When it comes to choosing the best colors to wear, it’s not uncommon to rely heavily on whether a color is warm or cool. Once someone silos themselves into one of these two temperatures, they lock in and never look at colors outside whichever spectrum they have chosen as best for themselves. It’s not a bad approach. We’ve all seen how greatly colors can skew skin tones towards looking washed out or too sallow or just awful, yet, at the same time, it’s very easy to get rigid with these rules, plus, it’s limiting.
MIXING WARM AND COOL COLORS TO CREATE BALANCE AND ADD INTEREST TO YOUR LOOKS
Two weeks ago, I wrote a monster-sized post on color analysis, basic color theory, and a new approach to self-color analysis which I will be referencing heavily in this post, so if you aren’t caught up, I strongly suggest you read that post first, link here, to fully understand the language I am using here today. If you are someone who doesn’t mix warm and cool colors and sticks to one side of the color wheel and is left wondering if it is possible to venture out, to create more interest in your looks, or just want to know what you can do when a color isn’t flattering, I am going to give you my tips today.
COLOR TEMPERATURE SHOULDN’T BE THE ONLY GAUGE FOR MIXING DIFFERENT HUES
As I spoke about in my post referenced above, color temperature is only one part of the three qualities that make up a color. In addition to temperature, the two other qualities are chroma— how muted a clear color is, and value, the lightness or darkness of a color. The issue with solely relying on color temperature when selecting flattering colors and/or mixing them is it’s the equivalent of trying to solve a problem while lacking a third of the information. These three qualities, not just temperature, are what determine whether a hue is flattering. So, if you’ve been clinging to color temperature as your only frame of reference, you’re limiting yourself.
MIXING WARM AND COOL COLORS CREATES TENSION AND INTEREST
In life, tension is a word that usually tries to avoid, but when it comes to artistic endeavors, tension is what adds interest, emotion, and drama. Tension pulls what’s happening in a different direction. imagine it similar to how mixing salty foods with sweet foods (kettle corn anyone?) enhances both flavors. In music, tension refers to the build-up of musical intensity. For the listener, a moment of unrest or tension in the music creates an expectation for its resolution and an anticipation for the drama to resolve. Tension and release are what keep the music moving forward. In film, tension is the climax, and in visual art, the mixing of warm and cool colors is what creates tension and interest.
If it helps, think about interiors and if you’ve ever walked into a room where all the colors skew in one color temperature direction along with the mood it creates vs. walking into a room that has a mix of warm and cool. If it helps, I have included some images below as examples.
On the left, all the interiors have decor that is exclusively all cool or warm. On the right, these interiors use decor with a mix of both warm and cool. This isn’t an argument that the rooms with a mix of warm and cool colors are superior but, instead, to illustrate the difference in tension that is created when you mix colors together that are warm and cool. Not only do the cool, soft colors create relaxation and the room with the warm decor top right creates immediate warmth and comfort, but decorating with a singular color temperature settles the eye due to lack of tension.
The point isn’t to lock yourself into one way of mixing colors but, instead, to see the power that color has when it’s combined to create completely different moods, interest, and levels of tension.
EXAMPLES OF MIXING WARM AND COOL USING MY OWN WARDROBE
I mix warm and cool colors in my looks all the time and below I am going to show you how I have done it in the past.
In the look on the left, mixing grey and camel is one of my favorite color combinations, as is camel and navy, or grey and navy. I probably wear a mix of these shades most often. As an added punch, I played my orange Tod’s bag off this backdrop of warm and cool mixing. I’ve also quite often worn this look without the camel scarf and used my orange bag to create tension with a cool grey sweater and navy blazer.
On the right, I bounced warm teal and yellow off tones of grey and denim.
My Rag & Bone blazer mixes the colors for me by pairing a cool grey with an orange accent which I often play up with my bright orange scarf. I frequently wear with look with my olive loafers and grey cashmere sweater.
On the right, chartreuse with grey, navy, and denim. A blend of warm and cool.
