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Colour Theory for Makeup Artists

Understanding colour theory is essential for makeup artists. It is one of the principal foundations of everything that the makeup artist does. For example, successfully recognising and matching a client’s skin tone needs an understanding of colour. Likewise, corrective makeup, complementing natural colouring, blending in prosthetic pieces and creating realistic casualty effects relies on colour theory knowledge as much as technique. 

There are various colour theory models, but here are the three we come across every day:

  • Red Green Blue (RGB) model – used in electronic systems that transmit light such as computers and televisions.
  • Red Yellow Blue (RYB) model – the colour system traditionally used in art. It has been around for centuries and is the model taught in school.
  • Magenta Cyan Yellow model – a more modern approach to painting and is the model used by printers. These colours mix a bright and clean spectrum.

We are using the RYB model, simply as it’s the one most people are familiar with, and it is easy to use for makeup and hair purposes.

The Colour Wheel

The colour wheel is a simple way to look at the basic relationship between the twelve colours shown on the wheel. It also explains, in simple terms, how to mix colours to create new ones.

Below is the Red-Yellow-Blue colour wheel showing the main twelve colours that are part of the PRIMARY, Secondary and Tertiary (the smallest font) groups.

Primary Colours

  • The primary colours are red, yellow and blue.
  • When two primary colours are mixed, it creates a secondary colour. So, red and yellow make orange. Yellow and blue make green. Blue and red make purple.
  • Using the primary colours, you can mix pretty much any other colour in the spectrum. Hence why knowing your colour theory is so important.
  • When all three primary colours are mixed they make a brown. Therefore, different shades of brown can be made by mixing the primary colours in varying proportions.

Secondary Colours

  • The secondary colours are orange, green and violet.
  • They are made by mixing equal amounts of two primary colours.
  • By mixing different proportions of two primary colours, you will create variations of a secondary colour. For example, if you mix equal amounts of red and yellow, you will create a classic orange colour, as seen on the colour wheel. However, if you mix a little more red colour into a yellow, you will create a darker orange colour.

Tertiary Colours

  • The tertiary colours are vermilion, amber, chartreuse, aquamarine, indigo, and violet-red.
  • They are made by mixing one primary colour equally with one of its adjacent secondary colours. For example, a 50:50 mix of red (primary colour) + orange (secondary colour and situated next to red on the colour wheel) = vermilion.
  • The name for tertiary colours can vary. However, we’ve used familiar names in our colour wheel diagram.

Creating Other Colours

The colour spectrum is a continuous thing – meaning the colours move seamlessly from one into another without any hard borders. Mixing the primary colours in differing proportions allows us to create pretty much any colour we want – except for white or a perfect black.

colour theory for makeup
Colour spectrum.

Creating Browns & Skin Tones

Our skin colour and its undertones are a mix of colours provided by the skin’s pigments, resulting in an overall brown colour. Of course, skin colour varies around the world, from very dark brown to very pale.

We can use primary and secondary colours to create various shades of brown. Firstly, the three primary colours can be mixed to create brown. Similarly, we can also mix two secondary colours to produce the browns seen in skin tones. Some examples:

  • Olive brown = green + violet. It has a blue bias.
  • Russet brown = violet + orange. It has a red bias and is called ruddy or warm.
  • Citrine brown = orange + green. It has a yellow bias and is referred to as sallow or golden.

Colour Combinations

Complementary Colours

  • Each colour has a complementary colour – namely, the one that is opposite it on the colour wheel. For example, blue and orange are opposite each other and, therefore, are complementary to each other.
  • When placed next to each other, complementary colours create a strong and vibrant contrast. For example, blue and orange side by side creates a strong contrast.
  • When mixed in equal proportions, they cancel each other out producing grey. So, to cancel out a blue colour and make it grey, you would mix an equal amount of orange into it.
  • Are used in makeup for colour correction. For example, use a touch of green to neutralise red areas or patches. However, use too much and the result will be too dull and greying. Another example is using an orange-based concealer to neutralise bluish dark circles under the eyes.
  • Are used in hairdressing for colour correction. Just as with makeup, complementary colours are also used to neutralise tones. For example, use a purple shampoo to knock out brassy yellow from blonde hair. Similarly, a blue toner is used to neutralise orange tones.
Some complementary colours from the colour wheel.

