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Color Theory 101

What is color theory?  This is an often confusing subject that seems to be the topic of a lot of debates. Simply put - it is a practical guide or tool for how color exists and operates and how it is used in applications such as fine art, design, fashion, and cosmetics to name a few. In order to take the mystery or confusion out of this subject let's look at the history and clear up the terms involved.

History of Color Theory

English mathematician, astronomer, author, and physicist Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) - discovered that color originates in light and after much experimentation, he was able to work out that light is made up of several different colors.

When he experimented with refracted light through a prism, he was presented with seven different colors: red, orange, yellow, green, cyan (light blue), indigo, and violet. These are the same colors seen in a rainbow. Sir Isaac then developed the first color wheel.

English scientist Thomas Young (1773-1829) also studied light and color and he was able to take Newton's studies one step further when he discovered that just three colors makeup up white light: red, green, and blue. These three colors were then named - the original primary colors.

Then in 1859 a German physiologist named Hermann Von Helmholtz (1821-1894) took Newton and Young's theories and built on them and developed the theory that our eyes read color in terms of light: red, green, and blue. This theory has since become widely accepted and it shows that every object is "coded" or broken down by the brain in various percentages which we see as color.

German physiologist Ewald Hering (1834-1918) who also studied light and color developed his own color wheel known as "Hering's Color Wheel" in which yellow is the fourth "primary" color. He disagreed with the teachings of Helmholtz and believed that his chart gave a more accurate and truer indication of the human experience of seeing color.

He argued that yellow should be added as a primary color because it is registered by the eye as an independent color, along with the original three primary colors. His system is still used today and forms the basis of the N.C.S. (The Natural Color System), which is used all over the world as a color-matching tool.

(Reference: The Color Scheme Bible by Anna Starmer)

Color Theory Definitions

Color - The property possessed by an object of producing different sensations on the eye as a result of the way the object reflects or emits light. (reference: Oxford English Dictionary)

Hue - the name of a color.

Primary Color - Also known as "parent" colors, these are colors that are registered by the human eye as independent colors.  In paint mixing (which is separate from how color is seen by the human eye via light) they are the three main pigment colors that cannot be mixed or formed by any combination of other colors.

Per this definition, they just exist on their own as they are and all other colors are derived from these main hues.

Harmonious or Secondary and Tertiary Colors - When you mix or combine the four primary colors of red, blue, green, and yellow you produce a second set of colors - yellow-green, violet, and orange.

Combining these colors again or in different quantities then produces a third or tertiary set of colors - yellow-orange, red-violet, red-orange, and blue-violet.

As you move around the wheel or compare these colors to the four primary colors you will see that they harmonize with each other.

Complementary Colors

Colors that sit across or opposite each other on the color wheel are called "complementary" colors. These opposing colors vibrate against each other but in a pleasing way.

You see this a lot in nature. Orange and blue, yellow and violet, red and green are classic examples of contrasting or complementary colors.

Color Attributes

Hue - another name for a color.

Value - the depth of color. How light or dark it is.

Chroma - the purity of a color or how saturated a color is. Colors can range from pure and bright to softer and more muted. Essentially it is how much gray a color contains.

Color Wheel

There are 12 colors in total that make up the color wheel which is a representation of the range of colors found in the rainbow. These are all of the colors that exist in nature and can only be adjusted to make "new" colors by combining them, darkening or lightening them.

Artists do this by adding black to deepen or white to lighten. Adding gray softens a color. This occurs naturally in our environment through shifting light and by the way physical objects whether organic or synthetic are composed.

Even though in most basic color theory we are taught that colors such as blue and red are primary colors I don't believe that there really are any real true absolutes. This is very evident if you look at a rainbow.


There are no definite hard lines of separation between the colors. They all flow into each other. A better and more accurate representation of color is via a gradient scale such as this one below -

Color Theory and Fashion

What does the above have to do with fashion? Well, fashion provides two functions - protection from the elements and self-expression. Color is used in fashion and is all around us.

