Color Theory for the Makeup Lover, part 2

Am I warm or cool toned? Seriously, can you tell me?!

In part one of this series, you learned the definition of color theory, met the the Itten Color Wheel and discussed different levels of colors. We also touched on warm versus cool. In this post we’ll take it a step further and talk about a rather controversial topic – your undertone.

The Controversy
I’m sure all of you have wondered to yourselves at some point in your lives, “Am I warm, neutral, or cool-toned?” When you Googled this question to find an answer, you became frustrated.

Why? Because every person in the world seems to have a different answer to this question. Some say check your wrists, others say your eye and hair color will determine it, and yet another will say put gold and silver jewelry next to your face and whichever looks best will determine your undertone. But what happens when you get one answer from one test and another answer from another?

This series revolves around color theory and how you can apply it to cosmetics. Therefore, I am going to teach you how to find your undertone using color theory. This makes the most sense to me, is taught by Pixiwoo (shown above, she gets to it around 2:15) and is used by MAC. However, most makeup companies think the opposite way, so keep that in mind (especially when shopping).

An UPDATED easy guide to understanding MAC’s system:

Many people believe that MAC approaches tone with a counteracting system; that their warm shades are for cool tone skin because the warm shades neutralize the tones in cool skin (and vice versa for their cool shades). NOT the case! MAC’s Senior Artist Louise Zizzo told us this:

“MAC warm shades (NW & W) have a red/pink undertone to them as we consider pink to be warm, and MAC cool tones (NC & C) have a green/olive undertone to them as we consider these to be cool. Yellow exists in both warm and cool shades as we consider this a neutral tone.”

Determining Undertone
Do you remember that little assignment I gave you in the last post? Choosing which field of flowers you were attracted to was a psychological way of determining undertone. Your brain is naturally attuned to what best flatters you.

One field was warm-toned (poppies); the other cool-toned (bluebells.) If your brain chose the poppies, you’re most likely warm. If you chose the bluebells, you’re cool. It’s a bit of a phenomenon.

My test
When determining your skin tone using this method (a little method I made up), make sure you’re wearing a neutral color shirt (tan or white), that you’re not wearing any makeup and you’re using natural, clear light. Lights in our homes and in malls tend to have a soft white cast that’s unsuitable for determining undertone. I also suggest buying a primary toned blue, red, and yellow poster board as they’re cheaper than t-shirts in the same colors.

Tape one color on a solid surface away from the light. Step in front of the color and look in a mirror. I normally use red first. Red is a warm color in color theory. If this color pulls out all the yellow or red in your skin, you’re seriously not warm-toned. If it makes you look better, you’re undertone is warm.

To make sure, take down the red and tape up the blue. If you look awful in blue but great with the red, you’re warm-toned. If you find you look great in blue and want to make sure you’re cool-toned, take down the blue and pull up the yellow. Cool-toned people look jaundiced in yellow, even primary yellow, because they’re undertone is yellow! It doesn’t matter how pink or red your cheeks are, cool-toned people have yellow undertones (blue in dark skinned women); warm gals have red or pink (green in dark skinned women.)

Remember, color theory revolves around the idea of warm and cool, fire and ice, poppies and bluebells, whichever way helps you. If this way doesn’t suit your way of thinking, feel free to think the opposite way. This is just one side of the controversy.

we heartsters – has this post helped you determine your undertone? Meet me in the comments to talk all about it!



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

Latest posts by katezena

17 thoughts on “Color Theory for the Makeup Lover, part 2”

  1. katezena

    OMG, it’s part two! Quick, I got to get working on part three! Heaven forbid, people don’t have part three! I’ll be skinned alive!

    I’m always so happy to see each part online. It makes my day a little happier. I worry and worry and worry all month because I think there may have been some e-mail glitch (even when I get a reply, I’m crazy sometimes) and then, by magic, it appears online. Then everything around me disappears and the angels sing and nothing matters. It’s great. Ha ha.

  2. turboterp

    Wow, this installment is even better than the first, @katezena ! I can’t wait to get some poster board and try out your method. You’re right, poster board is way cheaper than t-shirts! Honestly, I can’t wait for part three, so you’d better get writing!

  3. tyna

    For once I wish I had kids on the off chance there was some primary color boards around to test this out! Although, I may need an unbiased partner to test with – I always think I look bad in red, so I’ll hate the red background automatically. But I do think I’m warm toned… Cant wait to see (Stef, you know what we’ll be doing on your next visit to LA).

