Picking colors is never easy. There seems to be too many choices and too many opinions and far too many opportunities to make mistakes. You know what’s even harder than picking colors? Picking colors that look good on you.
Maybe I can help. I love color and I love to study color theory and there are some helpful tips and tricks out there that can make picking a color for yourself easier. But maybe I should just mention right up front that I personally ignore these tips and tricks and wear whatever colors I like whether they flatter me or not. I have warm undertones (I’m all kinds of yellow) and a tendency for sallowness (because I’m getting than ashen gray look more and more as the years go by) which means I should avoid yellows and grays. Even so I own 2 yellow shirts, 3 grey shirts, and gray jacket, two gray suits, and I once knitted myself a mustard yellow/charcoal gray stole. Which I love. And wear all the time.
So this post on color advice is definitely in the do-as-I-say and not as-I-do category. If you’re okay with that then let’s find some colors that will make you look great!
There are Only So Many Colors to Work With
Humans can only see color that is within a certain range of wavelengths. That range is between 7 x 10-5 and 4 x 10-5 centimeters. Anything longer or shorter and we can’t see it. Anything within this range is what we call the visible spectrum. These are our colors. These are our only colors.
Hue is the name we give a color based on where it is in this spectrum. At the far left, where the wavelengths are long, the hue is red. At the far right, where the wavelengths are short, the hue is violet. All the other colors fall in between and they are very predictable.
So how did the world of color get so complicated? Because we can mix these hues up any way we like and create new colors. Well, they aren’t new, not really. They are blends or hybrids made from the hues which come from the visible spectrum. If you start mixing hues, you’ll end up with a color that won’t match up exactly to any spot in the visible spectrum.
Getting the Right Tone
“Tone” (in color theory) is a term that thrown around a lot, often with the company of “shade” and “tint”. In general they all mean that a hue, one of the colors from the visible spectrum, has been mixed with something. The sad truth is that people who write about color, or talk about color, are not always consistent with these terms and that leads to confusion. Technically
- if a hue is mixed with white its a tint
- if a hue is mixed with black its a shade
- if a hue is mixed with gray its a tone
So what do you call it when you mix a hue with another hue? Like say red with green? You get a color that has to be thought of by its masstone and undertone… which has nothing to do tone or with mixing in gray. Its easy to get confused and yes, the anal-retentive parts of my personality deeply resent not having a better way to describe all this.
When I get to be Dictator of Earth, I’m reinventing our color theory terminology. Until then we have to make do.
Masstones and Undertones
Most of the color in our world is not a pure hue. They are not straight from the visible spectrum. Most of our everyday colors are made from a mixing of hues. Your clothes are hue mixes. So is your yarn. So are you.
So what to do? Train your eye to see the hues that have been mixed into a color. Break it into down into its “pure” hues in order to understand it.
Let’s start with these:
In conversation we would probably call all of these colors yellow. In reality their masstone is yellow. Masstone is the primary hue in the color, or the hue that you identify first. The color on the left has a red undertone; the color on the right has a blue undertone. Undertone is the hue or hues that make up a smaller percentage of the color. You might need a few moments and some good lighting to see them.
Let’s try something a bit more complex next.
Here is a color I mixed up with 25% yellow, 50% white and 25% black. Technically its a yellow tone (because its yellow mixed with grey). I’m going to call it “khaki” and mix it with some undertones.
In this example khaki is the masstone. The color on the left has red undertones. The color on the right has blue undertones.
Sometimes you’ll see undertones described as “warms” and “cools”. What that means is an undertone of red or yellow can be used to “warm” a masstone up while an undertone of blue or green can be used to “cool” a masstone down.
Next time you look at your yarn stash, try to identify more that the masstones, Look for the undertones. Walk your yarn outside because natural light is best for this. Relax your eyes. Try looking at the yarn with your peripheral vision instead of dead on. Take a short break, look up at the sky, and then look back at the yarn. It can take some practice but you’ll be able to break down a color into its hues, into its masstones and undertones.
Is there some pink in that purple?
Seeing more blue in that green then you expected to?
Did your red turn out to be a “cool” red and maybe that explains why you never liked it?
Great! Now you’re ready to put that expect color eye to work on yourself.
You Ain’t All One Color
I have some shocking news for you. Maybe you should sit down. Are you ready for this?
There is not a single human being on Earth that is white. There aren’t any that are black either. Everyone is walking around this planet sporting some shade of brown. And while particular shades of brown matter to certain folks, they matter not at all when it comes to picking colors that look good on you.
If you want to wear colors that flatter, you have to figure out your undertone. People who have light masstones in their skin (aka white people) can have the same undertones as those with dark masstones in their skin (aka black people). So stop judging everyone based on the masstones and start judging them on their undertones. The person with the same undertones as you is the one you are competing with to find that perfect color for your next shawl when you go to the yarn store.
If you don’t already know your undertone, then every makeup blog and every teen magazine is ready with some help. If I was cruel I’d make you go read their websites. But I’m a sweetie so I’ll just explain it right here and save you from all the unbearable narcissism that seems to go along with makeup blogs and teen magazines.
- Look at the veins in your wrist. Again its helpful to do this outside in natural light. All veins are blue but are yours blue-green? If your veins are on the green side then your undertone is probably yellow or olive. If your veins are just blue your undertones are cool, probably blue. If you think they maybe purplish then you have a red undertone. If you can’t tell… check again. Try holding a white piece of paper against your wrist. If you really, really can’t tell then maybe you are neutral. That’s rare but it does happen.