It also comes from our natural environment. Our bodies are part of that environment so understanding how to enhance your natural coloring and thus your own personal self-expression is where color theory comes in.

Having a good understanding of which colors are most complimentary to you will help you in choosing a wardrobe that enables you to always look your very best and express who you are.


Color analysis is the technology and tools that are based on color theory and is used in the beauty and fashion industry to determine which colors each person should wear to bring out their best physical qualities.

There are three main things that a color analyst looks for when determining this:

- contrast level

- basic undertone

- chroma

These are the tools or gauges used to help determine which set of colors will be most harmonious on a person.

Contrast Level Explained

Each person falls into one of three categories when it comes to their overall contrast level - light, medium or deep/dark. Your contrast level or value is basically just how light or deep your overall coloring is. This is easily seen in black and white photos. To make this even clearer here are some examples of models of different contrast levels in black and white with the grayscale placed next to them

Deep Contrast (low values on the deepest end of the scale)
High Contrast
Medium Contrast
Low Contrast (low values on the lightest end of the scale)

As you can see from the above pictures contrast level is fairly easy to spot once you know what it means and what to look for. It's actually a fun experiment to do so feel free to try this on yourself using a photo editing app on your phone or desktop computer. There are some good free ones out there like PicMonkey and Canva.

Now onto the second factor - undertone. This has to do with color temperature. Is your overall coloring more cool or warm? Colors that have a blue base are considered to be cool and colors that contain yellow and red are considered warm.  So an analyst looks for this color temperature or undertone in their client's skin.

People that are primarily cool have a yellow undertone or cast to their skin and if they are warm there will be a blue or violet tint or undertone. These undertones are then balanced by warm or cool tones found in the hair and eyes.

Color follows the "Law of Attraction" where like brings out like and is balanced by the colors that are opposite and therefore balance and complement each other.

For example, a true redhead often has green eyes. Red and green are complementary colors.

Although, it should be pointed out that no one is 100% warm or cool. Both characteristics exist within our natural coloring. So, when determining someone's seasonal color type the analyst looks at how much warmth or coolness is in the client's skin as an indicator. Once they can see how warm or cool their client is leaning overall they then look at the following...

Chroma - Bright or Soft?

The third factor (and one of the most important) that a color analyst studies in their clients are that of chroma or how bright (clear) or soft (muted) their overall coloring is. This helps to determine if they can handle wearing the clearest primary colors or if they need colors that are more toned down. Colors are not flat but rather more 3-dimensional flowing through a gradient scale.

They come in pure undiluted forms or in deeper. lighter, and softened or muted forms. Just as in nature this is reflected in our own personal coloring. The question that an analyst sets out to answer is - how much?

Color Analysis and Putting it All Together

So how do you take all of the above info and put it together? As you can see in nature most people are a combination of bright and soft and warm and cool and in most cases coloring can vary in value.

I have seen people with very dark eyes and light hair and vice versa. However, you will be able to determine the overall average or common denominators in a person's coloring and this is done by observing their overall contrast level and by color draping.

A person's main undertone can be very subtle. In some people, it is easy to spot right away but in others not so much. The only real solid way to tell is by putting the person in several different colors that vary in temperature, value, and chroma.

This will allow you to see how the colors affect their overall appearance - which colors enhance and which detract or make them look worse. It really is that simple. A color is either going to look great on you or it is not.

Beautiful Color

Our skin, hair, and eyes are made up of a blend of the three primary colors which blend and breakdown into some version of every color found in the color wheel/rainbow. This is why every person can wear some version of all 12 colors.

Because as I stated earlier there are no absolutes. Color is fluid and exists on a gradient scale so to put things very simply in color analysis we are trying to determine where you fall overall on this scale.

How much depth, brightness, warmth, and coolness harmonizes with and balances your natural coloring? These are the questions a trained color analyst finds the answers to when they conduct their analysis.