’t look off or sickly), but they will typically be too peachy if you are olive or cool yellow.

Over and work is done.

Erica Avatar

Wheww that is quite the information. I’m fair and fairly neutral. Neutral but warm leaning. I actually have no problem finding a foundation match but I do get how tricky it can be esp if options are limited. My daughter on the other hand has it much harder. She is a pale unless it’s summer and she has yellow undertones due to her latina heritage. She has little pink but with most foundations, she is too light or too dark. They sometimes come off too yellow or too pink. Lucky for her at this point she has flawless skin and only needs a little touch up (her preference)

Julie Avatar

So glad you pointed this out, Wendy! I personally love that musical houses blog post! I stumbled across it a few months ago while TRYING to find a foundation match! I’m very fair (MAC level 10-13), and can never find a foundation… Turns out, it’s the olive in my skin tone. I also got fantastic insight from a MAC artist a couple months ago… Basically, Mac has 2 separate foundation color wheels… NC & NW are pink vs. yellow with peach as the neutral, but olive skin tones usually run pink to olive with beige as the neutral, and are often nearly devoid or very low in peach tones. That fits me to a T!! She basically said I’m too pale for my undertones for MAC & most other foundation brands… My undertones best match N or C at level 4-4.5, when my color depth is level 1-1.5. Most olive skin tones are actually neutral to cool, but often get mistaken as warm–the green is interpreted as yellow. This was so enlightening for me…but I’m still stuck without a foundation match!
As far as color undertones, I have to stick to neutral to cool shades. Beiges are usually ok, but anything with yellow/orange is immediately apparent–my skin just pulls out those tones, and they really bring out the green/gray in my skin, so I look sickly.

Wednesday Avatar

Wow Julie. I thought I had it tough. Fits me to a T as well as not a single iota of peach in this skin either. I’m citrusy right now. I have inadvertently ended up with some colour from being perpetually outside this summer and weirdly enough, it has helped me to SEE. My winter skin takes on a more greige (green/beige) which has traditionally been more difficult for me to define and match and even figure out why foundations do not work. I look like I have depth, but I don’t, but when I match depth properly, but not undertone, I look bobbleheaded and washed out. It has been incredibly confusing and the internet has come to my rescue as have you. Thank you for contributing to my olive knowledge; duly noted and filed in the archives.

Julie Avatar

Ugh…I have the same problem! I wash out soooo easily! Another hot tip she gave me is that I am probably picking out foundations that are too pale–I’m trying to cancel out the pink/peach tones that don’t match by going too pale, when really it’s just the wrong undertones. Meanwhile, makeup artists usually match me to foundations that are too dark–they’re perceiving my olive tones as depth. I’m seriously contemplating starting a cosmetics company for us fair to light olive gals, because I’m just having no luck at all! Any brands that you’ve found that seem to work?

Wednesday Avatar

Julie: your experiences are identical to my journey. The whole non-matching undertone has been the single source of all of my grief. It has made me feel quite inept at times as in: what haven’t I tried and why can’t I get this right. I cannot say that I actually have a really really good match foundation wise. I have some that look respectable, but the undertones do not entirely match. One of the ‘greenest’ foundations I have is Koh Gen Doh 213, but there is something about it not quite right and I think it is the amount of yellow. Another cooler olivey ‘foundation’ is iT Cosmetics CC+ in shade light, but it is dries down too dark on me, but works for summer. Sometimes I mix the two. MUFE has a couple of shades that mostly work for me #117 and #120, but both have yellow in them which doesn’t work for you. I can wear foundations with some yellow, but it can also go completely sallow or make me look lemony on me as well because it clashes and stands out against the green. Armani Lasting Silk 4.5 also olive, but with yellow too. Here is a post I found awhile back and it seems foundation is always a compromise. Many of the products listed here are too dark for me or too goldy green based. There is one fair foundation mentioned (Bourjois) which would be too light for me, but maybe work for you.

