Color Theory

Fall color and you

fall-color-janebalshaw-comAutumns in New England are famous for its trees full of colorful leaves so in this vibrant upcoming season I want to reintroduce you to the concept of seeing yourself as a palette of color, tinged with tones made inherent by the same science as trees.  Just as leaf-green is not its green without the red underlying pigment, our skin tones are made up layers that give us our ultimate coloring.

The concept of identifying our personal coloring so that we can therefore wear color on our body to achieve harmony, was first established in the 1940s by Suzanne Caygill, a U.S. fashion designer.

Human beings, the highest order of nature, carry information about their personality and style in their own natural coloration — the pigments in their skin, hair and eyes — and these colors are related to the color harmonies in nature. Suzanne Caygill

Her observations of nature led her to create a color theory based on the 4 seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, selecting clothing colors for her clients through detailed analysis and individualized palettes. This 4 season color theory was streamlined by subsequent fashion consultants lumping all populations into 4 select palettes, two warm and two cool.


In the 1980’s at the height of the 4-season-frenzy I was working as a make-up artist blending custom color to match the skin. I began to see errors in this limited seasonal approach; many people did not neatly fit into those 4 categories. Even myself with my black hair and then pale skin diagnosed as a “winter” was more flattered in a peachy pink nude lipstick rather than one that was cast fuchsia. I had, and still do have, a golden flush to my skin. And although I had dramatic tonal contrast between my hair color and my skin color, there was a place medium tones based on the medium depth of my eye color.

Based on these observations in seeing hundreds of faces I happen to notice a common denominator outside of the traditional 4 season theory. Rather than noticing just warm or cool (because this is subjective anyway) I noticed, like a painter would, that human coloring had an inherent cast of the three Primary Colors either red, yellow or blue. Just like the natural world around us, blends of these hues make all other colors – warm and cool – and when grouped together using their predominant cast and mathematical sequencing, natural harmony is achieved. Read more about my theory here…

When colors are chosen which are in mathematical balance or harmony with the unique ‘geometry’ of an individual, the overall visual effect is one of beauty and health.

Color harmony is an absolute science. Just like good visual design or great flavor in food, combining components that are related and that emphasis each other is most pleasing to our eyes. Conversely, there is shock value – such as dissonance in music or neon color – that some people would say is interesting but no one would describe these as harmonious. Color that rolls in and out of a picture blending with subtle, almost unnoticeable detail is what comforts our nervous system because we inherently recognize this balance that is found in nature all around us.

To many, the thought of fussing about what we adorn our bodies with is devoid of value. Clothing is simply protection from the elements, and when you compare ourselves to less fortunate populations who have next to nothing it can seem crass. But given the choice….why not emphasize our individual beauty, specially crafted by nature rather than take away from it? It can be as simple as choosing one garment on a rack vs the other hanging right next to it, choosing hair color tones slightly to one direction rather than the other or realizing that you can wear make-up without looking like you do. The resulting visible harmony is immediately comforting and has value when what you see in the mirror reflects the appearance of restful health.  This is the power of color harmony.


Skin that is thin and has its natural blood supply close to its surface will let the red color of this oxygenated hemoglobin shine through tingeing the complexion with a reddish appearance. The melanin pigment in the skin has a brown cast and the keratin in the skin is yellowish so, depending on how much of these are present, a translucent skin can can be a dark red color or a pale rosy color. Genetics will determine how little or how much color is in the skin and how thin our skin will be. This color balance between the yellow-brown melanin/keratin combination and the cool red cast of blood is what creates a the full spectrum of red complexions from dark russet to lively rose to pale peach.

Interestingly, this sheer red quality runs through to the hair and eyes as well. Just like leaves in autumn that when much of their green pigment is gone the underlying red tone becomes visible, on a RED person, hair will be varying shades of red-brown either light or dark. Eye colors will coincide making brown eyes more chestnut-brown, blue eyes will be more periwinkle purple-blue and green eyes will go towards teal jade.

red undertones final


Skin that is thicker and therefore more opaque will retain the yellow-brown property in the skin given by the mix of melanin and keratin. The red tones of the under-lying blood flow are not as visible as in thinner skins so the complexion retains a more golden hue. The greater the concentration of keratin in a thicker skin, the more golden it will appear. A pale opaque skin that is freckled (with spots of melanin) will appear more golden brown than its counterpart that does not have freckles and of course darker thick skins will be quite golden. True yellow based complexions are in the minority of the world’s population as most skins are not as thick; although a keratin heavy diet will artificially pigment a skin with yellow.

Interestingly, this golden quality runs through to the hair and eyes as well. On a YELLOW person, hair color will maintain a golden quality; even black hair will be a brownish black (yellow added to black = brown), brown hair will be russet or acorn and blond hair will be golden straw to fire engine red. Eyes will coincide making brown eyes more leather brown, blue eyes more turquoise and green eyes more lime jade.YELLOW UNDERTONES


Skin that has its blood supply lower in the tissue will lose much of its red warmth. A medium-thick skin will showcase its surface yellow-brown when plenty of keratin and melanin are present. Looking down into the depths of the skin on the most thin types, the natural shadows that are cast lend a cool tone to the skin. In paler thin skins where little melanin, less keratin and little blood supply is apparent, skin tones will appear almost beige resulting in the “china doll” bisque coloring, while the deepest of these skin tones will appear like chocolate. Given the weather extremes in most of the world around the equator or at the poles that determine skin protective qualities, this type of skin is most common where blood vessels are protected deeply in the tissue. The varying genetics in this broad population make skin tones more diverse in this BLUE category than in others.

Interestingly, this cool quality runs through to the hair and eyes as well. On a BLUE person, hair will remain free of any red color creating jet blacks, bark browns and sandy taupes. Eye color will coincide as well making browns eyes looking black or chocolate, blue eyes grayish navy and greens going more to the hazel teal shades.

blue final #2

It seems that as a society we are trending again towards this color awareness.  Gone are the days of the limited color palettes as a new generation of colorists are embracing the unique differences in human beings.  This is good color theory. Thanks for listening and let me hear your thoughts!

Read about my Personal Color Analysis service here.

PLEASE NOTE: Most of my clients are women so I write in the feminine but men can embrace this color concept too, at the very least for making wardrobe choices easy.


4 thoughts on “Fall color and you”

  1. The photos at the beginning of your post are AMAZING Jane!! Gorgeous, as are you-love the b&w photo of you 🙂 And the today photo too 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone



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