- Do you get sunburned? Actually what I should be asking is when you spend too much time in the sun without sunscreen because you are a dork who thinks skin cancer is for other people, does it hurt the next day? If you get red quickly, you have red undertones. If burn but not right away you probably have yellow undertones. If you go straight to golden tan and never burn I hate you and you probably have olive undertone.
- Blue undertone is not common. One of the best tells for a blue undertone is a thin blue-ish line around the lips.
- Once you have narrowed it down, check to be sure. Go stand in front of a mirror and hold those colors up against a part of your body that does not get much sun. You can use t-shirts or towels or construction paper. Hold up those up against your breasts or the inside of your thigh or any other part of you that is not for public viewing. (It is difficult to look at your own butt and you may need help if that is your only non-public area.) If you’re blue, a piece of blue will bring it out. If you’re red, red will make you look like a tomato. Yellow will make you look like a banana.
Got that figured out? Know your undertone? Well here is what makeup blogs and teen magazines probably won’t tell you. You have more than one undertone, especially in your face. What you just figured out is your main undertone and its the one you were born with. However, as skin ages, it becomes less even, less smooth, and it picks up new undertones. Me? I’m naturally yellow and getting gray with age. Why? Because we all lose pigmentation with as we get older. Hair goes gray (we all know that) but we also lose pigmentation in our skin and eyes. The more you loose, the more undertones you see.
How to Look Good
Never wear your undertone. That is the single best rule to follow. Don’t draw attention to your undertone by wearing it. Wearing clothes with your undertone, especially near your face, will make you look more of what ever your undertone is and distract people from your main skin color.
If you are yellow, avoid yellows. Avoid yellow-y greens. Oranges are probably bad too. Don’t wear khakis or beige. Olive people should avoid olive (duh) and all the other greenish-yellowish colors. Olive people should avoid toned down colors altogether. Pinky people should never wear pink or warm red and they should probably never try orange either.
Wear the opposite of your undertone. The best way to keep people from seeing the undertones in your skin is to wear colors made from the other hues.
Red undertones look good in blue. If you’re a light pink, wear dark blue. If you are a ruddy red, go with baby blue. Yellow people can wear reds. Dark yellow complexions, or high yellow complexions, need pinks and salmons and tangerine. Pale yellows can wear cherry and maroon. Olive people look great in any bold, jewel tone red or blue or purple.
If its an iffy color, you can pull it off… if it has the right undertone. Here is where a lot of the confusion about “good” colors and “bad” colors come from. Maybe you have red undertones. Maybe you’ve heard all your life that you can’t wear purple. And maybe you have that one purple sweater that actually looks good on you when all the others look terrible.
Maybe that special purple sweater has blue undertones. You can sometimes get away with a usually-unflattering color if it has the right undertones. If you have a red complexion, maybe you can wear purples and pinks and yellows and grays and whites… if they have a blue undertones. Me personally? I can sometimes pull off a green… if its a blueish green. I can even look half-decent in gray its a purple-y gray.
Did that help? I hope so. Even if I haven’t given you the confidence to pick a flattering color for your next project, you should at least be able to say (confidently) “that a a warm purple and I don’t like it”.
And if you’re a geek like me who geeks on color theory, I have a few more posts on this subject. Check out:
When you study color don’t forget to stay neutral
The Value of a Color is in the Gray
How to Use That Color Wheel
Also you might want to check out
Hues, Tints, Tones and Shades: a free guide from Craftsy
Color Booklet & Color Wheel – $19.99
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When you make a purchase from one of my affiliates, I get a small commission. It doesn’t change the final price at all but it does help support this site and keep it free. Here is what some of my readers have bought (and a big thank-you to them!).
Brava Sport Yarn
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13 Comments on "Undertones, Masstones, and Picking Colors"
I love your posts on color. Color is an interesting subject with so many variables to consider. You make it easy to understand. I love clear bright colors to wear because they make me feel good but my decorating style is more muted and soft. Never could figure that difference out. Keep up your great work you are a wonderful teacher.
Thanks! And to you I say wear the colors that make you feel good and forget the rest. If your clothes make you happy then you’re smiling. A smile makes you look better than any color.
What a great article, full of useful (& easy to understand) information! I shared it with my girls, & pinned it for when I forget everything you said :”-)
Glad you liked it and thanks for the boost! I find color to be endlessly fascinating. Its nice to have an audience for my color related drabbles.
If I had to guess from this I’d say that you have red undertones, probably light red undertones. Do you blush easily? that is anotehr sing of red undertone.
If your pink, and that is my best guess, then pinks would certainly wash you out.
That would make sense, and I do blush easily. It would also explain why cool dark reds work, but not lighter or orangey reds.
I also like your posts on color. I’m trying to get better with using color in my knitting. I do a lot of very complex lace and cables but lack confidence in choosing colors for colorwork.
Choosing colors can be a bit like jumping into really cold water. The more you let yourself think about it the less likely you are to jump!
I’m happy to help encourage the yarn obsession in any way.
Love this! 😀
I definitely have a red undertone, taught to me by my mom at a pretty young age! (“Don’t wear red, look at what it does!” as my complexion changed before my eyes, hehe 😉 )
Great article, very informative! 😀
Thanks! Not that you needed any help from me it seems. 🙂
I love color, but color theory….it is so very complicated! I’ll have to come back to your wonderful, informative post because the theory has made my hair hurt, lol.
Sorry about that! Color theory can be a lot to take in.