LOL you can even see how many of these pull orange on the arm of the poster. Also, check out the comments section because there are a few rec’s there too.

p.s. a lot of olive complexions have no cheek colour. Another reason we look washed out. I had ruddiness in areas from aging, but no actual cheek colour unless I have been working or exercising quite hard.

Julie Avatar

Thank you! You are awesome. I may try to find the healthy mix foundation! I swatched the It Cosmetics at Ulta…light did match my undertones fairly well, but was too dark…fair was too pink & light…the lady recommended I buy both & mix, but that just seemed too expensive!!! Ugh. Glad to know I’m not the only one to struggle! And yeah…basically the only color in my face is from my dark circles and acne scars…I NEED foundation! Never wore it in my 20s & 30s, but now that I’ve hit my 40s, it’s become mandatory. Reading through that post, I may try to find a green color corrector/primer & try to drab down some pinky-beige shades I have.

Genevieve Avatar

What you have pointed out Wendy is that skin tone and colouring is a really complex issue. I, too, was given yellow undertone foundation because it was presumed by my colouring that I was warm toned. I nearly always turned brown or orangey by the end of the day. Then I worked out that I had pink undertones and therefore should be looking at completely different foundations.
Thanks for your information above, it is quite helpful.

Wednesday Avatar

Good point, Genevieve. It is complex and not just for olive skinned peeps. Many of us have wonderfully mixed and beautifully muddied heritage and this worldwide blending is reflected in our skin; all skin from the lightest to the darkest. Foundation products are just starting to play catch up. Some haven’t even begun.

Annie Avatar

THIS. It took me forever to figure out my undertone. I wish I had read these articles 3 years ago. I was also recently diagnosed with vitiligo. So now in the summer my face has cool olive skin incapable of tanning AND warm olive tan. Yay for foundation 🙂

Judith Avatar

Hi Wwendy, you’re absolutely right. I’m Eurasian with dark brown hair and eyes. One look at me most MUA & shop assistants will direct me to yellow based colours which make me look like I have jaundice. Whenever I need eyebrows products I would be advised to take the darkest colour, which makes me look like Groucho Marx. I finally learned through trials and errors that it’s best to always combine both warmer and cooler hues into my make up. I try to use as neutral base as possible (Laura Mercier, Nars,Chanel, Bourjois, Rimmel & L’Oreal have great selections) and would add warmth with a touch of bronzer. I’d then do my eyes & lips and add blush & highlighter after. Blush is very important and I like to apply it last because it finishes the face. The most important is to trust your own judgment and go with your instinct.

Marieke Avatar

My family is a very creative one. My mother paints a lot, so she introduced me to colors and (mixing) the right shade. I had a late start with make-up, but color pairing and recognition was never a problem for me!

Carrie Avatar

Swatching helped a ton in the beginning, because I’m so cool toned (I’ve got porcelain skin) that any bit of warmth becomes apparent right away when it’s on me. Now though, the more I’ve played with color, the more I’ve just been able to pick up an eye for it 🙂

Nell Avatar

Trial and error.
I swatch on my arm as much as possible. Temptalia is fantastic in showing colors and undertones as well. Also, I take a white card to the counter and swatch on it, and write down the colors as they are swatched. I have kept these cards on file, and refer to them when making new purchases and decisions as to what worked well.
As we all know, a product can appear one way in the container, and change dramatically in action. It’s also amazing how an undertone can change a product’s performance.

Lea Avatar

Swatchung on a white card is probably the worst representation of color you could be doing since you’ll never be applying it to a pure white skin. I suppose it could give a measure of purity of pigment/opacity, but you shouldn’t ever judge swatch colors done on white.

Anne Avatar

I knew that I didn’t know what I was doing when I first started wearing makeup. I think I did just about everything wrong — no joke! As I have mentioned before here, I was lucky enough to get some excellent advice from a truly gifted makeup artist who told me my color palette. (I am convinced that anyone who denigrates color theory doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Color theory is at the heart of light reflection and is the basis from which a person can build their personal color palette.) Today, there’s so much more information available (like the internet) that anyone can begin to build their own personal color palette. Not that it’s easy, but it’s a lot easier than when I was starting. Experimenting with color may be fun, but it also can be expensive and frustrating. In my opinion, it’s more fun to know your color palette so you can concentrate all your effort on technique.

