Which colors best suit you: Understanding color theory in makeup

Color wheel

Now that we’ve completed our discussions on some often-asked foundation questions, let’s move onto another challenging area for some: color, specifically in the form of eyeshadow (and a little bit blush and lipstick). There is what seems like an infinite amount of eyeshadows, eyeshadow palettes, and lipstick colors available to us to purchase. It can be so completely overwhelming for those who are new to makeup or just starting out to know what colors best suit their hair, complexion or eye color. It’s a question some of my closest girlfriends ask quite frequently. This is where color theory can provide an effective framework for reference.

Please do not mistake color theory as a bunch of “makeup rules” that you need to follow if you have x hair color, or y eye color. You can literally pair whatever colors you want to create a look. Be guided by your creativity and have fun with it; that’s the best part. If you hate what you’ve created, you can simply wash it off. But for those that crave some guidelines to follow while makeup shopping or while getting ready for an evening out, color theory should help you tremendously.

What is color theory? 

Color theory is often taught in fine arts schools, graphic design courses and even in some computer science courses. It can get very technical and a bit confusing at times, but basically it’s the study of color combinations and the resulting visual effect from pairing certain colors together. What I’ll present here in this post is a very simple breakdown of the basics that I think will be the most helpful when it comes to makeup application later. If you’d like to take your education further, there are plenty of online resources to help you investigate the more nitty-gritty details of color theory.

The Color Wheel 

To start off, you have the color wheel as seen in the banner image to this blog post. When in doubt about what colors will go together, refer to this image for guidance. Well, how do you use it exactly? To get the answer let’s look at how the wheel is constructed.

Note 1. You start off with your primary colors: red, blue and yellow. All other colors are made from combinations of these colors together in varying percentages. Primary colors sit at opposite ends of the color wheel from each other.

Note 2. From mixing two primary colors, you then get secondary colors: purple (blue + red), green (blue + yellow), and orange (red + yellow). Secondary colors sit between primary colors on the color wheel.

Note 3. From mixing primary and secondary colors, you then get tertiary colors which are varying shades of any color on the color wheel, like purpleyblues (blue violet) or yellowygreens (chartreuse). Tertiary colors sit between primary and secondary colors on the color wheel.

Color Pairings

Now that we know more about how the color wheel is constructed, how do we interpret it?

Let’s first mention that warm colors like reds, oranges & yellows sit on one side of the color wheel, while cool colors like blues, purples, & greens sit on the opposite side. Said another way, warm & cool colors are complementary to each other because they sit opposite each other on the color wheel. (Just a quick note here: within one color family you can have both warm and cool versions of the same color. For example, you can have a cooler red like a purpley-red [burgundy] or a warmer red like an orangey-red [tomato]. The same applies with all other colors.)

Complementary colors have a ton of visual impact when paired together simply because the contrast between them is so great. Some standard complementary pairings include red & green, purple & yellow, and orange & blue.

Complementary pairing of red & green eye shadows. From L to R: Antiqued; Sumptuous Olive (both from MAC).
Complementary pairing of blue & orange eye shadows from the Too Faced Semi-Sweet Chocolate Bar Palette.

Another class worth mentioning are analogous color families. What these are are colors that sit right next to each other on the color wheel. For example, tones of reds & warm purples or reds and warm oranges. You find these a lot in eye shadow palettes where brands pick similar tones of one or two colors so the user can achieve a cohesive look. However, you’re not going to get the same level of contrast with analogous colors as you would using complementary colors.

Analogous color family from Urban Decay’s Naked Heat Palette showing varying shades of warm browns, reds, golds & purpley-reds.

Color Theory in Makeup Application

So you might be thinking now, how can color theory influence my makeup choices? It depends on what you want to be guided by; perhaps your lifestyle or your coloring. Ask yourself these kinds of questions. What kind of look do I want to achieve with my makeup (for example, a natural makeup for work, or defined makeup, or statement makeup for nighttime, etc)? Do I want to play off my eye color, hair color, or skin color?

