How I Understand Colors & Undertones in Makeup (Part 2)

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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)

Here’s part two explaining how I look at, classify, and understand color, which reflects how I describe products in reviews and how they’re classified in the Swatch Gallery (which is truly a work-in-progress as I refine and get a better understanding of depth, undertone, and how relative that is within each color categorization!). You’ll want to make sure to at least read through part one for a primer on color theory.

Green | Cooler

Cooler-toned greens will lean blue, they might sometimes like more like teal if you tend to see teal as an equal mix of blue and green. “Emerald green” is often a cooler-toned green, but I find it translates into cooler and more neutral-to-warm shades in makeup. Lighter, cooler greens can look like “mint green,” which I’d classify under “cool aqua.”


Green | Neutral

Neutral-toned greens are balanced between blue and yellow undertones, though some will use the term “neutral” to really mean muted or “dirty” – these would be more olive greens, but they tend to contain more yellow/brown undertones (making them more warm than balanced between cool and warm).


Green | Warmer

Warmer-toned greens have stronger, more noticeable yellow or golden undertones. They can get so yellow that they get into chartreuse territory, which is a true yellow-green mix. The lighter, brighter, and yellower-leaning, the more likely it is to be more of a “cool” yellow than classified as a green. With more shimmer to them and some depth, very yellow-toned greens start looking like “cooler” golds.

Teal | Cooler

Teal is created when you mix blue and green together, and teal tends to represent more of a mid-tone to deep amount of darkness (lighter teals are often classified as “aqua”). Cooler-toned teals are ones dominated by blue rather than green. They might sometimes read as “warm” blues rather than true (very blue through and through) or very cool-toned blues (that lean purple).


Teal | Balanced

Balanced teals are neither blue-leaning nor green-leaning and seem to strike that perfect, 50/50 mix of undertones. Most teals are cooler-toned than they are balanced or warm-toned. Sometimes this area is better classified as “warmer” blue. In makeup, more balanced teals are often the result of a cooler base color and warmer shimmer.


Teal | Warmer

Warmer teals are a mix of blue-and-green that seem to have a higher amount of green than blue. They are often “too blue” to be classified as “cool-toned” green.

Aqua | Cooler

Aqua is a mix of blue and green, whichi often overlaps with what you might think of as “mint green.” Cooler-toned aquas will lean bluer and less green.


Aqua | Neutral

More balanced aqua hues will have a more equal mix of blue and green tones with less of an obvious slant toward one undertone.


Aqua | Warmer

Warmer aqua shades lean greener, and these are often described as “mint green.” They’re very light, more pastel (or white-based) greens that have less warmth to them than true green shades have.

Blue | Cooler

Cooler-toned blues are ones that start leaning purple, and they might be described as “periwinkle” or “cobalt.”


Blue | Balanced

True blues are ones that look dead-on blue, so they don’t lean purple nor do they look like teal (mix of blue and green) — but these are still cool-toned as blue itself is a very cool-toned color.


Blue | Warmer

Since blue is really a cool-toned color, there are only a few “warmer” varieties, and in makeup, this is typically the result of a cooler base color paired with warmer shimmer, which gives it a “warmer” appearance overall. “Warmer” blues tend to be better described as blue-based teals (as warmth is introduced by mixing with green into blue).

Berry | Cooler

Berry is like plum’s cooler-toned sister. Berries are cooler-toned most of the time when referenced, and I think the way to think of “berry” is to think “raspberry” rather than “strawberry” or “blueberry.” I also think that “grape” as apt here. Cooler-toned berry hues lean purple, whereas warmer berries will tend to lean redder, and this space can overlap with warmer purples, too.


Berry | Balanced

Berry shades balanced between purple and red still tend to be dominated by red but lack some of that brightness that cooler-toned berry shades do. A lot of raspberry-hued colors are more balanced than strongly purple.


Berry | Warmer

The more “strawberry” it starts looking–which means there’s more and more red to it–the warmer it is. I generally don’t find that a lot of cosmetics fit into “warm” berry and tend to better correspond to other color classifications (pink, coral, plum).

Plum | Cooler

Plum is a mix of red and purple, which means that cooler plums lean purpler, but they are not strongly cool-toned–really “cool-toned” plums are often described as berries or purples.


Plum | Balanced

These are more “true plum” so they tend to lean slightly redder but not approaching orange or brown in warmth.


