Last Friday, I closed my week working with one of my regular clients whose wardrobe I’ve been developing over the past year. The transformation has been astounding, and so is my client. In fact, she quickly became one of my favorite people, which is why I have decided to give her the alias Ms. Astounding. Due to one of the coolest developments of my company this year, which has been the ability to digitally document the closets of our clients and keep track of their wardrobes and purchases, we can get inside their closets and play with their wardrobes without actually getting inside them. Ms. Astounding and I were able to talk through some potential purchases with a three-hour time-zone difference between us.
This is not to say managing our clients’ wardrobes this way this isn’t an ongoing Herculean task on our end. We have one dedicated person on our team whose sole job is to sit and manage client boards, reference number wardrobe items, inventory, and keep track of all client purchases just so clothing images can be moved around and manipulated to create outfits, capsules, and more. However, it’s client appointments like Ms. Astounding’s where the backend work involved pays off. After having success with this blouse from M.M. Lafleur in red, it was easy for me to pull the other colors onto Ms. Astounding’s board and work them into her existing wardrobe while in a Zoom session to see if they worked. We wanted to test them before Ms. Astounding purchased them.
We brought in these two colors and assumed that with Ms. Astounding’s soft coloring which looks beautiful in light blues, dusty colors, and taupier camel shades, the soft mint blouse would have been a no-brainer. Yet, when we played the copor against her Veronica Beard blazer, the camel killed it and skewed the blouse way too warm. So we tried the teal blouse. Teal, being what’s referred to as a universal color because it is a warm blue, brought balance to the blazer and cooled down the yellowness of the jacket.
Next, I tried the blouse with a pair of olive pants, also from M.M. Lafleur, that Mrs. Astounding has. While olive is a warm shade, and a color Mrs. Astounding’s would typically avoid, the dustier qualities of the olive are what make it work. In addition, when paired with the cooler softer hues in her wardrobe, the combination strikes a beautiful balance. However, when we paired the mint shade with the pants, both Ms. Astounding and I wanted to puke. The combination skewed much more yellow and the blouse lost its soft, minty appearance. I told Ms. Astounding that this outfit looked like a bad outfit for a schoolteacher in the 80s. Yet, when I pulled out the olive pants for navy ones the mint was cooled off and the outfit looked much more balanced.
HOW TO USE COLOR THEORY TO DISCOVER YOUR MOST FLATTERING COLORS
This impact is what inspired today’s post because what I know for certain is every woman wants help with color. As I considered working on this post, my brain started to throb because this is a really difficult topic to broach if I want to do it justice. Color theory is a lot of information and, to be perfectly honest, much of it you don’t need to get bogged down by unless you plan on working with color professionally. At the same time, however, it’s a knowledge of basic color theory that can help you better understand something like the seasonal color analysis.
You see, the problem is, despite color analysis labels, like being called a deep winter or a soft summer, to be at all useful, you really need an understanding of color theory to reap the full benefit of knowing your season. Instead of being able to use the information from an analysis to manipulate or play with the colors that flatter you, the information is rather meaningless without instruction. Not wanting to be just another person who writes a post that regurgitates useless information about color analysis, I want you to understand the fundamentals of color theory so you understand fully what it all means. Basically, I want to teach you to fish, I don’t want to just give you one. So, buckle up, here goes.
I’M TRAINED TO ANALYZE COLORS BUT STOPPED ANALYZING COLORS OVER A DECADE AGO
Despite the fact that I’m trained to analyze colors and spent several days learning the classic seasonal draping method 20 years ago, I haven’t analyzed someone’s colors in over a decade. It’s not that I don’t believe in this method of color analysis, but over time it became less important to me as I connected the fact that this type of analysis is essentially basic color theory. I stopped draping people using the lights, all the colorful drapes, and other rigamarole to get an analysis. I also stopped boxing clients into seasons because I didn’t believe it liberated my clients; it limited them. It’s rare that anyone tracks singularly into just one season because all seasons share something with each other. All these years later, the seasonal draping method is something that floats around in my head as a reference or access point, but it’s more like an iceberg tip, not a destination. I still respect it greatly because of the roots from where it originates, but to say seasonal color analysis is all that original would be a stretch.