If you look to your own natural coloring for inspiration, for instance your eye color, you can use the guidelines below, which have been inspired by the color wheel, for reference:

Brown or hazel eyes – can pair well with almost any other color (lucky!), but purples and blues look particularly nice

Blue eyes – try warmer colors like orangey-browns, reddish-browns, or bronzey golds

Green eyes – try purples and reddish tones

In the past, brands like Smashbox and Charlotte Tilbury have designed shadow palettes and cream shadow sticks specifically to enhance certain eye colors (think Tilbury’s Colour Chameleon Eyeshadow Pencils); this is color theory in practice.

Bolder & Triadic Looks

If you’re looking to make a bolder statement with your makeup choices, think about the complementary colors discussed earlier. For instance, I’ve paired a warm orangey-brown eye shadow with a bright cobalt blue eyeliner in the past for real contrast. Or you could apply purple shadow all over the lid and pair it with a warm red lipstick. Or you could ultilize the contrast between warm & cool colors. I like to apply a cool grey eye shadow on the lid sometimes and throw a warm reddish-brown color in the crease for a beautifully defined look.

A triadic look is another bold option. The idea is to pick three colors from the color wheel that are equi-distant from each other to feature, like yellow, blue and purple, for maximum contrast. A yellowy-gold on the lids with a navy shadow in the crease, and a purple lipstick. Wow! There are so many choices you could make to create a really colorful, contrasting look. You just have to be confident with it.

Pairing of green eye shadow with red lips to show contrast of complementary colors. The red lip also picks up the warm tones in my hair.

More Natural, Everyday Looks (Monochromatic & Analogous) 

If you’re looking for a more natural or work-friendly makeup, think about a monochromatic look where you use the same color in varying tones on your eyes, cheeks and lips. It’s a very chic and easy way to wear makeup that’s come back into style in the past few years. For instance, say you have a cool hair color like an ashy brown that you want to use for inspiration: try pairing a taupe brown (like from the Becca Ombre Nudes Palette) on the lids, a neutral beige blush (like MAC’s Harmony Blush), with a nude lip with an brown undertone (like Tom Ford’s Universal Appeal Matte Lipstick). This look could work on a variety of skin tones; you’d just have to dial up or dial down the depth of color to maintain the monochrome feel.

Monochromatic color scheme of Becca Ombre Nudes Palette showing a gradient of cool brown shades that work perfectly together.

If you already own a shadow palette, you most likely have what you need to create an analogous look. For instance if you use the Urban Decay Naked Heat Palette, you could apply one of the lighter brown shades on the lid, a slightly darker red or brown shade in the crease to add dimension and the darkest purpley-red shade as an eyeliner for definition. This is a very classic way to wear eye shadow, and since the colors are all very close on the color wheel you will get a cohesive and polished look. For makeup beginners, I really do recommend starting with eye shadow palettes as it’s an easier way to navigate color. 

(I used a few sources to aid in writing this post. Check out JKissa Makeup and Sharon Farrell on YouTube. Both creators utilize color in very interesting ways and discuss color theory effectively and succinctly.)

I’d love to hear what your favorite color combinations are!

xo, Erica



Author: Erica

Hi! I’m Erica, a makeup enthusiast based outside of NYC. I discovered my love of cosmetics back in 2011 when I started watching simple tutorials on YouTube. It was a revelation to me that with just a simple few swipes of mascara or dabs of blush, you could transform into a more enhanced version of yourself. My obsession has not abated over the years, but instead has grown stronger as the beauty industry has gone from strength to strength. After graduating from business school in 2018, I decided to finally share my thoughts and opinions on all things cosmetics and this is where ‘We are glamerus’ was born. I share my musings on a bi-weekly basis on everything from my holy grail products and preferred application techniques, to the latest trends overtaking the beauty world. I hope you enjoy! xo

2 thoughts on “Which colors best suit you: Understanding color theory in makeup”

  1. Excellent informative post. I like both cool and warm colors and often mix them together! Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t . Going through a makeup rut recently so your suggestion on using a classic look as can be created with the Becca palette might be a good idea!

Leave a Reply