Color theory | Makeup

Color theory, part 1: color temperature

March 18, 2016
Nympheas by Claude Monet (c. 1897-1898)
“Nympheas” by Claude Monet (c. 1897-1898)

I’ve wanted to bring up color theory on the blog for a long time now, and color theory chat and color correcting products are only getting more popular so I wanted to go ahead and participate in that whole thing. I went to art school and have a lot of coursework relating to painting and color theory behind me, and so I’m better educated in this topic than I am in cosmetology. I see a lot of mixed up information about color floating around the internet and so I’m tempted to chime in.

The thing about color theory that I want to point out is that while it all makes sense as a system, the principles aren’t necessarily intuitive. I mean, it took people a really long time to figure this stuff out and establish a system that’s as good as the one we have now, despite the fact that we’ve been studying color for hundreds of years. Most of us were shown a color wheel at some point in our early education and taught a few vocabulary words, like primary, secondary, and complementary. But some of the fundamental concepts get passed over, so it’s completely understandable that I see so much conflicting information out there among beauty enthusiasts.

I’ve gone back and forth about how to tackle the material I want to cover and I’ve decided that I need to break it up into a few installments, covering both color theory concepts and practical applications in makeup. So, here’s installment number one!

Color temperature

Ok, so starting from the beginning, people talk a lot about cool and warm colors, as well as cool and warm complexions in the world of makeup. This is called temperature. Identifying the different families of colors does tend to come pretty naturally to us thanks to plenty of widespread cultural reference points. We see a warm spectrum of colors in those epic desert scenes in Lawrence of Arabia, for example, and a cool spectrum of colors in Frozen, and we can do a pretty good job of pointing out which is which.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Color temperature is relative (especially when we’re talking about skin tone and that sort of thing), but in order to get more specific than talking broadly about groups of colors, we do need anchors in order to specify what warm and cool actually mean. So, here’s a good place to start: in the art world, we generally work from the idea that the warmest color on the color wheel is yellow. Specifically, we’re talking about a cadmium or hansa yellow (a saturated lemon yellow) or ochre (earthy yellow-orange).

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888)
“Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh (1888), an example of cadmium and ochre tones

Now, lots and lots of people think that red or orange fits the bill better, and if you’d like to consider one of those hues to be the warmest, all power to you. I think that you can have a different frame of reference and still navigate your way around the color wheel just fine, especially for the sake of doing your makeup. But consider that if red is the warmest color, then green (its complement across the color wheel) is the coolest. If orange is the warmest, then a cerulean or cyan blue. If yellow-orange ochre is the warmest, then the coolest hue is ultramarine or blue-violet.

The color wheel
The color wheel

I found it surprisingly difficult to find a good image of the color wheel on the internet, but this one does a pretty nice job showing the primary (yellow, red, blue), secondary (orange, green, violet), and tertiary (yellow-orange, red-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, red-violet, blue-violet) colors. Complementary colors sit opposite to each other on the color wheel.

Blessed Virgin Mary by Sassoferrato (c. 1654), with an ultramarine cloak
“Blessed Virgin Mary” by Sassoferrato (c. 1654), with an ultramarine cloak

For getting a feel for ultramarine, here’s a painting that really puts a spotlight on it. Ultramarine was often used in representations of the Virgin Mary during the Renaissance because it was the most fine and expensive blue pigment, as it was made with ground lapis lazuli, and it’s so beautiful.

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665), with an ultramarine scarf
“Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeer (c. 1665), with an ultramarine scarf

The famous “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is also a nice example of a work that uses both ultramarine and ochre colors.

In terms of warmth, there are a couple reasons why I think red and orange scream out to people more than yellow. One is that red light is the easiest for us to see due to the fact that it has the longest wavelengths. The other is that it has a higher value than yellow, meaning that it is darker on the scale from white to black than yellow is. So, I can understand why to some people yellow might not necessarily stand out as a color to put on the extreme end of a temperature scale. Though on the topic of value (that is, darkness on the scale from white to black), a yellow-ultramarine scale would also align pretty well if we turned the color wheel into a value scale, with yellow having the lowest value and ultramarine having the highest value. It’s a little beside the point, but I think it adds to the elegance of the yellow-ultramarine system. On the flip side, red and green are the most similar complementary colors in terms of value, which is why I think they vibrate so strongly against each other when used side by side. They can be downright eye-searing.

Yellow Submarine (1968)
Yellow Submarine (1968)

If yellow is the warmest color, then that means that the hues directly adjacent to it on the color wheel are cooler than it. That applies to the hues on both sides of yellow, not only to green which is obviously what you get if you add a bit of blue, but to orange and red, as well. We can make a broad generalization and say that, yes, yellow, orange, and red are all warm colors, but it’s also important to be able to discuss the degree of warmth within the color group, or even within individual hues. This is big for color theory chat in makeup because foundation shades, for example, will generally all reside within a warm color spectrum (since people don’t have blue or green skin), yet there’s quite a lot of variation in temperature, as well as value and intensity, among them.

We can talk about most hues as having cool and warm variations. There are cool greens and warm greens, as well as cool reds and warm reds. There are even cool yellows and warm blues, though it’s a bit weirder to talk about a warm yellow or a cool ultramarine, as that is a redundant way to describe the color. Generally speaking, you can determine the temperature of a specific color by looking at how much yellow or blue has been mixed in.

Big Raven by Emily Carr (1931)
“Big Raven” by Emily Carr (1931)

In this painting, you can see the greens of the grass are warmer in the foreground, cooler in the middle where the raven is standing, and then the trees further back move fully to blue. In general, this kind of temperature change is a good way to show distance or depth as well as light and shadow, whether moving from warm in the front to cool in the back or vice versa (it depends on what’s being observed).

The Remains of a Forest by Emily Carr (1939)
“The Remains of a Forest” by Emily Carr (1939)

Here’s another painting by the same artist that also shows a variety of yellows, greens and blues. This is a broader and more intense range of the colors compared to the first painting, stretching from bits of orange in the foreground to a vibrant blue sky, and small hits of red here and there. I’ll point out that in contrast to what’s going on with the land in this painting, that bright blue sky isn’t actually fluctuating much in terms of temperature, it’s instead fluctuating in value with white being added to the paint (technically, when you add white to a color you create a tint).

When it comes to makeup, we can obviously talk about different temperatures of colors – warm or cool-toned red lipstick, warm or cool bronzers and contour powders, that kind of thing. If you have a lot of warmth in your skin, then warm shades will tend to have a natural harmony with your skin while cool shades will provide more noticeable contrast, and can “vibrate” stronger. Creating that kind of contrast isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something to observe and use, depending on the effect you’re going for. It’s also worth remembering that there are other factors contributing to the effect that colors have on the face, like hair and eye color, so there’s a lot more to be said on this topic.

I think I’ve covered the basics of color temperature, and I also have several other blot post installments planned for the future covering things like color intensity, complexion makeup and color correction on the face, color relationships and schemes, and maybe spotlights on certain hues. Let me know if you have any comments or feedback, and until next time!

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