    Thanks @katezena for another informative article!

    1. katezena

      @tyna – As far as I can tell from photos, you’re cool (which is rare for someone with blue or green eyes.) You look good in blue-based reds (the red dress you wear in your John Frieda post is blue-based) which is indicative of someone who is cool-toned. I only look good in red if it’s blue-based. Yellow-based, forget it.

      I would still try it out by yourself, and then with @stef. My gut says cool just from photos that I’ve seen of you though.

  4. mandaleem

    It’s official, I’m a cooler neutral. I can pull off both warm and cool colors (I look pretty great in both red and blue), but I look absolutely terrible in true yellows (or orange for that matter). Wonderfully informative @katezena !

  5. lipglossandspandex

    Personally, I’d go to a makeup counter where they have definite warm and cool tones and try some out on your skin. I wore cool toned foundations for YEARS before I realized I was warm/yellow toned!!! It’s amazing what the right color of foundation can do for you :)

    1. katezena

      Hi @lipglossandspandex,

      This is for people who are still confused even after going to the counter or reading post after post after post. This also addresses looking at makeup in terms of color theory, which would mean, in your case, you would be cool toned as you have yellow tones in your skin as opposed to pink. Most makeup companies work the opposite way.

      This is a controversy. If you like to think that yellow = warm and pink = cool, that’s fine. I grew up knowing the opposite is true because of my background and it transferred over to my makeup and every other area where color is used (decorating, cooking, baking, dressing myself, etc.) It makes more sense to me because red or pink don’t equate to the image of ice and blue doesn’t equate to the image of fire with color theory.

  6. sherrishera

    I get the idea of color theory and you explain it very well but I still don’t know what I am. I look good in red and wear it fairly often (and almost always get lots of compliments) but I look good in blue, too (especially periwinkle). I can be really pale but I tan easily. When I’m pale I tend to think cooler colors and silvers look best on me, when I’m darker I tend to think the opposite. I have pink in my skin (I have a tendency to flush easily in heat or stress) but could swear I’m generally golden. Oh yeah, i love wearing bright yellow and orange and think I look pretty good in those, too.

  7. katezena

    Okay, you are totally overthinking this and looking at the wrong thing. You are looking at your clothes, your jewelry and all that other stuff. GO GET SOME POSTERBOARD (sorry for the yelling. You really are overthinking the whole thing.) Throw out all the stuff about clothes, jewelry, veins, tans, yadda, yadda, yadda. You want to know why? You can be cool-toned and still tan easily which goes completely against all that “warm toned” and “cool toned” crap. They way you tan is due to what color your undertone is (NOT WHETHER YOU ARE COOL-TONED OR WARM-TONED. I need to find a way to underline this point.) Undertone is determined by how yellow, pink, blue, green or grey your melanin is. If you have blue undertones, you WILL burn. If you have yellow undertones, you’ll tan. If you have warm tones and you’re pink, you’ll burn (why do you think Nicole Kidman goes everywhere with a hat and sunscreen? She has a pink undertone); green, you’ll tan. Grey (which is usually found in Asian races), you can go either way.

    After you get your posterboard, follow my directions to the T. If you still find both the blue, red and yellow (it must be all three) is flattering, you are one of the few who are perfectly neutral.

    Does this make sense?

    1. katezena

      @sherrishera – No, they aren’t the color/tone of your skin. It’s the underlying tone. Pigmentation goes above it. Two people with the same coloring can clash visually because they have opposite undertone.

    1. katezena

      @Munsell Color – Thank you so much! I really appreciate the comment. I haven’t had the pleasure of reading about Munsell Color Theory; I’ve never heard of Munsell before.

  8. Thank you so much for this article! Finally, someone has demystified the whole pink, yellow, warm, cool confusion created by the cosmetics companies. I’ve always said I have a greenish-yellowish-grey complexion (I’m mixed Asian and super pale), and the ladies at the cosmetics counter thought I was crazy. After being matched up to their yellowish shades, which they called “warm,” I ended up assuming almost my whole entire life that I was warm complexioned. However, I hate the way browns, yellows, oranges, and reds look on me. I avoid them like the plague! And when it came to eyeshadows, I could not understand why anything that was too warm toned made me look sick, yet blues, greens, and especially purples looked fabulous!

    It all makes sense now! (So does the MAC shading system) I really can’t thank you enough for this clarification. I can finally tell the ladies at the counter that, no, I’m not crazy!

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