The Art of Colour – Colour Theory for Makeup Artists

The colour wheel

Colour theory is one of the principal foundations of everything that the makeup artist does. Successfully recognising and matching a client’s skin tone and underlying tones, good corrective and camouflage makeup, enhancing or complementing natural colouring, blending in prosthetic pieces and creating realistic casualty effects – it all relies on colour as much as technique. Here’s our guide to colour theory for makeup artists.

Colour Theory

There are several colour theory models, from the super scientific ones we’ve no idea what the heck they’re talking about, to the two we come across every day:

  • Red Green Blue (RGB) model, as used in electronic systems that transmit light such as computers and televisions;
  • Red Yellow Blue (RYB) model, the colour system traditionally used in art – and it’s the RYB model and colour theory we are looking at here. The RYB model has been around for centuries; however, more recent experimentation has shown that the true primary colours are magenta, yellow and cyan (as used by printers).

The Colour Wheel and Mixing Colours

The colour wheel showing PRIMARY, secondary (in bold) and tertiary (smallest font) colours

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 fundamental principal of mixing colours.

  • Primary colours (red, yellow, blue) are the three colours from which other colours can be mixed. When all three are mixed equally, they produce a dark grey. When mixed in varying proportions, they make different browns.
  • Secondary colours (orange, green, violet) are made by mixing equal amounts of two primary colours. So, a 50:50 mix of yellow and blue makes green.
  • Tertiary colours (vermillion, amber, chartreuse, aquamarine, indigo, violet red) are made by mixing one primary colour with one adjacent secondary colour. Unlike primary and secondary colours whose names are established, the description for tertiary colours can vary, but we’ve used typical names in our colour diagram.
  • Quaternary colours are made by mixing any two of the secondary colours together, resulting in a brown colour. We can see how these colours relate to our skin colour and the underlying tones: an olive brown (green + purple) has a blue bias; russet brown (purple + orange) has a red bias and is called ruddy or warm; citrine brown (orange + green) has a yellow bias and is referred to as sallow or golden.
  • Earthy or neutral tones, such as browns and greys, are made by mixing all the primary colours in various proportions. You can also mix any two secondary colours (which makes a quaternary colour, as explained above) to create a brown.
  • Complementary colour: Each colour has a complementary colour and this is the opposite colour to it on the colour wheel (e.g. blue and orange). When placed next to each other they create a strong contrast. When mixed in equal proportions, they cancel each other out producing a grey tone. Used in makeup for colour correction e.g. red areas on the skin can be “calmed down” with a touch of green (though use too much and the result will be too dull and greying). In hairdressing, it is used to neutralise tones e.g. purple shampoo can be used to knock out brassy yellow from blonde hair, or a blue toner to neutralise orange tones.
  • Harmonising colours: Colours that share a pigment, such as blue and green (made from blue and yellow), are called harmonising colours and blend easily into each other.

Mixing colours in differing proportions allows us to create any colour we want, except black or white. By understanding how colours mix or work together, we can match any foundation to any skin tone, conceal correctly and achieve the desired finished result.

But wait! There’s more to colours than simply getting the mix right. How a makeup ends up looking on camera is affected by many other factors. To further understand, we look at some of the properties that every colour has and, in a bit, how colour is perceived.

Describing Colour

Colour can be described using various properties including hue, shade, tint, tone, brightness and saturation.

Colour theory for makeup showing tints, shades and tones

Describing Colour: starting with the same blue hue, the chart shows how tints (top), shades (middle) and tones (bottom) graduate and differ

