Color Theory in the World of Makeup

Every day you are surrounded by a world of color.  Since infancy, it has influenced your thoughts, actions, emotions and reactions. Color can say “stop,” it can say “go,” it can say “slow down.” It can be bright or dull, cold or romantic, eye-catching or mind-numbing—and it has many names and forms. According to Joy Turner Luke, artist and art lecturer, “Even though color seems intuitive and simple, it is not. It involves some of the most complicated things on Earth—light and the human eye and brain.”1
        “Working successfully with color requires both emotion and knowledge,” says Luke.1 And though one aspect is not necessarily more significant than the other, having a more extensive knowledge of color and how it works allows for better appreciation of the complexity and importance of the color you work with every day.

Elements of a theory
        When first learning about color theory, there are several elements to understand before getting into the aspect of makeup. First, there is the element of pigment; second, the three dimensions of a color; third, color harmonies; and fourth, color reflectiveness. Understanding all these elements is important, as they come into play in makeup color trends.

        Pigment. All forms of makeup, be they water-based, oil in water, wax-based, cream, stick, cake or mineral, fall under the first element of color: the theory of color in pigment, which is what gives color its color. No matter what the pigment’s source, natural, chemical or mineral, the same color theory holds true.

        The three dimensions. The second element of color theory to understand involves the three dimensions of a color.2 These dimensions help to more accurately describe color and include:

Hue—The name of the color, such as red, orange, yellow or green.
Chroma/intensity—The brightness or dullness of a color, or the measure of a color’s strength or purity; its saturation.
Value—How light or how dark a color is, corresponding with its position on a scale that runs from black to white with all shades of gray
in between. All colors have a gray value, as if seeing the same makeup or picture on a black and white television. The value of a color gives depth and dimension to what you see. It provides contrast, light against dark. In makeup, colors must be selected carefully so they don’t all have the same gray value, as that would result in the client’s face being uninteresting, washed out and lacking in definition and nonverbal communication.
       Hue, chroma and value can all be measured separately and must be taken into account when designing a makeup or mixing product. When each of these dimensions is recognizable, it is easier to distinguish the relationships between colors.

       Color harmonies. Color harmonies are the next important element in understanding color theory. The word harmony refers to a collection of parts that are aesthetically pleasing to the senses of sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. In the world of color, color harmonies are a collection of colors that are pleasing to the eye and emotions. Color harmonies can inspire many emotions and be placid or exciting, cool and refreshing, warm and exhilarating, tantalizing and sensual.
       There are five basic color harmonies used: analogous, complementary, monochromatic, achromatic and triadic. The following color harmonies are a guideline for selecting makeup colors for eye shadow, blusher and lip color.

Analogous—any hue on the color wheel with two colors to the left or two colors to the right of the hue; generally used for daytime and business looks
Monochromatic—variations in value and intensity of a single color; for a chic or elegant look
Complementary—colors opposite each other on the color wheel; often used for a sexy or sensuous look
Triadic—any three hues of an equidistant triangle on the color wheel; used for a fun look, with multiple colors in the wardrobe
Achromatic—a colorless scheme of black, white and gray, which could also refer to any neutral color going from its lightest value to its darkest value; for an elegant or a sophisticated look

        Color reflectiveness. The final element of color theory is color reflectiveness. There are six common types of reflectiveness to be aware of:

Matte—no shine, can be opaque or translucent
Shiny—a gloss look
Metallic—highly reflective, bright, not see-through
Opaque—not see-through
Translucent—lightly fogged, barely see-through
Transparent—see-through, such as glass