Harmonising Colours

  • Colours that share one primary colour are called harmonising colours. For example, blue, indigo and violet are harmonised, as they all share blue as part of their colour. Likewise, green, chartreuse and yellow are harmonised, as they all share yellow.
  • They blend easily into each other as they share a primary colour.
colour theory makeup
Harmonising colours of blue, indigo and violet.

How to Describe Colour

There is more to colour than simply getting the mix right to create the desired shade. How makeup ends up looking on camera is affected by many other factors. To further understand, we will look at some of the properties that every colour has and, a bit further on, how we perceive colour.

Colour can be described using various properties, including hue, brightness and saturation. We also look at tints, shades and tones.


In simple terms, the hue is another word for the term colour. It refers to the dominant wavelength of the colour, as seen on the colour wheel. For example, the hue of royal blue or navy is blue. The hue of emerald or sap green is green. The hue of burgundy is red.


Saturation tells us how colourful a colour looks under certain lighting conditions. It is how intense the colour is perceived by us.

As saturation increases, the colour appears more intense and pure. As saturation decreases, the colour appears more washed-out or pale.

Let’s use a makeup analogy to describe saturation. Take a glamorous makeup look. During the day, the colours will be bright and clearly seen. However, if we look at the same makeup at night, the colours will look greyed-out or faded. The makeup is the same and the colours haven’t changed – it is the saturation that has changed, giving us a different perception of the colours.

To reduce the saturation of a colour, you either add grey or the colour that’s opposite it on the colour wheel. This will grey or wash-out the colour. This principle is used in makeup and hairdressing all the time.

Brightness or Value

Brightness or value refers to the amount of light that is reflected off the colour. In a word, it describes how light or dark the colour is.

For example, banana yellow is brighter than mustard yellow, and pink is brighter than dark red. Therefore, the banana yellow and pink can be said to be higher in value (brighter) than the other colours, which are lower in value (darker).

Colours that are high in value are seen by us before a colour that is lower in value. Our eye is drawn more to brighter colours, which is why we use them to highlight makeup. Likewise, a colour that is lower in value is said to recede, and we use these to create depth and shadow.


A tint is simply a colour plus white. Therefore, it makes the colour lighter.

For example, mixing white into a violet colour makes lilac. Likewise, adding white to blue creates a light blue. Pastel colours like peach, apricot and cream are tints.


A shade is simply a colour plus black. Therefore, it makes the colour darker.

For example, adding black to violet makes a dark purple. Likewise, adding black to blue creates a more navy blue colour.


A tone is simply a colour plus grey. Therefore, it greys out the colour and makes it darker.

Tonality refers to how light or dark a colour is. If you continually added a little grey to a colour, it would create a graduation in tone.

The tone is particularly important in black and white photography, as you see tones rather than colour. For example, light orange and light blue could have the same tonality and, therefore, would look the same on a black and white film.

Starting with the same blue hue, we see how tints, shades and tones affect the colour.

How Colour is Perceived

Visual perception is also known as eyesight, sight or vision. We can interpret information around us from the effects of visible light reaching our eyes.

When looking at an object, the colour we see depends on several factors. This includes the colour of the light around us, the colour of any filters used, and the colour of the object itself.

This is why using coloured gels or filters on cameras and studio lights change the way skin tone, hair colour, costumes and the set can look. Likewise, our perception of a colour is not fixed. It is constantly changing as things like light brightness and colour change in our environment.

Colour Temperature – Warm vs. Cool

The colours on the colour wheel are divided into warm and cool. White, grey and black are considered to be neutral colours.

A colour being classed as warm or cool is important in how we see that colour. Warm colours register more quickly with us – that is, we notice them first and they stand out more. Cool colours meet the eye more slowly and are said to be receding.

This is why certain colours are used as warnings. For example, red is used to bring our attention to something – a dark blue would not have the same effect. It is the same with makeup – warm colours meet our eye first and stand out.