Mariella Avatar

What helped me most was makeup blogs and youtube videos. Your early videos, Christine, were among the ones I watched often. There’s also a site (not updated in years) which focuses exclusively on MAC eyeshadows and how to pair them (you look up a particular shadow and there will be suggestions for colours to put with it but I don’t think any new shadows have been added in probably 6 or more years).

Aditi Avatar

I don’t know…it just came naturally to me i guess…I am very fluent in my color language I think…one of the random perks that go with being a makeup lover..

Megz Avatar

Old fashioned ed trial and error. At first glance, I seem warm – my eyes are golden brown with bits of olive green and my dark brown hair has lots of red. I tan stupidly easy and rarely burn, though in the winter I can be very-pale nw15. My veins are decidedly teal-green. However, wearing very warm colors makes me unhappy. Golden bronzes, peaches, orangey colors all make me look ill. I started playing with gray and blue based colors and it just clicked. I don’t really lean towards really warm or cool tones these days, I like to stay as neutral as possible.

Mo Merrell Avatar

Before I took esthetician courses I went with what looked good on me. I learned by default which colors did and didn’t work then I read up on undertones then in classes I learned more about undertones. Even though there are “rules” I still go with what looks good on me. Sometimes it’s cool and sometimes it’s warm but I generally decide not on undertone rule just on my personal preference.

AB Avatar

Mix of ‘analysis’ (in the olden days, the ‘color me beautiful’ concept, and then a session with Prescriptives) and a whole lot of trial and error. I agree with other posters in that for me, it’s not an automatic thing that all and only warms work, but it’s a reliable place to start as I make choices. Also there are types/shades of warm; like orange for me, no; but red/orange or red/coral, yes. The experimenting and exploring is the fun part.

LMM Avatar

Probably swatching, but most of it is trial and error.

I have dyed my hair a ton, and something people always said to me was that I looked good in any hair color. So I started paying more attention to what stylists were doing there, and I had one who told me that my hair was naturally so ashy that it just bleached to platinum, but wasn’t very flattering against my skin and she wanted to “warm it up.” So I asked about that, and she explained she was adding more yellow tones to the blonde.

When I started dyeing my hair red, my initial attempts were with really purplish reds that washed me out badly. Did a ton of research on MakeupAlley and LiveJournal (YouTube wasn’t so big at the time) and determined I needed a warmer red. Found one that has more of a copper tone, and I’ve been using it for almost 10 years now and I get compliments on it all the time, my makeup works with it, etc.

Warm colors are ones I can wear with little fuss, so once I determined that it was easy to have a very basic go-to look using those products. I have the most trouble with cool-toned pinks, reds and purples, and it takes a lot of effort to blend one of those shades into my look.

Foundation-wise, using Urban Decay’s Naked Skin when it first came out was a real help to me in determining my skintone because they shade according to undertone. I swatched a ton, and the one that works best is yellow-undertoned but still considered fair, which I find is a rarity in the foundation world – mine always used to go orange on me when I was younger, so I considered the UD a miracle product.

Nancy T Avatar

Having an art school and art major background certainly has helped me figure it out in this department! It’s all in its base; yellow, gray, etc. And even then, it is ALWAYS how something swatches on me, or most importantly, how it looks once applied. My lips are quite pigmened and have odd purplish-brownish tones in them that can significantly alter a lipstick shade into something I hadn’t expected!

thirteen Avatar

I still can’t figure it out. I think I’m warm toned but the last time I was at Sephora and needed help color matching the SA kept talking about how pink I am, so I’m cool, right? But the cool tones like green and blue look awful on me. I much prefer bronzey colors. And all of the checklist things are impossible to determine. To steal this from Erica below:

You look at your veins. More green, you are warm. – then I’m warm, my veins are green

Warms tend to tan easily. Cools tend to not tan easily and burn. – then I’m cool, I don’t tan at all.

