Color Theory for Makeup Application

Color Theory for Makeup Application - Cosmetic Composition

In the never-ending quest to feel confident in my makeup skills, I’ve been reviewing the makeup chapter in my esthetics textbook lately (and you know, trying to study for my licensing exam…). The color theory terminology was a topic I definitely don’t have memorized and I figure I should get these out of the way before I start re-memorizing all the facial bones & muscles.

One of the best things about studying makeup is the blend of art and science. In the art world every shade, tint, and hue is a delicate decision. In science, colors are chosen for their chemical and physical properties. This blend is often reflected in color cosmetics. Color cosmetics include foundation, BB cream, eyeshadow, lipstick, blush, etc. Color theory is primarily applied to makeup application when dealing with contour, highlight, eyeshadow application, and color selection. I wanted to go over some of the technical terminology associated with color theory in the context of makeup – so here’s your art class refresher!

Technical Color Terms - Cosmetic Composition


Primary Colors – red, yellow, and blue are the three primary colors that are the base of every visible color. These are referred to as primary because they are singularly made up of their own pigments (1 =1).

Secondary Colors – orange, green, and violet are the secondary colors that are built up of two primary colors (1+1 = 2).

Complimentary Colors – pairings of primary and secondary colors introduce complementary colors. Each pigment makes the other appear bolder. Think of Christmas colors – red and green, the intense red and woodsy green can be seen everywhere. The yellow and purple Laker’s jerseys are bold as ever. My alma matter’s blue and orange colors can proudly be seen from anywhere on campus.

(P.S. I wrote about how complementary colors are used for color correcting concealers here!)

Tertiary Colors – red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet are the tertiary colors and mark the start of blurring on the color wheel. Within these tertiary colors, we are able to find any pigment (aside from white and black toned colors). These colors are made out of a primary color with a secondary color (1+2 = 3).

Hue – this is the color that we see, built from the primary colors.

Saturation – the intensity of a color (or hue), this can be described as pale or bold.

Value – how bright a color is, commonly called a light or dark color (think baby shower yellow compared to school bus yellow).

Tint – adding white to a pure hue is not only an edit feature on Instagram but can be used to lighten or soften colors in a photograph.

Shade – adding black to a pure hue to make the color appear darker. We all throw some shade around occasionally.

Tone – adding gray to a pure hue, which can soften or increase the saturation of a color.

Contouring – developed by makeup artists like Kevin Aucoin and made popular by reality TV, contouring is the act of using darker than neutral hues to create depth. In makeup, contouring is used to push back or draw attention away from a feature.

Highlight – may this term be as bright as your future. Highlighting is the act of using light or pearlescent colors to bring forward or draw attention to a feature.

So next time you start plotting out your makeup think about all of these terms and see if you can accomplish your dream look with a little help from some technicalities 😉



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