How Colour Affects How Makeup Looks

Various things can impact how hair and makeup will look on film or stage, including:

  • The amount of lighting used – the brightness of the light will affect how the makeup looks.
  • The type of lighting used – a big light will create a different effect compared to a small intense spotlight. Likewise, the type of bulb affects how hard the light can be.
  • The direction of lighting – think about how different the contours of a face look if a light is placed under the person’s face, behind the head, above or to the side. Different shadows, highlights and contours will be created each time.
  • The use of coloured gels on lights and filters on the camera lens. Some filters add warmth, some are cold, some are neutral. Get to know what colours soften features and skin tones, or can add a cold tone. Adding a coloured gel or filter can also change the colour of how the makeup looks, or even make it disappear altogether. For example, a red lipstick may be greyed out under a green light.
  • The colour and reflective value of the costume – consider the colours and material, as in how reflective it is. Some material is shiny or shimmery.
  • The colour and reflective value of sets and props – for example, if someone is chopping limes on a green board, the light may bounce off this and reflect under the person’s face, giving them a slightly green hue.

Carry Out Checks

It is always imperative to look at a makeup through the camera lens, or on the stage, to view the actor in the environment they will be in.

What you did in the makeup room may not be what is seen on camera, or how it is perceived on stage under the lights. You may need to make adjustments to account for the environment.

Minor tweaks are part of the job. Camera tests and dress rehearsals are great for some tweaking time to get things looking just so. Sometimes, however, you don’t get the luxury of tests.

How Colour Theory is Used for Makeup

We use colour theory in makeup to obtain the colours we need and to create effects – in essence, we trick the eye.

A good makeup artist most likely has a naturally good eye for colour – and was most likely born with this ability. But by understanding colour theory, you will be able to do many things with practice.


Contouring takes advantage of how we see colour. We can then use this to alter how we see someone’s face or body shape.

Highlighting uses lighter colours to draw the eye and create the illusion of space or lift. For example, to create a highlight on the cheekbones, we use a lighter colour to create the illusion that the cheekbones have been pushed out.

Conversely, shading is used to create depth or hide a feature. For example, we use a darker colour in the eye socket crease to create depth. We use a darker colour to create definition under the cheekbones. We use a darker colour under the chin to help disguise a double chin.

Colour Correcting

Colour theory helps us to correct unwanted colours on someone’s skin. For example, if someone has a ruddy complexion or red patches that need to be toned down, we can use a green colour over the red areas. As green is opposite red on the colour wheel, we know that it will tone down the red.

Getting the Right Colour

We also use colour theory to get the makeup colours right. For example, to get the right foundation or concealer colour to match someone’s tones.

Likewise, you may not have the right shade of eyeshadow in the palette, but by knowing how to colour mix, you can create your own. Customisation is an important aspect of makeup, allowing you to find the right colour for someone.

Create Effects

Creating special effects and injuries uses colour mixing as well as contouring. For example, to create a broken nose effect, you can use shading and highlighting on the nose to create the illusion of a bent nose. But you don’t use any old shading or highlighting colour – it needs to blend into the person’s skin colour to appear natural.

Rick Baker’s makeup shown in the picture below was done using just cake makeup. We were lucky enough to have witnessed this splendid transformation. All he used was a couple of products from MAC, a brush or two and his fingers!

Look at the contours, depth and altered facial dimensions achieved purely by using basic colour theory. Oh, and amazing artist ability may have helped!

Rick Baker and his amazing makeup with depth, highlights and changed features, all done with six regular pancake makeup colours.

Makeup for Black & White Mediums

Makeup for black and white photography is different from working in colour formats. You have to understand how a colour will look in black and white. This is where tone and value come in. In a word, when looking at a black and white image in print or on-screen, you have seen the tonality of the colours rather than the colours themselves.

Take a cheek colour for example. In black and white, a red blusher would look darker than the foundation. Therefore, you wouldn’t apply it to the apple of the cheek as normal, as this would create a darker patch. You would apply blush under the cheek to create a shadow and definition.

Ultimately, makeup for black and white can be done using any colours, so long as you understand the tonality of the colours you are using. Once you know how it will look in the final black and white image, it will work just fine.

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12 thoughts on “Colour Theory for Makeup Artists”

  1. Really nice. Wants to read something more about lights, which and what kind of lights uses. How i ll get notification of your next articles.

  2. Such a nice summarized overview of make-up color theory! Would love it if you could do another post, talking especifically about blush and eyeshadow color theory. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Ana. We have so much we want to post about and will add your suggestion to our list of things to do ?

  3. Thanks for such a wonderful knowledge regarding colour theory in every aspect of makeup..Definitely it is going to help me a lot in establishing myself as a successful makeup artist

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