I don’t knowwwwwww

Lea Avatar

You can’t be that literal about it though. I’m cool and fair, but I do tan. It’s not a 100% steadfast rule, it’s a guideline. Green and blue aren’t strictly cool tones; it’s the undertone that matters. All colors have warm and cool versions, including white.

Dianne Avatar

Hi! Like me, you can be pink on the surface (as with my reddish cheeks) but your undertones are still warm. My veins are green and I look much better in warm colors but my Irish skin doesn’t tan easily. My best foundations, etc are neutral leaning warm. What color jewelry is more flattering on you, gold (warm) or silver (cool)?

Eileen Avatar

When I was young, I studied art and so the color theory is something that I am well versed in. Applying the concepts to my individual coloring and then to makeup and clothing was a natural extension of what I learned in art classes.

For someone who doesn’t have that background, side-by-side swatches can be very revealing. It doesn’t take that long to figure out which tones look best with your features.

Lulle makes an excellent and often overlooked point. Many of today’s complex colors actually combine warm and cool tones and can be skewed in either direction depending on what other colors you pair it with. The color of your skin, hair and eyes can also easily affect how makeup colors will be perceived. All the more reason to swatch in person if possible and to consider how you’ll be using the product.

Bonita A Schermerhorn Avatar

Until I married off all my children I didn’t have the money for quality makeup for myself. When I did I went into Ulta and Sephora and they both told me the same (warm with slight yellow undertone). I don’t completely agree with that as all the makeup they matched to me was very yellow and I finally accepted the least yellow but had to mix it with a pinker shade at home. Now I just use Laura Geller and wet my makeup brush and layer based on season and my tan.

LaMaitresse Avatar

High school art class for color theory I think, and I just transposed what I learnt there into make up. Plus I think the first make up artist I first fell in love with was Way Bandy ( I’m 47), and he really was the master of colour.

Maria Avatar

I still don’t know I think I a warm toned but I can’t tell when something is or isn’t unless it is the obvious. Is there a Makeup book for teaching us how to tell cool colors vs. warm colors and especially undertones of colors? Seriously, I would buy it. My coloring is deceptive it use to be olive but if am olive I am a very light olive. When I go into a store I always get a foundation to match but I still don’t know what my complexion is exactly or what undertones I have.

Rachel R. Avatar

Swatching the color works the best, though most I can tell just by looking at them. I’ve always had a great sense of color and color memory. I grew up in an artistic household, took art classes, etc. The undertones were a natural concept for me.

Finding your “season” was huge in the 80s, and there were articles in all the fashion magazines. I determined I could wear any of the seasons, but as a brunette, “winter” fit me best. My senior year of high school I was in a fashion design class, and we got professionally color draped, which confirmed what I thought.

Bonnie Avatar

I did all that Color-Me-Beautiful with the seasons too in the 80s, but have since scrapped it. I believe that you intuitively gravitate towards your best looks. I think, like you, that most people can wear most “seasons” but there may be one that fits best. I just hate being put into a box and told that this is what I need to wear every time. How dreary. And, like you demonstrate, I think most people, with experience, gain the expertise and confidence to know by looking.

Susan Dowman Nevling Avatar

I used to paint and sraw so warm vs cool wss obvious to me even before I had the words for it. As ive gotten older some of my color sense has deteriorated a bit but i think more in terms of depth than anything else. I don’t think it’s noticeable to most.

Genevieve Avatar

In the past I always leaned towards cool colours (in terms of eye shadows) – greys and navy – because these colours worked well with my grey/blue eyes and my work outfits (black and white, navy etc). But now that I am wearing and experimenting with different colours – especially browns, I am leaning towards both cool and warm neutrals. And I really love greens and olive shades too.
I didn’t understand a thing about facial undertones until I started reading this blog and wondered why my foundation was always wrong. I found out that I have pink undertones and not yellow.

