Have you ever bought a foundation online, or even in a store, for that matter?

You get home, and the light is different in your bathroom. The thing is, when you apply it to your face, the color is totally wrong. It doesn’t blend into your skin like it seemed to do in the lovely warm lighting of the store.

Or perhaps you bought a lipstick that looked fantastic on a co-worker, only to buy it, apply it, and discover it just doesn’t work on you. It’s hard to put your finger on it, but it just looks no good.

These experiences are probably way more common than we know, as millions of people face the challenges that go not only with changes in lighting, but basic makeup color matching and in turn, basic color theory in makeup principles.

So, what does this mean, exactly?

In a nutshell, it means you need to brush up on your color theory, is what it means. And that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.

What Is Color Theory?

Wikipedia describes color theory as “the body of practical guidance for color mixing and the visual effects of a specific color combination.”

How does it apply to you doing your makeup at home?

Color theory is vital to successfully applying makeup.

From knowing and recognizing your own skin and its undertone. To being able to pick the right complexion makeup for your face, and also the shades of eyeshadow, lipstick, and even cheek colors that look harmonious with your skin tone.

So it’s actually really important to be able to recognize how to make the right color choices for your skin so you can look and feel your best.

How does Color Theory apply to a Professional Makeup Artist?

Understanding how to change a foundation shade to suit a skin tone is one of the practices that come with good color theory knowledge.

Also, color matching and being able to work out what shades of makeup “work” and don’t work on any person’s complexion. And with someone’s clothing, hair color, and even personality.

I love this color wheel from the late 1700’s.


vintage color wheel
Image from The Natural System of Colours
by Moses Harris (1776)


Basics of Color Theory in Makeup

To identify and understand basic color theory, we need to first appreciate the color wheel. Pretty wild, right?

Newton’s color wheel was essentially the same thing we still use today. That is where the color wheel is divided into shades of warm and cool colors:

  • red
  • orange
  • yellow
  • green
  • blue
  • indigo
  • violet

And sometime later, the indigo was removed, but the basic color wheel has remained the same.


Primary Colors

The traditional primary colors are: red, blue and yellow.

Primary colors cannot be mixed from other colors. And they are also the basis of all colors that you can mix with varying ratios of just these three colors.

So in makeup, when we say a shade (or a complexion, for that matter) is too warm, it errs in the red through orange shades.

And when a shade is too cool, it can have purple, through blue and even greenish underlying shades.

But more on this later.


Secondary Colors

Secondary colors are formed when mixing two primary colors that are neighbors on the color wheel.

Secondary colors are:

  • orange
  • green
  • violet

For instance:

Red and yellow make orange. Orange is the secondary color.

Yellow and blue make green. Green is the secondary color.

Blue and red make violet. Violet is the secondary color.


Tertiary Colors

And to follow, a tertiary color sits in between two secondary colors (that are neighboring on the coloring wheel).

A tertiary color is made up of two secondary colors. And with there being three secondary colors, this means there are six tertiary colors:

  • red-orange
  • yellow-orange
  • yellow green
  • blue-green
  • blue-violet
  • red-violet

Red and orange make red-orange. The tertiary color is red-orange.

Orange and yellow. The tertiary color is yellow-orange.

Yellow and green. The tertiary color is yellow-green.

Green and blue. The tertiary color is blue-green.

Blue and violet. The tertiary color is blue-violet.

Violet and red. Red-violet is the tertiary color.



Complementary Colors

Complementary colors are found opposite each other within a color wheel. So you have purple and yellow being complementary, blue and orange, and red and green being complementary colors.

Analogous Colors

Colors that are analogous lie next to each other on the color wheel. They are similar in hue and tend to be harmonious, and work well together.


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Using Color Theory in Makeup

One of the most important and perhaps obvious applications of color theory within makeup involves being able to adequately identify skin tone.

Whether a skin tone is fair or dark, warm or cool (this is called the undertone) it’s important to be able to understand and recognize these things so you can not only pick the right shade of base, but then the correct shades of cream concealers, and any correcting work that may need to be done (for example an orange-based corrector any darkness under the eyes, or pigmentation that may require neutralizing).


Tools to help you when starting out with Color Theory

There are some fantastic resources and tools you should have at your fingertips whether you struggle with color theory or not.