Certainly, I can’t teach you how to analyze yourself because anyone who confidently says they can do that in a blog post is a flat-out liar. Does anyone think this is humanly possible? Yet, just as I don’t sit and analyze my clients, it’s not necessary that you sit and analyze yourself either. I mean, can we just stop already with the idea that we all have to sit in a neutrally lit room with a white sheet over our clothes to get the most accurate reading of what’s best for us to wear? I was trained over several days by one of the best in the industry and can tell you that getting trained to analyze colors isn’t some exact science that’s all that exact, to begin with. Analysts literally drape large color swatches under a person’s facial in a neutral-colored room lit with the most neutral light possible. If a person has color-treated hair they will likely pull their hair back because a change in hair color is not considered when doing analysis. All an analyst does is observe how someone’s personal coloring reacts to different colors that draped across a client’s face. This whole process is completely open to the subjectivity of the person doing the analysis.
Therefore, the only thing that separates your ability to do this yourself from the analyst’s abilities is the analyst is trained and if I’m completely honest, that training will vary greatly. This is also why you could easily get five different readings from five different people. I’m really good at doing color analysis not because I’m trained in it, but because I have a decade’s worth of color theory along with endless clocked hours inside an actual light box doing something called lab dips where I literally had to analyze dyed fabric swatches to tell factories down the exact percentage of color that needed to be added or taken away to accurately match a color swatch.
YOU DON’T NEED TO BE AN EXPERT IN COLOR TO KNOW WHETHER OR NOT A COLOR LOOKS GOOD OR BAD
Yet, here’s the cool thing. Nobody is asking you to sit in a lightbox and correct color. That takes skill and tremendous expertise. Being able to determine whether or not a color looks good or bad is not as difficult as it sounds. The issue is too many women stump themselves by getting bogged down trying to figure things out that don’t need to know with the information they don’t fully understand. I’ve heard too many women use terminology that’s essentially useless, like calling themselves a cool summer or a vivid winter, and so on. Okay, but what does that mean? Do these women know exactly what to do with this information besides reference the small palette of colors their analyst gives them? I hope so.
My goal here is to take the fundamentals of color theory and apply them to the basics of seasonal color analysis with the hopes that if you’ve been analyzed and you’re happy with the results you can take all this information and apply it more deeply. Alternatively, if you’re someone doesn’t know anything about selecting colors for yourself, that you won’t need to get a seasonal color analysis to get benefit from this post either. You can be completely new to learning about color and apply what you read here or you can have a history with your colors. Wherever you are on the spectrum, I’m not asking you to abandon anything that works for you but as with all things, the greater we understand something the greater mastery we can achieve.
Okay, let’s get started.
EVERYONE CAN WEAR EVERY COLOR
So here is the first comment I hear that makes me roll my eyes so far back in my head that I need someone to slap the back of it and get my eyes back down so I can see again. I hear comments like, “I can’t wear orange,” or, “purple looks bad on me.” Okay, first of all, do you know how many gazillion shades of orange and purple exist in the world?
There is a big difference between can and won’t. There are lots of colors I won’t wear and lots of shades of that color I won’t wear, and, definitely, shades that I definitely can’t wear. This is all absolutely correct, 100%. However, to throw out an entire color of the rainbow entirely is ridiculous. Let’s break things down and then apply them to the seasonal method of color analysis to better help you understand this. You can also reference another post I wrote about this which touches on this topic here.
THERE IS MORE TO A COLOR THAN WARM AND COOL
It is accurate that the only colors a human can see are the colors on the color wheel, the big six, red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet, seven if you count indigo. This is because we see color according to wavelengths. Are there other colors out there? Probably. Can we see them? No. It’s humanly impossible.
If you are wondering how it is possible for Pantone to have eleventy-billion colors in their repertoire or for you to have that blouse in your closet in 16 shades, these colors, which are properly referred to as hues are mixed up to create all the other colors. And, as you probably know, because we all learn this at some point in elementary school, every hue on the color wheel is made up of the three primary colors, yellow, blue, and red.
NOW IT GETS MORE COMPLICATED
We live in a world where color terminology gets understandably incorrectly tossed around all the time. We’ll call a tone a shade, a tint a hue, and so on, but in color theory, they actually mean very specific things.
