Sometimes I start out with a straightforward but undefined question, and then let myself be completely derailed by others who have already complicated the question, perhaps to sell something. I like complex questions, so I go ahead and fall for it, knowing all the while that something is a little off. This is how I ended up researching the Myers-Briggs typing system way too much, and also seasonal color analysis.
I started off a while ago wondering about decent colors to wear, since I don’t look great in black and white, which are the easiest neutrals to find. Meanwhile, any combination of blue and green that could convincingly have come from a plant or mineral dye is fine. Other colors are unpredictable, especially warm colors.
After trying on a series of yellow and white dresses that made me look like I had just been hung upside-down and let all the blood drain to my head, I decided to look up color schemes to see if there were suggestions somewhere between “only the part of the spectrum from emerald to royal blue” and “try on everything in every color to see what works.”
It turns out, most of the women who write about wearable colors online are riffing off of 1970s seasonal color palates. I read a lot of blog posts about it, and they were interesting but not very useful. Most of them try to sell readers a “personal color draping,” but seemed resigned that almost no one was actually going to do that.
They usually start their tutorials with “undertones,” asking readers to check their veins to see if they’re more blueish or more greenish, which suggests if they have a “warm” or “cool” undertone. That seems to correspond to something like how much yellow pigment you have in your skin, but it’s all very vague physiologically. Mine are kind of bluish, so I suppose in these systems I’m “cool.” They also ask what foundation you wear (I don’t) and whether you look better in gold or silver (I seem to be fine in both, but not in silver with white sparkles or pale gold).
The most noticeable thing about my skin is that it’s reddish, like a Scottish lass who’s spent too much time in the elements. I know I’m wearing an unsuitable color when I look at myself and think of a boiled lobster. Some of the posts include “bad things that happen when you wear the wrong colors,” none of which are “I look like I’m overheating.” Instead, they chase after vanishingly small distinctions around undertones, contrast, saturation, and various other things, then suggest that if you’re confused it’s because you should go be draped by them.
After staring at pictures for a while, I’ve decided that I’m probably what they call a “soft autumn,” which is warm but not so warm as to wear mustard yellow or pumpkin orange particularly well, and more muted than bright. I’m still not sure, but have decided it doesn’t matter much.
An Easier System
As someone with an art background, who’s taken courses in color theory and is decent at color schemes, the process around this seemed unnecessarily ambiguous and difficult, without being particularly useful. It’s probably easier to just work with color schemes directly, picking some central colors that are something like my skin and perhaps hair, and then adding colors that harmonize with that. When you take a kind of rose color like is on my face and look for almost any standard color scheme, it comes out either monochromatic mauves and roses or those natural blues and greens from above. I don’t think the undertone thing ends up mattering all that much and just makes things look trickier and more ambiguous.
If I were designing some guidelines for someone a little familiar with art, it would look something more like this:
- Take a nice clear photo of yourself in good light and use a color picker to find some colors from your face, neck, and hair. If you want, wear something you know you look great in, and include that in your swatch as well. Don’t worry too much about undertones.
- Are your skin/hair/eyes in high, medium, or low contrast with one another? If the contrast is medium to low, you might not look so good in bright, sharp combinations like black and white or unnatural colors like lime green or lemon yellow. This can be inconvenient, because almost everything comes in white and black, while hardly anything comes in colors like deep mauve, eggplant, buttermilk, and other low to medium contrast options. that’s why they have to get named after foods rather than having their own names.
- Use something like the Adobe color picker above (or your own imagination) to find some harmonious color schemes (analogous, triadic, and complimentary are a good place to start) with a similar amount of contrast to that between your skin, eyes, and hair. Not only do they harmonize about as well as the complete palates listed online, they form more manageable combinations.
- Try to find those colors. That can be inconvenient, because often there are only a half dozen colors in large supply each season, but its useful to at least know what to aim for and also what kind of color scheme it fits into.
As I mentioned, I’m pink. Very pink. All the colors in any image of me are pink, with a few bits of burnt orange in my hair. I’ve got medium contrast, and don’t look great in black or (especially) white.
If I make a classic triadic color scheme using my skin tone, it gives a color very like the soft autumn French Blue, with much less reading and contradictory advice. Since my skin is pink, the triad is variations on complimentary colors with low saturation. Yellows are tricky, most are too mustardy and I don’t like them on me.
A deeper triadic scheme with the burgundy of my favorite hat and some more shades of that french blue. This explains my problem with saturated or deep yellow: I usually wear blue somewhere, and anyway my eyes have some blue in them. In yellow I end up looking all primary, like a child’s play room.
A complimentary color scheme based off the pink on the right: any moss or sage green I can usually wear, though I’m not a fan of the mint.
An analogous color scheme that includes a nice purple coat, a peach blouse I like, the magenta from the sweater pictures above, and that central pink.