Color Theory for the Makeup Lover, part 1

An introduction to color theory, for you – the cosmetic connoisseur!

What is color theory? And, how does it relate to the world of cosmetics? I hope this mini-series helps you differentiate between warm, neutral and cool tones, helps to find your undertone, and most importantly, helps to find colors best suited for you.

What is Color Theory?
Color theory has no standardized definition because every artist and media likes to fight over a neat, concise definition. If you Google it, you’ll find as many definitions as artists. However, for the sake of this series, I’m going to give you the definition I learned as a child—color theory is the basic guide to how we use colors and the visual impact colors have.

Colors are so important to us. Imagine a world completely in white or in reverse, completely in black. It’s a pretty bleak world, isn’t it? Colors make the world interesting! Colors, quite simply, make the world the stunning place it is.

Color Wheels
In order to understand colors, we need a very basic tool used by every artist in any field—the color wheel. I’m sure many of you have seen this sucker at least once. It’s actually one of the most useful tools you can use, especially if you’re trying to pick out a color for yourself. The problem is most people give up trying to use this because they don’t know how to read them. We’re going to work with the most commonly used color wheel—the Itten color wheel.

The three colors in the middle, which make a triangle, are called primary colors. These colors are the basic colors we see in every day. If you have someone who’s color blind, they might be missing one of these colors. These colors, as you can see, are yellow, red and blue. These three colors also represent warm (red), neutral (yellow) and cool (blue) tones.

The three colors connected to the triangle are called secondary colors. These are colors that are made by combining two of the primary colors. For example, mixing red and blue makes violet.

Finally, the circle surrounding the primary and secondary colors are called tertiary colors. These are colors that are made by combining primary and secondary colors from the wheel. You’ll notice the primary colors are still noted in the tertiary wheel; this is simply for reference.

Notice how cool tones stay in between blue and yellow and warm colors stay in between yellow and red. This is important. Warm tertiary and secondary colors will always stay with warm primary and vice versa. You can’t put orange-red on the cool-tone side; the colors of our world don’t work that way. It’s a warm, saturated color, like poppy petals.

I want to leave you with this to help you with the next task. Look at the images above: one warm and bursting with warm red-orange poppies; the other, cool and bursting with bluebells. Which is the first one your mind chooses?

Stay tuned for our next installment, you’ll be running circles around that color wheel, we promise!



Guest author Kate guides us through the mystery of color in this post series.

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22 thoughts on “Color Theory for the Makeup Lover, part 1”

    1. katezena

      @turboterp – Thank you! I was a little scared at first no one would be able to understand all of this so I’ve been gnawing at my fingers. I’m glad it’s easy to understand without the need for similes!

    1. tyna

      Ha! That’s awesome and sweet @katezena – and I know what you mean, it’s neat to see your work live on the internet after looking at it in text for so long. Awesome job by the way – loving this series so far!

  1. mandaleem

    Great breakdown of color theory @Katezena ! I can’t wait for the second part of the series. While I’m not a “trained” artist I was taught needle point and fabric arts by my grandmother at a young age. She taught me how to group colors using the wheel when making a quilt/tapestry so I have a fair understanding of it all. Excited to learn more!

    1. katezena

      @mandaleem – I’m not a trained artist. I’m a natural artist (caused by Autism most likely.) I work with just about anything you can manipulate. Might not look pretty, but I’ll make something with it! I’d love to learn what your grandmother taught you. I’m still trying to figure out how to sew straight (but then, I can’t draw a straight line!)

      I took a lot of art classes as a child which is where I learned all about color theory. I’m getting an AA, maybe an AFA. I’ve been switching between the two; I’m closer to an AA than an AFA.

  2. Mel

    This is great, Kate! I can’t wait for the next installment, too! One of the reasons for so many different definitions is when science mixes in with art. In science, we call the three additive primary colors of light red, blue, and green not yellow, because we have cells in our eyes for those three colors – and everything we see is a combination of light hitting those different cells. Well this always confuses the heck out of the students taking art, because they learn about the primary colors of pigments (different from light) being red, blue, and yellow! So I may be referencing your info when we get to that section this year. I love that color wheel and am excited to hear more on this!

    1. katezena

      @melinda – Of course you may reference my article. The primary colors in art don’t come from pigments, but from this long thing I don’t completely understand myself. It’s all from a man we all know and his name is Isaac Newton. You can read all the hubbub (as I don’t understand it) here:

      Maybe you can explain it to me in everyday terms!

  3. kari

    Love this @katezena!

    I’ve been interested in color theory ever since my painting class in college and it’s so fascinating how it can be applied to so many areas…for example, make up! Looking forward to the next installment!

    1. katezena

      @sherrishera I like the poppy one too and I like poppies, but that’s not what matters for this test. It’s what photo your eye is drawn to automatically the majority of the time the second you open this post. It’ll make sense in the next post. Until then, it’s something that’s for me to know and you to figure out.

  4. tyna

    I have very little knowledge on color and color theory (still can’t quite figure out my skin tone) so I am beyond excited for this series!

    Love that you keep things basic for part 1 – I get it so far (and I think a bit of junior high art class is coming back to me).

    Oh and I’m drawn to the poppies (even though blue is my fave color) I believe because it looks so warm and cozy to me.

    1. katezena

      Well, I am discussing undertone (which people tend to call skin tone.) That’s next session, so hang on!

      Your eyes went straight for the poppies? Really? Hmmmm, now that one surprises me. Interesting…

  5. spitfire77

    Very interesting, Mel’s right, we have a hard time explaining this to our classes so I will definitely be referencing this when we get to the light chapter!

    1. katezena

      @spitfire77 – Go ahead, I don’t mind, as long as you remember our theory isn’t based in pigments, but from something Newton thought up of based on the spectrum of lights. From what I understand, Itten made his color wheel from Newton’s “Opticks” and Claude Boutet’s “Traite de la Peinture.” (You can check out the link in the post I made to Mel.) The way he made his 7 treatises of contrasts, even his color wheel, is extremely complicated. It’s 160 pages in modern text. You can buy it, but it’s a big hole in your pocket (I’d love it, but I’m reluctant to. Who knows if it’s boring? 99% of textbooks are really boring to me!)

  6. wonderful to see this article. I looove color, lol, I have had dreams at night simply of different color combinations. I’ve recently started painting, & my favorite part is deciding which colors to put together on the canvas, & seeing how they work together! But when it comes to which colors I should wear, skin undertones, etc, I have much to learn! Thanks so much for writing these articles! Can’t wait to see what’s next….:)

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