Plum | Warmer

Warmer plums get redder, more orange, or browner. A very warm plum can look almost like a red-based brown, which may appear too red to be brown but not red enough to be a red.

Purple | Cooler

Purple is a secondary color created when you mix red and blue together, and so the more blue that is in the mix, the cooler-toned the purple appears. This is why you’ll sometimes see people use the term “blurple.” With a lot of blue, it may also appear as a “cooler blue.”


Purple | Balanced

“True” purples are balanced between red and blue undertones and are often still slightly warmer than they are cooler-toned in cosmetics.


Purple | Warmer

Warmer purples are ones that have stronger red undertones to them, and I also read this as appearing pinker.

Lavender | Cooler

Lavender is a lighter, pastel take on purple, so cooler-toned lavenders are bluer.


Lavender | Balanced

More balanced lavenders are a mix of blue and red, but in makeup, this presents mostly as slightly warmer vs. very warm (or dominated by pink/red).


Lavender | Warmer

Warmer lavenders are dominated by red (and to some degree, pink, when they are lighter); they can sometimes look like cooler-toned pinks. When they get deep enough, they can start appearing more like true fuchsias.

Brown | Cooler

Brown is created when you mix complementary colors together, e.g. blue and orange, red and green, or purple and yellow. This is why classifying brown is difficult, but it is helpful to think of cooler-toned browns as appearing bluer, purpler, or redder. When one undertone has enough brightness, it may end up being easier to think of it as another shade.


Brown | Neutral

Browns that seem to lean neither cool-toned nor warm-toned are neutral, and I think a lot of them get classified more as a taupe than a true brown. This meeting of cool/warm tends to look like a muted red or a sallow green.


Brown | Warmer

Warmer browns tend to look more red, orange, or yellow. I’ve tried to classify very red- or orange-toned shades that are more mid-tone as coppers in the last few years to help clean up the spectrum of brown to reflected slightly more de-saturated undertones.

Taupe | Cooler

Taupe is officially defined as a “brownish gray” per Merriam-Webster. When it leans cooler-toned, it tends to be more like a plummy gray to plummy brown — there’s a purplish influence to the undertone.


Taupe | Balanced

True taupes tend to lean slightly warmer (browner) than gray or purple.


Taupe | Warmer

Warmer-toned taupes are more muted variations on “brown” that can lean a little gray, silvery, or golden (when they get very warm-toned).

Mauve | Cooler

Mauve is a mix of red and purple, but it is primarily marked by a dusty, de-saturated quality, especially in makeup. Sometimes the easiest way for me to think of mauve is that it encompasses colors that are too warm/red to be listed as lavender and too brown to be listed as pink. Cooler mauves will lean purpler, sometimes appearing a bit brighter or more saturated than its warmer friends.


Mauve | Balanced

More mauves appear balanced between red and purple, though they still seem to lean more “warm” to my eye, so they tend to be “less warm” or “less brown” relative to very warm-toned mauves.


Mauve | Warmer

Warmer mauves tend to pull redder, which often translates into a pink, rose, and brown melange in beauty.

Pewter | Cooler

Pewter is a metal alloy that uses mostly tin with smaller amounts of other metals, like copper, lead, or antimony. If you google “pewter,” you’ll find it ranges from a darker, warmer gray to a silvery-gold. Because of its metallic background, in cosmetics, pewter often reflects lighter, brighter warmer grays to darker, cooler golds. Cooler pewters tend to lean bluish-green to gray.


Pewter | Balanced

More balanced pewter shades tend to look like warmer grays with a hint of beige/gold.


Pewter | Warmer

Warmer pewters might be though of as “tarnished,” and they can have a “cooler gold” leaning, so they have a yellow to yellow-green leaning to them.

White | Cooler

Cooler-toned white hues can look “icy,” almost bluish, and they tend to be quite bright.


White | Balanced

More balanced white shades will look less bluish and may lean almost grayish at times, but they don’t look warm; they won’t lean ivory or beige or yellow. Most white shades in makeup lean cooler-toned or warmer-toned with less in the narrow space between the two.


White | Warmer

Warmer whites have a touch of beige or yellow to them, they can look almost “golden” but they still remain quite light (and sometimes bright). Once they darken a bit, they tend to enter beige or white gold territory.

Silver | Cooler

Cooler silvers are a lot like cooler grays, just with a lot more shimmer, in my experience, which means they look icier, bluer, and often have some brightness to them.


