How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)

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How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
When divided in half, you can see the warmer vs. cooler undertones of the color wheel.
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
Here's a desaturated version of the color wheel--colors that described as muted, faded, dusty.
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
Here's a darkened version of the color wheel, which starts to show the depths of colors and where they fall.
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)
How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 1)

Describing colors and undertones is a challenge. It’s something that I’ve been working on for almost 15 years, especially because no matter how well I might calibrate my colors on my end… I can’t control how they’re viewed on a plethora of devices, screens, and lighting conditions. (Seriously, just tilt your screen slightly and see how colors adjust; then what happens if you turn your brightness down or, if you have an iPhone like me, turning on and off “true tone” — this is why I actually try to get a “happy medium” between multiple screens/devices I have.)

It has helped me to think of each color as a spectrum that ranges from light to dark, cooler to warmer, which means that even though a color might be a warm color, there are “cooler” versions and “warmer” versions as well as “balanced” versions. It’s also useful to know that there are multiple ways to describe colors sometimes, so you might say “that’s a deep peach” and someone else might say “that’s a muted coral.” Go google “coral” or “peach” or any non-primary color and see the gamut these colors run. You might try typing in random colors into Pantone’s Color Finder (which is a system used by a lot of industries).

I think of warmth and coolness as relative rather than absolute in most instances; red is a warmer color per color theory, but there are cooler-toned reds and warmer-toned reds along with reds in the middle (often referred to as true or neutral). This is true across primary, secondary, and tertiary colors… and all of the in-between colors we’ve come to use.

There are a lot of external resources if you want to understand color theory, but here’s a summary: the color wheel starts with three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. When you mix two of these shades together, you create three secondary colors: orange (red and yellow), green (yellow and blue), and purple (blue and red). Then there are six tertiary colors, which are created when you mix primary and secondary colors together (like yellow-green or blue-purple). The color wheel defines warm colors as reds, oranges, and yellows with cooler colors as blues, greens, and purples.

Colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel are considered “complementary” (like orange and blue), whereas colors that are beside each other (yellow, green, blue) are considered analogous. With respect to makeup, colors that are analogous are usually easier to blend together, where as complementary colors can muddy more readily.



Warmer-toned corals tend to look more orange with just a hint of pink or red, and they are often more vivid/brighter compared to peach as a color. The more orange a coral shade leans, the closer it leans to a cooler-toned (red-based) orange.

Head on over to part two, which will cover green, teal, aqua, blue, berry, plum, purple, lavender, brown, taupe, mauve, pewter, white, silver, gray, and black.

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23 Comments

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Very well put together index and explanations for those who perhaps do not have an art background of some sort. Thankfully, I do….but sometimes it makes me feel like an idiot when I’m trying to explain to an SA that a shade is a “cool yellow”, “warm-toned blue” or a “colder pink (or purple)” and they look at me as if I have three heads! I’m dead serious, not everyone gets it even after I try to explain it to them. Here’s hoping that many more ccosmetics SA’s will see and read this series of articles that you’re writing.

It can be really hard to learn the language of color! I still feel like I have to train my brain to think of certain relationships as warmer/cooler!

This is going to be so helpful going forward when we can get back to the stores but maybe not be able to swatch.

Wow this is very informative and helpful!!! I’ll definitely save it and read it again and again in the future! So fascinated by colors in makeup. I think I first knew from “cool-toned red makes your teeth look whiter” quote. As I went on purchasing and experiencing more in makeup, I’ve come to realize what color works and WHY it works on me. The process of finding out is interesting enough for me.

This is fantastic! There is no industry standard and there are subsets of people on certain bandwagons who disparage others as not knowing colour. This is an easily accessible primer with excellent comparative swatches.

It doesn’t help that a lot of colors are like peach… the inside of peach? the skin? what variety of peach? Same for rose… do you know how many types of roses there are?! They come in tons of different colors!

Christine, it’s obvious that you’ve put a lot of thought and time into this series of teaching articles and I’m really appreciative. I’ve never known much about color theory in the past. I know what colors I like and which I believe look good on my complexion. Now I’m learning why that’s so. Would you consider creating a “folder” to house all of your recent articles to make referencing quicker? Thank you for all that you do to enlighten us.

Once again Christine, you have provided an indepth information that provides an analysis of the colour wheel and how it can inform our choices in makeup. I really appreciate the clear examples you have chosen re lipsticks, blushes and eyeshadows to show us what the differing undertones can look like.
I find that I am a bit of a hybrid – I use the cool toned foundations and blushes – coral tones. I realise that using the moniker of peachy/coral isn’t really accurate as the peach aspect can make the blush too yellowy/orange for me.
However I am drawn to warm toned eyeshadows and lipsticks.
This article helps us to re-examine our stashes and helps to guide us as to why we don’t use certain products we have. Much like clothes – I think all of us have a top or a dress that we don’t wear because of the colour and we don’t know why.

I like your point on clothes and color theory. I also always noticed that some eyeshadows and tops simply make me look sick and tired, and I avoided them. Color theory helps a lot in some sense. I’m warm toned, with yellow undertones, but I burn easily like a cool fair complexion (aka I don’t have olive in my undertones); yellow and red based eyeshadows simply don’t look good on me; I always get compliments when I wear a cool toned red or blue top; but I look good in a warm cream or brown; when I see myself in a white or slightly yellow green I just want to go and change my clothes. 😆

I think I’ve left all my comments on part 2. This has been a fabulous series. I am also further confused as to why I love some colors and hate others for makeup purposes. It is unrelated to cool vs warm or true.
Interesting.

This is an amazing guide! Thanks for putting it together! It is so satisfying to look at this rainbow of swatches. -]

Very useful post! Excellent (titanic) work! There’s a way to save this post in a sort o favourite-post-list to find it easily each time? I’ve tried to navigate through the menu voice, but I haven’t found the way yet?

You can bookmark the page to your favorites on your device, but there isn’t a way to save the post to your profile!

Regarding how colors and undertones look on different screens, I always check swatches on my home laptop, on my work laptop and on my phone… and still things surprise me in store. 😆 That’s why sometimes reviews and multiple people describing the color helps. Because further the screen settings, colors look differently on different skin tones. I’m lucky enough to be one shade lighter than Christine, and I have learned what to expect in terms of colors and undertones from her swatches. ?

This is an extremely helpful guide for me! I’m going to refer to this post frequently. Thanks so much Christine!

Great for me on the lipstick as I have the hardest of times coordinating with my eyes. Sometimes now I do the lipstick first then the eyes just to get it right.

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