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What Is Makeup Color Theory?

Updated: Mar 1, 2023

You’ve probably been exposed to color theory since you were an elementary school student. Your art classes likely taught you the color wheel — a circle of hues showing the relationships between primary, secondary, and tertiary colors — plus the idea of complementary colors that sit across from each other on the wheel. You probably also learned about analogous colors, or the ones that sit alongside each other, nearly blending from one to the other. And you probably learned about color temperature, that the fiery colors (red, orange, yellow) are considered warm and that colors on the calming side of the wheel (purple, blue, and green) are considered cool.

What you might not have learned is how many jobs depend on knowledge of color theory for success. According to LinkedIn job listings, color theory-related jobs can include creative directors, product designers, digital content producers, fashion designers and colorists, retouching managers, graphic designers, web designers, art directors, and more.

And, unsurprisingly, color theory is an essential skill for those in the beauty industry. If you’re thinking about working in beauty as a hair colorist, makeup artist, or esthetician, you’ll need to understand color theory and how it can help you enhance clients’ beauty. Below, we’ll answer your questions, including: What is color theory? Why is color theory important? And what is color theory in makeup? In answering these questions, our goal is to give you an overview of color theory and how it applies to makeup artistry.

What is color theory?

In short, color theory is the art and the science of mixing colors. Color theory is a traditional element of art that offers practical guidance for mixing colors and understanding the visual effects produced by specific color combinations. These basic principles of color theory can guide you in creating harmonious color combinations that appeal to the viewer’s eye. In essence, color theory shows you how to make colors look beautiful together. One essential to know in color theory is primary, secondary, and tertiary colors. Primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. When you all three primary colors mix together, you get brown, and you can create various shades of brown by changing the proportion of primary colors it contains.

When any two of the primary colors mix, you arrive at a secondary color of orange, green, or violet (purple). When you mix a primary color (such as red) with an adjacent secondary color (such as orange), you get a tertiary color (in this case, vermillion). The tertiary colors are indigo, violet-red, vermillion, amber, chartreuse, and aquamarine.

Color theory will also teach you about creating tints, shades, and tones of different colors by adding neutral colors (black, white, and gray). For example, a tint is created by adding white to make a color lighter. Pastel colors are great examples of tints. Next are shades, which are colors to which black has been added. For example, adding black to blue creates a navy-blue color, which is a shade of the primary color blue. Finally are tones, which are colors with gray added; tonality refers to how light or dark a color is.

Why is color theory important?

What is the value in color theory? In short, using colors knowledgeably allows you to create different effects that catch viewers’ attention and evoke feelings and emotions.

In beauty, color theory helps makeup artists and hair colorists make corrections and harmonious choices. Makeup artists can use green corrector to tone down red patches and blemishes, orange concealer to cancel out bluish dark circles, and purple makeup to counterbalance yellow spots. Similarly, hair colorists can employ a purple toner or shampoo to counteract unwanted yellowish tinges in blonde hair colors. The corrective applications are nearly endless.

What is color theory in makeup?

Color theory underlies the makeup artist’s work at every step. From identifying and matching a client’s skin tone to foundation to color-correcting skin blemishes in order to minimize them, the makeup artist needs knowledge of color theory to make the client’s skin look its best.

How makeup artists use color theory

One key application for color theory in the beauty industry is understanding skin tones. Skin colors run from fair to light, medium to beige to tan, from dark to deep. But there’s more to think about than light or dark: Every skin tone can be also categorized by its undertone: cool (with some pink or rosiness to its hue), warm (or golden), or neutral (with both pink and golden undertones). Understanding both the tone and the undertone is crucial to finding makeup that matches the skin and looks natural and flattering.

This color knowledge is also essential for creating bolder, more vivid makeup looks: When choosing a bright lip color or a daring eyeshadow look, the makeup artist needs to understand the client’s skin color and tone in order to create color palettes that look best on that person.

Understanding the effects of lighter and darker colors will also help makeup artists highlight the client’s best features and shade to create depth and contrast or to hide a feature. For example, a makeup artist will apply a darker eyeshadow shade to the eye socket crease to make that area visually recede and thereby create depth that make the eyes stand out in a more striking way.

Are you interested to learn more about color theory and client consultation when it comes to makeup? Our makeup artistry program teaches color theory and client consultation, special events makeup, high fashion makeup, camouflage makeup, special effects makeup, and more. Request more information today to see how Cortiva Institute can make a difference in your career.


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