The color theory
        When designing a makeup, color selections for decorative makeup—eye shadow, blusher, lipstick—should be based on a color harmony that relates to women’s clothing or wardrobe.
       This method is often contradictory to the methods and systems taught in cosmetology and esthetic schools. Their system is about coordinating the decorative colors with the client’s hair color, eye color and the supposed undertones of her skin color. That method evolved from an era when there were only blue, green, lavender and brown eye shadows, and the lipsticks were blue/red, yellow/red or
the orange-y Tangee,* lipstick worn in the ’40s that changed its color to match a woman’s particular skin type.
        The general clothing colors, designed primarily for the Western Caucasian community, were generally conservative and bland when makeup became available to consumers in the late ’20s, and on through the ’30s, ’40s and into the ’50s. Today, however, there is a great cross section of exciting, fashionable colors in both wardrobe and makeup.  
       Living in only the world of Western culture is a thing of the past; the world has gotten smaller through modern electronic devices, fashion, motion pictures, music videos, television and transportation methods. The word beautiful means something different to every culture, ethnicity and society and varies from region to region and continent to continent. The one underlying psychological element evident throughout time and in every culture is that beautiful really means to be more alluring to the opposite sex—to be attractive—for being attractive makes sure the species will continue.
        Today’s eye shadows, blushers and lip colors come in a rainbow of colors that are pearlized, opalescent, metallicized, shimmery, glittery, matte, shiny, opaque, translucent, sheer and glossy. Try to visualize a young female client who has pearlized skin, opalescent hair, glossy eye color or transparent lips. It would be very difficult to select products to design her makeup.
       The second part of the decorative color approach of having one color scheme on the face and a different one in the wardrobe is contradictory to proper and fashionable taste and aesthetic color harmony. Women’s clothing fashions, no matter what economic level, culture or ethnicity, are color-correlated and -coordinated—just check the pages of Cosmopolitan, Vibe, Allure, W and Town and
          Every spring/summer and fall/winter, makeup companies exhibit their new lines of products and colors in eye shadows, blushers, lipsticks, and pearlized dusts and sparkles. Those who are truly interested in being world-class makeup artists and want to be in touch with all cosmetic product colors and trends will not only check out standard fashion magazines, but also the Asian, Hispanic and black communities’ fashion magazines, as well as read up on the subject of color. (See Recommended Reading.) To be up-to-date, coordinate makeup colors with the current fashion trends.
       Color trends for the numerous fashion and makeup colors are evaluated and proposed two years in advance by various color forecasting boards, one of which is The Color Association of the United States (CAUS). These committees choose a palette of hues for the seasons ahead. A major concern for The Color Association is to distinguish between colors about to be uncovered and those already reaching consumer acceptance. Makeup artists must keep in mind that while a few colors may consistently be in demand, consumer color preference is always changing. Selections may also depend on markets and class of trade, as well as on status, income and subjective taste.
       Each new season’s color trends involves a harmonious palette ranging from diverse natural landscapes to emphatically dark, sophisticated hues and is dependent on the ever-changing acceptance of the consumer.
From theory to reality
       Knowing how color works in the mind, as well as on the face and body, is one of the key aspects of understanding how makeup works as well. Color can inspire emotions and memories, send signals and convey information—it can be quite a powerful force. Learning about the elements of color theory, as well as the theory itself, helps you harness this power and direct it in the best way possible. 

1. JT Luke, The Munsell Color System: A Language for Color, Fairchild Publications, New York (1996)
2. AH Munsell, A Color Notation: Introduction by
RB Farnum, Munsell Color Company, New Windsor, NY (1905, 1946, 1971)

Recommended Reading
For a more comprehensive look at the world of color, its principles, psychology and the human response, the following texts are recommended.

The artist’s color wheel, available for purchase at any art store
The Color Compendium by Augustine Hope and Margaret Walch, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold
Color & Human Response by Faber Birren, published by John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
Color Power by Carlton Wagner, published by Color Communications Inc.
Color Psychology and Color Therapy by Faber Birren, published by McGraw-Hill
Color Response Report by Carlton Wagner, published by Color Communications Inc.
The New Munsell Student Color Set by Jim Long and Joy Turner Luke, published by Fairchild Books and Visuals
Principles of Color by Faber Birren, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold
Women’s Color Forecast from The Color Association of the United States

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