  • Hue is the pure basic colour group, as seen on the colour wheel: red, yellow, green, orange, blue and so on. It is a colour without the addition of black or white.
  • Tint is the hue plus white. Mixing white to the hue makes the colour lighter, and creates pastels like lilac, apricot, peach, opal and cream.
  • Shade is the hue plus black. Adding black makes the colour darker and creates colours like navy blue and royal purple.
  • Tone is basically how light or dark a colour is and “tonality” refers to the lightness or darkness of a colour. It is the hue plus grey, and adding grey creates a graduation in tone. This 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. Makeup for black and white photography is slightly different to colour – you have to understand how a colour will look in black and white. For example, a red cheek colour would look darker than the foundation, so you wouldn’t apply it to the apple of the cheek, as this would create a darker patch. You would apply blush under the cheek to create a shadow and to define.
  • Brightness basically refers to the amount of light that is reflected off the colour – or how luminous it is. Brightness is also referred to as value and is essentially describing how light or dark the colour is. For example, yellow is brighter than a dark blue, pink is brighter than dark red. They are higher in value than the dark colours, which are lower in value.
  • Saturation tells us how a colour looks under certain lighting conditions. For example, take any makeup look – when viewed in daylight it will look different from when viewed at night. The makeup is the same, the colours haven’t actually changed, but the saturation has, giving us a different perception of the colours. Also, the greater a colour is saturated, the more vivid the hue. A washed out colour could be said to be desaturated.

How Colour is Perceived

Visual perception is our ability to interpret information and surroundings from the effects of visible light reaching our eyes. The resulting perception is also known as eyesight, sight or vision.

When looking at an object, the colour we actually see depends on the colour of the light source, the colour of any filters used and the colour of the object 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.

Colour is also susceptible to its surroundings – all of these things mean that our perception of a colour is not fixed, it is constantly changing.

The Properties of a Colour

Colour perception

Which bit are you drawn to first? The lighter or darker bits? This demonstrates how brightness gets our attention first.

A colour’s properties also determine how we perceive that colour. Some colours register more quickly with us – that is, we notice them first – and some colours can make things seem closer, or give depth.

Colours that advance to the eye:

  • Warm colours: Colours that “reach the eye” first are considered warm colours. They advance towards the eye and appear to stand out more. Generally colours containing red or yellow are considered warm. That’s why red is used for warning signs – the red stands out and we notice it more quickly than say a dark blue.
  • Higher in value: Colours that are high in value (i.e. brighter) advance towards the eye and are perceived more quickly than colours that are low in value (i.e. darker), as they seem to recede and are perceived by the eye less quickly. So a bright red would be perceived quicker by our eyes and stand out more than a darker red. This is why light colours are used to highlight, as they make those areas stand out more.

Colours that appear to recede:

  • Cool colours: Cool colours such as blue, purple and green meet the eye more slowly than warm colours and are said to be receding.
  • Low in value: When a colour is darker, they are considered low in value (they are less bright) and seem to recede from the eye. This is why darker colours are used to contour, as they create depth.

What Affects How Makeup Looks on Screen?

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

  • The amount of lighting used: the brighter the light source, the more faded or washed out a colour and makeup will appear (just like in the midday sun);
  • The type of lighting used: a big light will create a different effect to a small intense spotlight, and the type of bulb(s) 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.
  • The colour and reflective value of the costume: consider the material’s colour and what it is made of (as in how reflective it is);
  • The colour and reflective value of sets: 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 and adjustments to account for the environment may need to be made.

Minor tweaks are part of the job, and 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 for Makeup is Used

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

Contouring, for example, uses this basic principal of colour perception to create highlighting and shading. To create depth under the cheekbones or in the eye socket, we use a darker or cooler colour. To create a highlight on the cheekbones, a brighter/lighter colour is used, creating the illusion that the cheekbones have been “pushed out”.

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

When altering dimensions and creating makeup effects, to highlight or draw attention to a feature, we use colours that are high in value and/or warm. To create depth and shadow, darker colours are used.

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

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

We also use colour theory in makeup to match makeup to someone’s tones, mix foundations and concealer to get the perfect match, to change the tone of eye shadows and lip colours to get the exact colour we want should it not be in the palette – and many other things.

A good makeup artist probably has a “good eye for colour” (and much of this can be natural), but by really knowing your colour theory, you will be able to do many things.

The best way to put all this colour theory for makeup into practice is to experiment with your own makeup products. Mix eye shadows to create new shades or colours, try making a warm colour cooler or add warmth to a cool colour, tone down the green, zing up the red… the possibilities, dear reader, are endless. Go play!

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