Silver | Balanced

True silver sits in the middle as a more balanced undertone–doesn’t visibly lean blue or cool-toned and doesn’t have any champagne, beige, or gold cast to it (which can make it appear more pewter or taupe).


Silver | Warmer

Warmer silvers tend to be slightly darker , not quite as bright, and have a touch of beige visible in the undertone. I tend to classify these more on the spectrum of pewter or taupe rather than silver as silver is a more defined color (compared to other colors!).

Gray | Cooler

Cooler grays have stronger, bluer undertones, they’ll look almost like a very faded or dusty blue–super de-saturated and washed out as far as a “blue” goes.


Gray | Neutral

More neutral-toned grays are balanced between cooler, bluer undertones and warmer, beige undertones. I’ve found that most shades I’d classify as gray tend to be cooler or warmer and very rarely truly neutral.


Gray | Warmer

Warmer grays can look brownish or greenish, depending on the depth and finish.

Black | Cooler

Cooler-toned blacks tend to be almost bluish or purplish, and there aren’t that many as most fall into a more balanced space. They may often get categorized as darker grays, deep, cool-toned browns (or taupes), or blackened navy blue.


Black | Neutral

True black doesn’t is balanced between warmer (browner) and cooler (bluer) undertones.


Black | Warmer

Much like cooler-toned blacks, warmer-toned blacks are often better described and classified under the darkest depth of other shades, e.g. darkest brown. Warmer blacks will appear slightly tinged with brownish warmth (but you might classify them as a cooler brown!).

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I love this…it’s very helpful. :o) I always pay attention to the warmer/neutral/cooler comments you make. Because I’m so cool-toned, I have discovered I can pull off the colors you describe as cool, neutral, or those that have subtle warmth.

This ⬆️ proves I’m not loco! There really are cool, neutral and cool tones of ever single color. Learned that through art school as a kid, worked very well for me when I worked with a painting contractor in my 20’s and was able to apply that knowledge when I got to work as an MUA for a bit. It’s invaluable when picking out the correct tones in clothing and cosmetics for one’s individual coloring, be it cool, neutral or warm. Comes in very handy for home/interior decorating, too!

Again, really helpful Christine. I have to say that I find myself hovering between warmer and cooler and inbetween, depending on the colours. For teal, I do prefer darker kind of shades – like the one in Dior’s Bonne Etoile and Jardin. And I love a good navy as well, though I may prefer an inbetween shade of that. There aren’t many really good navy shades around.
I think that by doing this kind of analysis you can see which colour shades are well developed by brands (in that they offer a lot of options) and shades that are lacking in variety (cool toned shades).
Thank you once again.

Excellent! I studied a ton of color theory in school but materials lacked the detailed color we have now. It’s funny how strongly I react positively or negatively to different colors and what a change I feel with a cooler or warmer tone of a color.
I remember going to a paint store for our first house and picking up a pamplet of “whites”. I was truly amazed and enraptured. We painted our living room and dining room one warmer white for the walls and a fairly neutral white for the woodwork. Although the difference was small in the swatches, it was quietly dramatic in the rooms. I love colors.

We had to repaint our house last year, and we also painted our block wall this year, and choosing paint is a real ride – and it matters WHERE! and how much light that area will get (or not). It’s funny how you have to pick your battle of when and how you want it to look “the best,” LOL!

This is interesting! My background is in visual arts, and the colour theory I read for that tends to classify warm/cool blues the opposite way — the more red/purple-toned they are, the warmer, and the more green-toned they are, the cooler. With the makeup-based visualisation of warm/cool as yellow/red tones, it makes sense to align them the other way, but it does remind me that the language used to describe colour is often as much of a source of confusion as clarity. Heh!

Looking at these and reading the descriptions has given me a better handle on what I really like. Seeing it all laid out like that it’s easy to say things like “those are the purples I love, not those.”

This effort is truly appreciated, Christine. I am not discussing it in great detail here, but please know these posts are swirling around in my mind as I digest it bit by bit. I am slow that way.

As a person for which English is a third language (the first foreign language learned in school was French) and who’s primarily focus in English is technical language, these two articles have been a lesson in how to express and name colors in English. I feel like a kid in drawing class. 🙂 I didn’t even knew words like pewter, thanks for educating me in yesterday another way Christine!

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