Brittany Avatar

I’ve been familiar with color theory at a basic level for many years since I took art classes in middle school and high school. The concept of warm and cool and neutral colors is usually easy for me to see. I remember when I first started getting into wearing makeup, I was SO confused by MAC’s shade system because I’d consider yellow to be warm, so I thought I’d need an NW shade, but it was way too pink because they have yellow as C or NC. Most other brands label their yellow-undertone shades as being “warm”, so that definitely threw me off at first. 😛

Pasheeda Morris Avatar

I learned how to determine colors/undertones in my makeup by looking at the base tone of color I choose for my lips, eyes, and nails. The base color plays an important part of how well the makeup complements my skin tone. For my lips, a cool nude with a warm base works well me than the opposite. Reds are similar except I favor a reddish brown composed of red with brown base tone. The red also has to be a purple-based red. Eyes are the same approach. Cool and toffee browns work the best as well as black. Nails? Since fall is around the corner, I like deep, dark nail polish. Deep cherry reds w/ a black base as well as the deepest black nail polishes are my favorite.

Cheryl Avatar

That has been the hardest thing for me because I’ve got pink and yellow undertones. I have strawberry hair and blue eyes and medium skin with freckles so I have so much going on it hard to tell!

Michelle Avatar

Look at the veins on your wrist in broad daylight. If greenish you are warm toned. If blue to purple than you are cool toned. If you have both blue and green colors there than you are a neutral. Also go to Estee Lauder they are the best with color matching and will let you know. SA’s are sometimes not too bright but the colors never lie.

Angel Avatar

I have NO EYE whatsoever for the subtleties of color and undertones. I know when I get it on my face….i.e. red lipsticks with blue undertones make me look pinched and old, but I don’t it “see” it until it’s on. Taupes and other “neutral” eye colors are also a problem…cool undertones look ashy once they’re on. Since most online sites don’t define the shades with much specificity, I generally don’t order these things before reading a blog like yours, written by someone with a good eye for color, and lots of (well-photographed) swatches and side-by-side comparisons.

Michelle Avatar

Well I remember back in the eighties when I was a teenager (I am dating myself, lol) my mother had a friend who was a rep for Color Me Beautiful. I had strawberry blonde hair because of the Hawaiian Sun. I also was medium tanned with dark brown freckles. So they automatically put me into the Autumn category where they put all darker skinned redheads (Julia Roberts) and did me a huge injustice. I honestly believed them but I did not like the colors at all. My undertones are actually straight up blue and pink not yellow or golden and my hair is actually a cooler medium reddish brown. I am a Snowfrost (cool) Winter. There is nothing neutral or warm about my skin’s undertone. So for years I wore the wrong colors in clothes and on my face. I did not know it but I was muddied by the warmer browns and other yellow and orange based colors. I would even lightened my hair to an apricot color that made me look even more reddish in the face. I did not come into the concept that they were wrong until I went to a Chanel makeup artist who let me in on the fact that I was extremely cool toned and not warm. He used colors on me that I had always thought were untouchable. I looked awesome. My skin was beautiful and my eyes cool green-blue-grey color was alive and vibrant. Black as an eyeliner and mascara actually looked awesome. Wow! I was thirty years old then. To this day some SAs still try to sell me warm tones but that is because my overtones are golden when I get out in the Sun. Others catch my undertones right away. I use neutral tones sometimes for my eyes but mostly as a contrasting color. So I did not learn the difference for years but now I know I look better with my cooler tones. Thank God.

Cheryl Avatar

I was told I was a warm summer once but I look terrible in oranges and yellows and I look horrible in orange lipstick. If one is a warm is one supposed to wear the opposite, like cool makeup or does warm wear warm makeup?

Michelle Avatar

A “warm” Summer would most likely be a neutral to cool complexion. Try pinks with some slight coral. If it looks really nice that would make you a Light Summer (my mother) which leads towards Spring. If dusty pinks and mauves look right that would make you a Soft Summer (my sister) which leans towards Autumn. Oranges are not the best for Summers even “warmer” ones.

We try to approve comments within 24 hours (and reply to them within 72 hours) but can sometimes get behind and appreciate your patience! 🙂 If you have general feedback, product review requests, off-topic questions, or need technical support, please contact us directly. Thank you for your patience!