Ever notice how certain colors can brighten up skin tones and complement them perfectly, while others ones just fall flat? There is a long history of color theory and cosmetics, and once you learn a little about how colors work, you can make chic polish recommendations and get clients color-captivated.
The idea of colors interacting with one another in complementary and contrasting ways can be traced back to the 1600s with the invention of the color wheel. Mathematical genius Sir Isaac Newton invented the color wheel to illustrate the spectrum of colored light found in white sunlight. The colors were put into a wheel form and were based off the colors shown when white sunlight was put through a prism.
The wheel divides the different shades into four categories — primary colors, secondary colors, tertiary colors, and complementary colors.
Humans have pondered the properties of color since the days of Aristotle, but Newton’s color wheel really opened the door for modern day color theories. Scientists began to research how different colors are made, how humans are able to distinguish colors with their eyes, and the different psychological effects colors have on humans.
Scientists looked into how we are physically able to see colors (because the majority of other species are color-blind) and found that humans have three cones in the eye that are programmed to read three different wavelengths. One set detects long wavelengths, another for medium wavelengths, and the third for short. These wavelengths just happen to correspond with the primary colors. So cones work together like primary colors to blend the different light wavelengths into showing all the colors in the spectrum.
It’s almost like humans have a color wheel inside the eye, mixing and matching to make all the colors we see.
Cultural psychologists have also looked into how certain cultures respond to different colors. White, for example, has strong connotations in western societies for symbolizing purity, cleanliness, and neutrality, but in many eastern cultures it is a symbol for death and mourning.
The color red is theorized to be the shade that has the strongest impact on humans, and it is no coincidence that it is frequently used in serious matters such as warning signs and professional sports, where a red card is issued before a player’s ejection from the game.
Knowing colors have a significant impact on the psyche, you can incorporate this theory into your beautifying skills and help clients color coordinate. It’s a long road from Isaac Newton’s color wheel to your client’s fingernails, but here’s how it can apply to you.
Primary Colors (P)
The pure pigments that cannot be made by mixing any colors together. These colors actually make up all the colors in the spectrum. Various mixes make the different shades, along with elements of black and white. The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue.
Secondary Colors (S)
Colors that are made by mixing equal parts of any two primary colors together. They are made up of orange (1:1 red and yellow), green (1:1 yellow and blue), and violet (1:1 blue and red).
Tertiary Colors (T)
Colors made from mixing equal parts of one primary color with one of its closest secondary colors. These are somewhat intermediate colors, and are made up of red-orange, orange-yellow, yellow-green, green-blue, blue-violet, and violet-red.
Colors located directly opposite each other on the color wheel. The wheel shows what the colors look like if the two are mixed. If they are mixed evenly, they appear closer to the center and are a brownish, more neutral color. If one is mixed in a higher ratio, than the more abundant color will be dominant. This is shown in the color wheel as the shades move toward the outer edge.
The example skin tones shown here go from coolest to warmest.
Skin Color and Undertones
So how does understanding the basic color wheel help with picking polish? Well, skin tones can be categorized in similar ways to the color wheel. Skin tones are considered warm or cool in color depending on the undertone they have, and not the outward color of the skin. The undertone can be found by looking at the wrist area, or another place on the body that receives little light.
Roxanne Valinoti, an education ambassador for CND, explains how she determines skin warmth by looking at the undertone of the skin. “Look at the wrist area of the client’s arm. If you see yellow, orange, or olive undertones, and if the veins appear slightly more green than blue, than you have a warm skin tone,” says Valinoti. Cool undertones will have a bluish or pink shade in the wrist area.
Techs can also check to see if the skin looks better with gold jewelry rather than silver. Skin that complements gold jewelry is warm in tone, whereas silver jewelry looks best against cool tones. Warm skin tones also tend to tan more, while cool tones tend to burn. It’s important to note that skin tone (warm and cold) is determined by the undertone, and not the outward skin color. Some people with dark skin can actually be cool tones, with blue and pink undertones. And the same applies to fair-skinned people who are warm toned, with yellow and olive undertones.
Valinoti notes that some skin tones are difficult to discern whether they are warm or cool, and fall into a neutral category. “Neutrals can wear just about anything,” Valinoti says, “But they usually should avoid some reds that are too orange.”
Matching Skin to Polish
Once you have established a client’s skin tone, you can make recommendations as to what polish color might complement their skin tone nicely. Many nail manufacturers are strong proponents of color theories, and encourage nail techs to be knowledgeable on how to read skin tones and apply them to the color chart.
Valinoti advises that cool skin tones look best against the warmer colors in the color wheel. “Polishes that have jewel-type color, charcoal, and yellow work great with cool toned-clients,” she says, “And cool skin tones can also look good in colors that have blue undertones, like raspberry, violet, navy, and blue-reds.”
And as for warm skin tones? “Warm skin tones look best in earthy colors like brown, beige, peach, orange, bronze, and brick-reds,” says Valinoti.
Essie Weingarten, president of Essie Cosmetics, says that for light, fair skin with cool undertones, polishes in dark reds and browns work well, as well as light pinks and a creamy orange. For medium skin with more neutral undertones, the purples come in handy as well as peachy-pink shades. And for dark and olive skin with warm tones, techs can bring out the deep reds, oranges, and beige colors as well.
But there are other ways to complement a skin tone with polish. Valinoti says that once you establish whether the skin tone is warm or cold, you can choose to either match, neutralize, or accessorize the client’s skin with an appropriate polish color.
To match the undertone, says Valinoti, you have to pick a color with the same undertones found in the skin, so for warm undertones use yellow, and for cool undertones use blue.
Neutralizing an undertone requires a hue that offsets or counteracts the given natural undertone color in the skin. The way to neutralize a color is to match it with a color on the opposite side of the color wheel. A cool undertone in the skin, like a blue or a pink, could be neutralized by using an orange or green hue, respectively.
To create a dramatic statement with polish, you can go with accessorizing. Accessorizing, as Valinoti says, is a way of creating a dramatic bold statement that is interesting yet fashion forward. An example would be a bright yellow nail on a cool-toned client.
Coloring Outside the Lines
Once you have an idea of skin tones and colors, you can start to incorporate other aspects of a client’s personality into the equation. They may have cool undertones, but are already complementing those with a blue dress. You can choose to further accentuate the coolness by using a deep red polish with hints of blue. The choices are really endless, and your eye will get sharper the more you practice.
What’s important to remember is to base each color evaluation on the colors in the skin at the present time — because hand shades change. Though undertones are for the most part consistent, the overtones can change frequently. Elsbeth Schuetz, celebrity guest artist and accomplished nail tech, says color recommendations will vary as time goes on even with the same client.
A client with cool overtones may look great in a certain shade when her hands are a little lighter, but when the summer hits and she begins to tan, the color might not bring out the undertone as well as it did before.
Quick Skin Tone Guide
Here’s a quick guide on skin tones and recommended polish colors. Remember these are just recommendations and are not absolute truths.