A Hue has been mixed with white is a Tint
A Hue that has been mixed with black is a Shade
A Hue that has been mixed with grey is a Tone
And then we have something else you have probably never heard of before in your life…
MASSTONES AND UNDERTONES
Masstones and undertones have nothing to do with tints, tones, and shades. Instead, this is when you mix two hues together, like green and yellow, or blue and red. Basically, any color that is not from the visible spectrum of color is a mixed hue which means the color has a masstone and an undertone.
Masstone is the color you immediately see at first glance. In these two cases, the masstones are blue. The trick is to be able to break down the colors to be able to see what hue has been mixed with the blue to make each of these blues look distinctly different. In other words, the undertone.
The blue on the left has a cooler green undertone and the blue on the right has a yellow undertone. Using the eyedropper, I captured the new colors I created to fill the boxes of undertone hues.
Another perfect example of an undertone is the dreaded red-black, yellow-black issue we face all the time. Here you see black with an undertone of red and black with an undertone of yellow. Just like when we shop, it’s hard to notice how distinctly different the colors are until we place the colors side by side.
And then it becomes glaringly visible.
The chroma of a color is how clear, muddy, bright, or soft a color is. When a color has a high amount of chroma, it’s in its purest state and has no white, grey, or black, otherwise known as tints, tones, or shading, added. Depending on whether white, grey, or black has been added to a color will affect the chroma of color differently.
Adding grey or toning down a color will make it duller (low chroma)
Adding black or shading a color will make it darker (high chroma)
Adding white or tinting a color will make it softer and lighter (low chroma)
For example, a color like fire engine red has high color chroma because of its intense vividness, and a color like a dusty rose would be a low chroma. Chroma would be the same as categorizing a color by its level of brightness.
The value of a color is how light or dark a color is and defines a color in relationship to how close it is to white or black but unlike chroma, it does not refer to the level of vividness, clarity, or intensity of that color. If a color is light, it has a high value, and if a color is dark the value of that color is low.
HOW THIS ALL RELATES BACK TO SEASONAL COLORS
As I said earlier, seasonal color analysis which is, by far, the most popular form of color analysis, is simply an analysis of everything I just explained. If you understand the above, you understand color analysis.
A BREAKDOWN OF HOW SEASONS ARE DETERMINED
When women discuss their coloring, they usually will say they are either warm or cool, and that’s it. If this is all you use to figure out your best colors, you’re basically trying to determine your best colors blindfolded.
EVERY COLOR SEASON HAS THREE DISTINCT COLOR THEORY CHARACTERISTICS
In seasonal color analysis, this would be referred color temperature or whether a color is warm or cool. Yes, this is the part that every woman talks about. Women are absolutely obsessed with knowing their own personal undertones. Is it critical that you know yours? How do I answer that? I think knowing your undertones can be as helpful as knowing your face shape; moderately helpful that may prove useful, I suppose. What I mean is, you could go the rest of your life and never have a sure answer on what color your undertones are and still make all the right color choices because you don’t need to know your undertones to determine which colors will best flatter you because the colors themselves will do that for you. Do you see what I am getting at? This is what I mean by the needless analysis that bogs women down. Am I completely sure what my undertones are? No. Do I care? Not really. Do I know which colors look good on me? Yes. How do I know that? By the way my skin responds to the colors I wear. What difference does it make if I know my undertones or not? Sure, figure out what your undertones are, you can use it as a discussion topic at your next cocktail party.
Reading color temperature in colors can be tricky because you do it by reading how the undertones affect the masstones. For example, going back to those two blue shades I used in that example above, while one had a cool undertone and the other a slightly yellow undertone, both colors remained relatively cool. In the example below, I used a lightened version of the same blue and changed the undertone of the box on the right to a warmer green. Can you see how the undertone of that shade unquestionably skewed the temperature of the blue to a much warmer color? On the left, I kept the undertone I used previously and combined it with the lightened blue, the new blue created got warmer but would still be considered a cool color.