Lastly, prints mix warm and cool all the time, and can be great to identify how warm and cool colors are frequently mixed together if you ever need a cheat sheet when doing it for yourself.
MIXING WARM AND COOL COLORS IS MORE THAN JUST COMBINING WARM AND COOL
To say that combining warm and cool colors is just a free for all, where shades just are thrown together, we’ve all seen how combining colors with different undertones can create a disaster and looks you wouldn’t want to leave the house wearing. Unfortunately, combining warm and cool colors isn’t as willy-nilly as that but it doesn’t have to be impossible either. It just takes looking beyond the temperature of the colors you combine.
Basically, you want to create a balance between the warm and cool colors you mix. I isolated the color palettes of my outfits to point out some characteristics of the combinations which may help you navigate this. For the record, I don’t follow formulas because, for me, I’ve always gone on instinct and what looks balanced. For you, I urge you not to get caught up in formulas that force you to be too rigid either. Much like my advice on learning your best colors in the post, I shared above, sometimes it’s easier to look at what works and break down why it worked rather than backing yourself into a formula. I never bothered to look at why the warm and cool colors I mixed together worked until now. My point is, combining colors can be a lot like cooking where you may notice that you need salt to enhance some of the existing flavors or that a touch of acid may balance the heaviness of a dish. The same can be true for color combining and how it sometimes becomes a practice of adding or taking away to achieve that same thing.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MY WARM AND COOL COLOR COMBINATIONS
The first thing you may notice is that the warm-to-cool ratio for each combination is weighted in one direction with more colors being warm or cool. When combining warm and cool colors, ratio plays a huge part. Imagine it like decorating a grey couch with a red pillow. The amount of red to grey isn’t equal, there is much more grey to red in ratio. The ratio is critical when combining warm and cool colors.
Chroma can be very helpful when combining warm and cool colors because while the color temperature may not be a match, a match in chroma can be what creates the connection between the different temperatures. This was what I meant earlier when I said that using temperature as your only guide when combining colors is the same as trying to solve a problem with half the information.
However, chroma can be interesting because in some of my looks, like look #3, I actually paired a high-chroma scarf with a low-chroma outfit. This is the reason I don’t want you to get caught up in formulas or be too rigid because in this case, the high chroma of the orange cut through a large amount of low chroma grey, just like acid in a buttery dish would cut through the fat of the butter to create a harmonious dish.
looking at value can also be helpful but, again, it’s not a cut-and-dried formula that in order to combine warm and cool colors the values need to be the same. However, in some of my looks, what created balance was the fact that value was the consistency between the warm and cool colors.
Therefore, in order to combine warm and cool colors, it’s not that all of the qualities above have to be used, however, in order to create harmony between the warm and cool colors you combine, something of the above needs to connect in order to create relatedness between the temperatures. Colors combined need to have a reason to be together and whether it be chroma that ties them, value, ratio, or temperature, there has to be something that ties them together and has them make sense in an outfit. Yet there is one more critical piece.
COMBINING WARM AND COOL COLORS TO COLOR-CORRECT OR TO CREATE COLOR BALANCE
If you go back to my post from two weeks ago, I shared an image that showed how my client’s blazer looked different when paired with two very different colors. I am sharing the image again below.
You can see clearly how the color of the camel blazer skews differently when paired with the low chroma, high value, cool mint blouse vs. when it is paired with the deep teal blouse. The deep teal blouse brings out the warmer qualities of the camel blazer because of the yellow of the teal yet balances the overall look because of the teal’s blue quality. This makes the blazer look balanced, richer, and less flat than it does when it is paired with the camel. Next, when pairing the mint blouse with the navy pants and the olive pants, you can see how the coolness of the navy pants brings out the coolness of the blouse whereas when the same blouse is paired with the olive pants, the blouse loses some of its coolness and the whole outfit veers too warm.
When pairing colors together, many people think only in terms of what one singular color does to their skin tone instead of looking at how the look of a color can change when they are paired with other ones. Therefore, it’s not so much a matter of what colors you can or can’t wear as much as it is what happens when you start mixing colors together.