I’m excited to share these with you as they provide excellent references and will assist you with any color theory struggles that might arise at work or at home. They can also help when you’re making design choices.


Color Theory for the Makeup Artist

color theory for makeup book cover
The Very Necessary
Color Theory for the Makeup Artist by Katie Middleton

This book is a MUST-HAVE for any modern-day working makeup artist. If you don’t already own it, get it now, no matter how skilled you may be with your color theory already.

Author Katie Middleton is a highly talented and successful film and tv makeup artist in her own right, and her former education in fine arts provides the perfect backdrop for this book.

Katie gives us what I think is the most comprehensive and complete presentation and analysis of color theory and how it applies to makeup that is available today. So check it out.

Find Katie’s book Color Theory for the Makeup Artist here.


Flesh Master App

flesh master color theory app image
The Flesh Master App

If you need someone to hold your hand and walk you through mixing colors and color-matching then the Flesh Master App should be your next stop.

Flesh Master was designed and created by makeup effects artist and technical whiz Rod Maxwell, who wanted to help makeup artists and people who work in design and creative fields make color choices without struggle.

The app is literally at your fingertips to help guide and train your eye in all things color theory.

Find Rod’s Flesh Master App here.


Flesh Tone Color Wheel by Terri Tomlinson

terri tomlinson flesh tone color wheel image
Terri Tomlinson’s Flesh Tone Color Wheel

I know I mention this a lot, but it’s because I love it!

I love that Terri has adapted the traditional color wheel for us makeup artists, and given us a tangible, tactile product that we can hold up to our faces, arms, legs, whatever body part you need to break down and work out color matching, covering or contouring.

Whatever your color theory challenge is, with Terri’s Flesh Tone Color Wheel, your struggles will disappear.

Find Terri Tomlinson’s Flesh Tone Color Wheel here.


Color Wheel Enamel Pin

While having no obvious relevance to makeup whatsoever, this came up on my IG feed just a day after researching for this blog post (not creepy at all), and I actually thought it could be incredibly useful at work and home.

So here is a super cool, and functional color wheel pin that shows you the color principles of the color wheel – out of focus in this image, but they’re there, I promise!

And thank you to the algorithm for bringing this product from me to you 🙂

Find the Magos Color Wheel Pin here.


Makeup Products You Need to solve your Color Theory Challenges

Senna Slipcover Pro Primary and Pastel Palette

senna makeup palette
Senna Pro Primary and Pastel Pro Palette

Whoa. That’s a lot to say. And that’s because this palette has a LOT to do!

Your top row has your three primary colors plus black and white. With these 5 creams, you can do ANYTHING and mix any color you like! So no matter how you have to adjust a cream makeup product, you can. If you need to make it lighter or darker, you can.

The bottom row features 5 popular correcting shades that are already tertiary colors (see what I did there?), so if you need to deepen them as well, you know what to do. I hope you do – if not – re-read this post, then buy Katie’s book, Rod’s App, Terri’s color wheel, and this palette, and you’ll be set 😉

Find the Senna Pro Primary and Pastel Palette here.


Makeup Forever 12 Flash Color Case

makeup forever palette
Makeup Forever 12 Flash Color Case

Another well-conceived and well-produced palette that is a color theory-nerd’s dream.

This time, we have silver and gold on the left side, with the bottom row featuring our coveted there primary shades, plus black and white.

Now, this is where things get a little different.

The top row also features a medium brown shade and a peach shade. Plus three shades that make up the new primary colors of pigment p- magenta, cyan and yellow. This may be a lesson for another day; just know that once you use this palette, you’ll never go back!

Find the Makeup Forever 12 Flash Color Palette here.


RCMA Kevin James Bennett Complexion Palette

rcma makeup palette
RCMA Kevin James Bennett Complexion Palette

What I love about this palette is that you are presented with a range of 12 complexion shades that give you a solid jumping-off point to mix and match your base shade. Plus, your perfect complexion-tailored red/blue/yellow combo, your black and white adjusters, and a clear medium.

The clear medium allows you to create fine washes of color which is something I love to do in my work.

Find the RCMA Kevin James Bennett Complexion Palette here.





Masterclass – Color Theory Basics



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