This is what can make reading undertones can absolutely be sneaky little buggers that are near impossible to suss out, but it’s not impossible. My trick used to be to stare at a fabric long enough until the undertone naturally rose to the surface. For you, however, even if you don’t figure out for certain if an undertone is warm or cool, how you react to how a color against your skin looks will definitely tell you whether or not it flatters you. In 20 years of styling women, when I have asked a client what colors they preferred to wear, never once, ever in the history of time have I had a client tell me that their favorite colors were ones that weren’t flattering against their skin tone. My point is, instinctively, you will know. And undoubtedly, you will be able to determine the undertones of some colors. This means that through the process of elimination, you will be able to deduce your best undertones by figuring out the undertones of the colors you can identify.
In color analysis, you often hear words used like vivid or soft and muted. All these descriptive words refer to the chroma level of color. Chroma level plays just as strong a role in determining whether a color is flattering to wear as warmth or coolness. It’s often overlooked when women select colors but a component of colors I find just as compelling as temperature.
In analysis, this would be determined by how soft or toned down the color is, such as with pastel colors or colors that are murkier or not as bright. Using that blue shade again, this time putting it was 100% strength, created a low chroma color by toning using grey. On the right, I tinted the blue, or made it more pastel, using white. Using the eyedropper, I captured the colors created below. You can see that both the white tint and grey tone not only lightened and darkened the colors but cut the clarity of the shade as well. In both cases, the bold vividness was replaced with colors with far less energy.
In terms of chroma and finding your most flattering colors, some people have coloring that can stand up to strong, clear, colors with a lot of energy, others can’t. This is what makes chroma so helpful. If you are someone who finds softer, washier, lighter tones, like pastels and muted tones work better, these are tinted, low chroma hues. Deeper, darker, muddier, hues with less energy that aren’t so vivid and bright are toned low chroma colors. Can you see why chroma is such a valuable part of discovering your best colors? It’s the level of energy and clarity found in the colors that most flatter you.
COLOR DEPTH/ VALUE
If you were analyzed as a deep autumn, let’s say, or a light spring, the words like deep or light described color value because value determines how light or dark colors are. This is not to say a person can only reside within one color value but, typically, value determines that set point range and whether they look good in richer, deeper colors, colors that fall into the mid-range, or colors that are lighter and less deep. You can dip into colors outside your range but more as accent shades, not main colors.
In terms of your own coloring, most people wear a range of colors, but usually find that their own coloring can carry a certain depth or lightness or darkness before the colors either start to feel too dark and heavy or so light that they feel like they look washed out and sick. So while you may dip into lighter and deeper shades as accents or in small amounts, as overall colors, you instinctively know when colors feel too light or too dark to wear heavily. Remember, this isn’t chroma, value is simply the how light or dark a color is.
ALL SEASONAL COLORS SHARE SOMETHING IN COMMON WITH EACH OTHER
Here is an example of four different greens broken down by season. Looking at each shade of green you will be able to note the characteristics that each season’s green has but also what it shares with each of the other seasons. This is why it’s so rare that an individual will fall perfectly within one season without being able to borrow from or dip into another season even if it is use colors from another season as an accent or a complement. It’s also why those who do try to rigidly analyze themselves can get easily frustrated or confused, or why someone could easily walk away from several different analyses and get different results.
WHY EVERY PERSON CAN WEAR EVERY COLOR
The reason why every person can wear every color is that by simply altering a color’s undertone, chroma or value, a color can be altered to match the characteristics of each season. You can view the colors below to look closely at how the colors change to match each season.
TEST YOUR COLOR THEORY KNOWLEDGE
Ready to test yourself? Here is a quiz you can take to see if you can figure out the undertone, and chroma of each color. Can you take it a step further and slot each color into a season?
HOW TO ANALYZE YOURSELF
Determining undertones can take an effort that teeters on impossible, seasons all share commonality with each other and analysis can yield mixed results even when performed by trained professionals, so where does this leave you in determining your most flattering colors to wear? Instead of analyzing yourself, use the three components of color theory, undertone, chroma, and value to help you break down and analyze the characteristics of colors when against your skin. An approach like this will not only give you a diagnosis of the colors that most suit you and why, it will also give you a comprehensive understanding of color theory, and that is a heck of a lot more than any classic color analysis will ever teach you.