Last week’s post where I gave four easy formulas for putting outfits together really seemed to resonate. It reminded me how helpful posts like this can be and that I should be doing more of them. I did, however, get some interesting feedback from a reader who liked the post but still had questions. Specifically, while she was thrilled with the examples, she was left wondering how you know which colors to combine. Prior to seeing some of the outfits together in that post, she never would have considered them workable combinations, and that was her question, how do you know and, more importantly, how do you do it yourself?

What a great question as I am sure she’s not the only one left wondering the same thing. I am always so grateful when readers tell me they need further clarification. It really helps me craft these types of posts. Color combining has always been something I have just been good at. I come from a family of artists, mainly by hobby. Growing up, my dad owned an auto body shop and was masterful at knowing exactly what shades and tones had to be added to a paint color to match it perfectly to the existing color of the cars. When I was at FIT, I was told by the gentleman who ran the fabric lab at the school that I had a great eye for color combining and about a year ago I happened to run into him while I was volunteering at the school (I can’t believe he is still there!!!) and told him how I have carried his comment color combining abilities with me all these years. It was nice to close that circle and tell him how much he influenced me.

That said, like outfit combining, color combining is all instinctual for me so when this reader told me she was struggling and wanted more direction on how to combine colors, I realized I needed to take a step back and offer a bit more clarity. Using some of the outfits from last week’s post as examples, I am going to give some lessons on color theory and how to combine colors. I will remind you again because I combine color in more of an instinctive manner and not with color theory in mind, these outfits won’t be formulaic but you will see that despite the combinations being instinctual, some of the basics of color theory are still present.


In this post, I am going to concentrate on Focal Point and Complementary Styling. I am not addressing Harmony or Road Map styling because neither of those really require further instruction. Road Map styling is simple because you literally have a map in which to follow be it in your prints, patterns or jewelry colors. For Harmony, you work within tones or harmonies of color palettes. However, if anyone does require further instruction on either of these, I’d be happy to craft a post addressing these.

Focal Point Styling: How to Add Color

To review, Focal Point Styling is when there are elements in each of the outfits that stand out and pulls the eye while the rest of the look takes more of a back seat. Focal point styling is a vivid pop that pulls the eye while making the outfit look complete. So the question you may be left with is which color to add to a look as the focal point?

pops of colors in an outfit

These are some of the photo examples for Focal Point Styling that was in last week’s post and they all share something in common. In every case, the bases are neutral tones. This is the key: the pops bounce off a neutral base. And when you work with a neutral base, it literally doesn’t matter what color you add as the focal point pop. Using the striped t-shirt and navy pants look that I styled with an orange jacket, for example, I could just as easily swapped out the orange jacket for a pink one, a red one, a turquoise one, and so on. The pop color in focal point styling literally doesn’t matter as long as your base is neutral. This does not mean, however, that your outfit has to be neutral to be successful with focal point styling but this is the easiest approach.

neutral colors

And let’s talk about neutral colors for a moment. When I say neutral, this includes shades like navy, black, brown, tan, camel, olive, and grey. As I tell my clients all the time, whatever colors you can wear with black, you can wear with any other neutral shade. Certainly, there are some pop colors that might work better with certain neutral shades better than others, but as a general rule, when you work with neutrals to create a look, even multiple neutrals in one base, you are free to add whatever color you like to an outfit.

Complementary Styling

Okay, now that is out of the way, now it’s time to get a bit more in depth about color theory.

It All Starts with the Color Wheel

color wheel

By this point, you are likely familiar with the color wheel. You probably know that red, blue, and yellow are primary colors, that green, orange, and purple are secondary colors (meaning you use two primary colors to make these shades) and you may be familiar with tertiary colors, which are combinations of primary and secondary colors. You probably also know there is a warm and cool side to a color wheel.

The Color Wheel is Just the Beginning

Consider how many shades a company like Pantone has, it’s over 1,000 (I checked) so clearly more has to go into the creation of color than the 12 colors on the wheel.

Hue, Value, and Chroma

hue, value and chroma

All colors have a hue, value, and chroma. The hue of the color is the color name, like blue or green or red. The value of a color is how light or dark it is, like burgundy vs. pink, and chroma is how clear or dull the color is. Two examples of chroma would be the red in a Coca Cola bottle label, the chroma of that shade would be high chroma because it is very clear and vivid, while a grey, overcast sky would be low chroma.

Tint, Tone, Shade and Watered Down

According to color theorists, there are three ways to change colors, by tinting it, toning it and shading it. While I don’t want to argue with experts in color theory, whom I admire greatly, I want to add another way you can change color —adding water to it.


color theory

Tinting a color means to add white to it. When you add white to a color you create a softer version, or a pastel.


color theory

When you tone color, you add black and white, aka grey. No matter how light or dark, this will tone down the intensity of any color.


color theory

Shading a color means to add black to it. It remains the same color but is darker. Depending on how much black you add the hue can go from slightly darker to almost black with very little color in it.