This is empowering because by knowing this you will be able to mix colors to look different and more flattering and even wear shades that you might not consider your best hues.
EXAMPLES OF PAIRING WARM AND COOL COLORS TO CHANGE THEIR OVERALL APPEARANCES
Below, I have created four using one item that is either warm or cool. With each piece, I have created two looks, one look matches the warmth or coolness of the piece used and the other look combines warm and cool. By doing this, I am going to show you not only the appearance of the look can change but how the actual colors can change as well.
In this first look, I have created warm and cool looks using this camel blazer from A.L.C. On the left, I paired the blazer with a soft blue blouse from Quince, and slate blue Theory pants. On the right, I used warmer tan pants from Theory and an olive scoop neck tee from M.M. Lafleur. In both looks, I finished the outfits with tan pumps.
Both looks work, but on the right, you can see how the warmer shades skew the blazer ever so slightly warmer because the warmer shades bring out the warmth of the blazer. On the left, the blazer is cooled down when paired with the cooler blues. If you can’t see it immediately, don’t beat yourself up. If it helps, look at the color chips at the bottom and then enlarged them below. I surrounded both tan shades with the colors of each outfit. You might be better able to see how the tan color casts slightly differently in each example.
In these two looks, I paired this ATM sweater with both warm and cool looks. On the left, can you see how the cool pink of the Splendid tee cuts some of the warmth or yellow of the olive cardigan compared to how much warmer the olive looks when I styled it with the burnt orange Prana tee? It’s subtle and clearly, the olive cardigan remains warm, but in the cooler outfit on the left, the cardigan doesn’t skew as warm. In addition to both looks being styled with Frame jeans, I also changed the M.Gemi sneaker colors to cool on the left and cognac on the right.
Looking at the color chips, especially enlarged, are you able to see how the olive casts differently against warm or cool colors? With the cool shades, the olive cools off a bit and even starts to throw a subtle blue cast whereas with paired with warm shades, the warmth of the olive is enhanced.
What also connects these colors well is a shared chroma level. The muted olive and soft pink connect harmoniously because of this despite one shade being cool and the other warm.
On the left, I styled this burgundy cardigan with a gold top from Banana Republic, cognac-coated jeans, and boots from M.Gemi. On the right, I created the look with a cool mint top from Vince, deep teal faux leather pants from Veronica Beard, and the same booties in navy. When paired with warm shades, the burgundy casts more yellow and when paired with cool shades, the burgundy is less warm and bluer.
I created this look to illustrate those perplexing situations where someone who usually can’t wear shades like orange finds they can. This is typically someone who has high chroma, and low-value coloring, often referred to as a winter. A shade like this orange works well because the chroma level is high and bright to meet the vividness and energy of the individual’s coloring. Speaking of Chroma, it’s the match of chroma that makes these combos work so well, both the warm and the cool looks. This is what I mean by finding a connective thread when combining warm and cool colors. In addition, orange and blue are complementary colors which, if you want to dig deeper into that you can read this post.
In the look on the right, I styled this bright cobalt scarf with an orange cashmere sweater from Saks and on the right a bright fuchsia one. Both looks are styled with cool navy pants from M.M. Lafleur and finished with the same navy ballerina flats.
Looking at the paint chips, there is no question, a shade like cobalt is about as true blue as you can get. However, despite this, when you see the shade enhanced from being surrounded by the fuchsia and navy, it brings out more of the red of the shade whereas when paired with the orange, the red in the cobalt isn’t enhanced.
YOU CAN COMBINE WARM AND COOL COLORS
You are not confined to one side of the color wheel and combining warm and cool colors isn’t nearly as hard as you probably thought it was. Colors do change when paired with other shades, you can create the perfect ratios of warm and cool to create interesting tension, and by looking for other connectivity using elements like chroma, and value, you will be able to gain more mastery in how to manipulate any color to work for you.