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Colour Theory for Makeup Artists

Here is our guide to colour theory for makeup artists. Colour theory is one of the principal foundations of everything that the makeup artist does. For example, successfully recognising and matching a client’s skin tone and underlying tones needs an understanding of colour. Likewise, good corrective and camouflage makeup, enhancing or complementing natural colouring, blending in prosthetic pieces and creating realistic casualty effects also relies on colour 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 often taught in school. (However, more recent experimentation has shown that the true primary colours are magenta, yellow and cyan.)
  • 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

Knowing how to achieve a particular colour and understanding what colours cancel each other out are essential in makeup and hairdressing. 

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 twelve colours that are divided into the PRIMARYSecondary and Tertiary (the smallest font) groups.

The twelve colours of the Red-Yellow-Blue colour wheel.

Primary Colours

  • Red, yellow and blue are the primary colours.
  • 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 important.
  • When all three primary colours are mixed together, they make a brown. Different brown colours are made by mixing the primary colours in different proportions.

Secondary Colours

  • Orange, green and violet are the secondary colours on the colour wheel. 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

  • Vermilion, amber, chartreuse, aquamarine, indigo, and violet-red are tertiary colours.
  • 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 next to red) = vermilion.
  • The description 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 – colours move seamlessly from one into another without any hard borders. Mixing the primary colours in differing proportions allows us to create any colour we want, except black or white.

colour theory for makeup
Colour spectrum.

Creating Browns & Skin Tones

Browns are made by either mixing all three primary colours together, or by mixing two or three secondary colours in various proportions.

Our skin colour and the underlying tones are a mix of colours provided by the skin’s pigments, resulting in an overall brown colour, from pale to dark. As well as using the three primary colours to create brown, we can also mix two secondary colours to produce the browns seen in skin tones:

  • 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 and this is the colour 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 create 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, red areas on the skin can be “calmed down” with a touch of green to neutralise the red. 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, purple shampoo can be used 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.
  • As they share a primary colour, they blend easily into each other.
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 and getting the desired shade. How a 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, hue is another word for the term colour. It generally refers to the dominant wavelength of the colour, as seen on the colour wheel. For example, the hue of 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. 

For example, take any makeup look. When viewed in daylight, it will look different from when it is viewed at night. During the day, the colours will be brighter, yet at night the colours will look greyed out or faded. The makeup is exactly the same, the colours haven’t actually changed. However, the saturation has changed, giving us a different perception of the colours.

The more a colour is saturated, the more vivid the hue. To reduce the saturation of a colour, you either add grey, or the colour on the opposite side of the colour wheel. This will “grey out” or “wash out” the colour. A greyed out colour could be said to be desaturated.

Brightness or Value

Brightness or value basically 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 a mustard yellow, and pink is brighter than dark red. Therefore, the 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 a 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. 

Tone is particularly important in black and white photography, as you see tones rather than colour. For example, a light orange and a light blue could have the same tonality and, therefore, would look the same on 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. It is our ability to interpret information around us from the effects of visible light reaching our eyes. 

When looking at an object, the colour we actually 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 that reflects the light.

This is why using coloured gels or filters on cameras and studio lights changes 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 the light source brightness and colour change in our environment.

Colour Temperature - Warm vs. Cool

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

A colour being 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

For the media makeup artist, there are various things that can impact on how hair and makeup will look on film or stage, including:

  • The amount of lighting used – the brightness of the light will affect how makeup looks. 
  • The type of lighting used – a big light will create a different effect to a small intense spotlight, and the type of bulbs in the light affects how hard the light can be.
  • The direction of lighting – think about how different a face and its contours look if a light is under the person’s face, behind the head, above or to the side. Different shadows, highlights and contours will be created.
  • 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 add a cold tone. Also, adding a coloured gel or filter can totally change the colour of how the makeup looks or make it “disappear” all together. So a red lipstick, may be greyed out under a green light.
  • The colour and reflective value of the costume – consider the costume material colours and what it is made of, as in how reflective it is.
  • 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.

It is always imperative to look at a makeup through the lens of the camera or on the stage to view the actor in the environment they will actually 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 tweak time to get things looking just so. Sometimes, however, you don’t get the luxury of tests so the more you understand colour and all the factors involved, along with general experience, the better.

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 probably has a naturally “good eye for colour” (and was simply born with this ability), but by really knowing your colour theory, you will be able to do many things.


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 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. To create definition under the cheekbones, we use a darker colour to create a shadow. We use a darker colour under the chin to help disguise a double chin.

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, we may not have the right shade of eyeshadow in the palette, but by knowing how to colour mix, we can create our own. Customisation is an important aspect of makeup – not everything in our kit will suit everyone.

Create Effects

Creating special effects and injuries uses colour mixing as well as contouring. For example, to create a simple 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 is 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 to working in colour formats. You have to understand how a colour will look in black and white. This is where tone and value comes in. In a word, when looking at a black and white image in print or on screen, you seen the tonality of the colours rather than the colours itself. 

Take 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 to define.

Ultimately, a 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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8 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!

  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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