Watered Down

color theory

This is where I am going to be ballsy and nervy by adding another category that doesn’t exist in color theory. So if there are any artists out there or who are experts in color theory, please correct me. I use this analogy when talking to clients who can wear light, clear brights, like spring colors. I explain to them that they can wear light hues but not pastels and draw the comparison of instead of these colors lightened with white paint, which would make them pastels or low-chroma, they are lightened with water to maintain their clarity while also looking lighter. The concept of watering down a color doesn’t seem to have any basis in traditional color theory but I wanted to include it as I think it will help explain things.

Combining Color

Certainly, there are color combinations that won’t fit into the traditional mold of combining shades from the color wheel but as a starter, I am going to share them as a direction to get you started as working with the color wheel is the best place to start. Here are some easy ways to work with the color wheel when combining color.

Complementary Color Combining

combine colors

Often used in advertising, complementary color combining, combine colors from opposite sides of the color wheel.

Split Complementary Color Combining

combine colors

Split complementary means to combine a key color with both of the shades adjacent to the complementary shade of that primary color.

Double Complementary Color Combining

combine colors

Double complementary colors two sets of complementary colors

Triadic Color Combining

combine colors

Triadic color combining means to combine three colors that are equidistant from each other on the color wheel.

Analogous Color Combining

Analogous color combining is when you combine 3-5 colors that sit next to each other on the color wheel. When working in harmony styling, this could be a color combining theory that you could use.

Examples of Complementary Styling

Using the Complementary Styling outfits from last week’s post, I am going to show you how I used it to combine colors in these outfits.

Outfit #1

complementary colors fashion

In this outfit, the combined colors here are and orangey-red and blue-green. Both colors have low value and chroma. Remember my direction on working with neutrals earlier? I don’t even consider the neutral base shade in most cases when combining color because it doesn’t matter what the neutral hue is. I could easily swap out the navy skirt and pair it with black or even a neutral olive color or grey.

Outfit #2

complementary colors fashion

Given the fact that I don’t really think about the color wheel when I combine colors, even I was surprised when I realized this combination was complementary. The burgundy is a purplish red shade and the mustard is an acidy shade. Also, keep in mind you don’t have to be super exact when combining complementary colors. Nobody should be taking out a wheel and measuring exact complementary distance.

Outfit #3

complementary colors fashion

This is a near-perfect example of combining complementary colors like purple and yellow sit opposite on the color wheel. Both colors also share a medium value and high chroma which is another way colors pair well together. However, it is not imperative value and chroma between pieces be an exact match.

Outfit #4

complementary colors fashion

Why does teal and pink work so well together? Well, if you look at it purely from a color theory perspective, they are shades of red and green. Another reason why teal works so well in color combining is it is a shade that combines both warm and cool colors. The same is true for coral or salmon. This is why these two shades are called universal colors. They flatter most people.

Outfit #5

complementary colors fashion

I wouldn’t call the colors in this look perfectly complementary as the burgundy is far more red than purple, but this is a perfect example that you don’t have to exact to create a perfect combination. In this case, the medium value of the yellow pops off the deep value of the burgundy.

Outfit #6

complementary colors fashion

Here, the blue-green and red-orange sit opposite each other on the color wheel. The value of both shades is medium and the chroma varies just slightly with the cardigan being higher or clearer and the terra cotta shade being just slightly toned down.

Outfit #7

complementary colors fashion

The two colors playing off this base neutral olive shade is burgundy and chartreuse. In its most simplistic, it is the combination of red and green which sit opposite each other on the color wheel. The chroma of both colors is on the high side but the values are different and are what gives that chartreuse a pop against the burgundy.

Outfit #8

complementary colors fashion

This combination falls relatively close to being complementary. Both colors are deep and the chroma of both are high and clear.

Color Characteristics of Each Season

complementary colors fashion

Lastly, I wanted to put together a breakdown of color theory based on a season. If you know your colors, this might be a helpful tool for you to reference. However, it should be noted, your entire outfit doesn’t have to fall into your seasonal color box. You primarily want to focus these colors around shades near your face and even then, you don’t have to be that rigid. As someone who is a spring and looks best in warm, mid-to light high chroma colors, I often pair these shades with other hues values and chromas. As you have learned from the examples above, borrowing from different palettes and pairing them together can create some pretty dynamic looks while still flattering your coloring.

I hope this all helps you as you combine colors in your looks so you can create interesting and compelling outfits.

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