Conversant In Color: Warm or Cool?

Information about color proliferates online and off: how to choose colors for your wardrobe, how to find “your” colors, and how to marry colors into a cohesive “story.”  Usually, I find articles on the subject assume the individual is at the mercy of this year’s Pantone color chart and the stuff available in high street shops.  The advice is often good, as far as it goes, but what about those of us who have a greater degree of creative control when putting together our wardrobes?

I mean sewists, of course.  We can build our own wardrobes using our choice of cuts, colors, fabrics, fiber contents, embellishments and seam treatments.  For us sewists, the field is wide open.  We can do whatever we want.

I like this colorwheel, we’ll visit it more later. Click for a long and detailed article on “warm” and “cool” colors in art history.

I don’t think that means we should do whatever we like.  Sometimes a cut or a color or a style simply doesn’t suit the wearer.  When we face unlimited options, sometimes it’s hard to sort the good ideas from the bad.

I’d like to focus more on color.  It’s not a subject I’ve written about much in the past, but I do pay close attention to use of color in my own sewing and when helping students/clients plan theirs.  In this post, I’ll share one of the basic ways I think about color, and two “color stories.”  I’d like to make this a regular feature- discussing an aspect of color selection and sharing a pair of stories.

Cool or Warm?

Click for source

This is a useful and simple way to divide individual coloring into two basic color families.  It’s by no means applicable to everyone, and sometimes a person can wear some colors from both groups.  It’s just a simple shorthand.

Examples of “warm” (with yellow undertones) and “cool” (with bluer/pinkish undertones) black skin.*

Also, I have discovered that sometimes people make assumptions about their coloring and cling to them resolutely.  “Cool” does not mean “white” and “warm” does not mean “ethnic.”  A person’s coloring type can change with age, too.  Just so we’re clear.

click for useful basic primer on “cool” and “warm”- more in depth than this post.

The very simplest and reliable way I have found for separating the warms from the cools is the white/ivory color test.  I can’t remember where I first discovered this test, but repeated use has shown me it works.  White looks great on cools and not so great on warms.  Ivory, however, looks fantastic on warms and tends to make cools look like tuberculosis patients.

Warms may have chestnut brown, auburn, or blond hair.  Cools tend to have black or dark brown hair, or pale/cool blond hair.  Also, warms tend to have brown eyes (though not always! many of my warm friends have blue or greeny-gold eyes) and cools tend to have very dark brown, blue, green or gray eyes (again, not always!).

Naturally, human beings exhibit a wide variety of color combinations and it’s impossible to make broad statements about color that cover 100% of all cases.  Warm/cool is merely a useful place to begin understanding what colors work for you.

“I’m a warm/cool, I can’t wear purple/pink/red/blue/etc!”

My answer is- you probably can. Often, learning to wear a particular color means finding the right shade of the color for your skin tone and discovering a few good “secondary” or “accent” colors.  This week, I want to illustrate a “warm” purple and a “cool” purple color story using images of lavender fields.

You can also play around with this idea using paints.  If you mix equal parts red and blue, you’ll get purple.  For a purple that will flatter a cool skintone, add more blue.  For a “warm” purple, mix in more red.  It’s fun, try it.

I grabbed this photo of a lavender field from Wiki commons.  The plummy dark and lighter purples (verging into pink) work quite well with warm skin tones, and the soft orange and green harmonize beautifully.  When choosing colors for a capsule wardrobe or even an outfit, I like to first choose a neutral and then build in colors.  We’ll talk about neutrals another time, these are more like the “fun” and “pretty” colors used to flesh out a nice wardrobe and tastefully rescue the wearer from too much neutrality.

These are the purples I’d use for a cool skin tone.  You can see the dark/light purples are considerably bluer than the shades in the warm chart.   I paired the purples with a cool green and blue-gray pulled from the photo.

*My color stories (for now) are skewed toward my own coloring and my daughter’s coloring.  We both have light skin tones.  She is a “warm” and I am a “cool.”  I like to write about topics I feel I know well, which is why I’m using myself and my daughter as examples.  I’d love to see color stories designed by women with other coloring types (information is hard to find); if you put something together (or find a great photo and want me to make a color story to share here), shoot me an email.

Are you a warm or cool?  What colors do you stay away from? (I can’t wear yellow to save my life, and orange is iffy.)

Next Tuesday- Conversant in Color: Observation- You and Your Environment


98 comments

  1. As usual Steph, you explain things so well! For the first time I can confidently say “I am a cool” (different to ‘I am cool’, ha) and not feel totally trivial for even wondering about it. I’d thought the whole colour typing was just some money-making gimmick from the eighties, although I’ve always gravitated towards a certain colour palette for myself.
    I have just been looking at pictures of my kids and can see I have two warms with a cool in the middle there :)
    My ‘gut feel’ has generally been right but this will be useful for fabric purchases in future. Thanks!

    • Yeah no problem… I really like the simple “white” and “ivory” test because it really helps. Certain colors definitely definitely flatter various skintones, I think some of the stuff surrounding “colors” is a bit of bunk, but in general it really helps…

      Whether or not it’s trivial is a whole other kettle of fish and open for discussion. I don’t think so, I find when I know I’m well dressed for whatever occasion (grocery shopping, parties, whatever) I’m more comfortable. I don’t have to worry about my clothes while I’m wearing them, I can just focus on being a person so I see it as being somewhat the opposite of trivial.

      I tend to buy the same colors over and over for myself, occasionally branching out a bit… Knowing what to look for in the fabric shop is really the best way to start building a cohesive wardrobe… But eeek I’m getting into the material for the third color post, so I’ll leave it there for now…

      • I just remember there being some fad in the eighties or maybe early nineties of ‘colour consultants’ where people would ‘go and get their colours done’… it may have even been party plan or something. I think they were given a season – “you’re an autumn” or whatever and a palette they had to stick to. Just seemed rather silly. But the way you’ve explained it makes much more sense. It’s actually a lot less restrictive and more instinctive than ‘systems’ like that make it seem.

        • “Color Me Beautiful” was basically a division into Cool/Warm Pale/Saturated. It helped to have someone else give you a clue what to shop for. It went something like Spring = Warm/Pale, Summer = Cool/Pale, Fall = Warm/Saturated, Winter = Cool/Saturated. At least, as far as I could figure out from the book I bought on a remaindered table, just after the peak of the fad.

          • Color Me Beautiful is an interesting read, to be sure. If anyone is interested in color and clothing, I recommend at least looking through it and thinking about some of the concepts.

        • I remember those “parties” and you used to sit there and have various fabrics draped over your chest and shoulder. At the end the lady would give you a colour swatch of various “perfect colours” to take home. A good idea really and we could still do this using Steph’s techniques and keeping a small swatch of each fabric we sew and making up a “booklet” that we can keep in our handbags (of all the colours that work really well on us).

  2. Other things that can affect what colors look good on you are dying your hair and how much of a tan you have at the moment. The hardest time I ever had choosing colors for myself was when I was a red head. Mostly I wear whatever I feel like, but I do tend to avoid really bright things (which is unfortunate, because everything in the stores right now is super bright and 80s “retro”).

    I’m itching to do the white/ivory test now! I can’t recall every trying something on and thinking “This makes me look terrible/ill/washed out”. Maybe I’ve just been lucky enough to naturally gravitate towards colors that look good on me! (Or I’ve just been completely oblivious. lol)

    Can’t wait for more color posts!

    • That’s true–hair color can really change the way skin tone is perceived. I’m a natural medium-cool brown. However, during the brief time I was a “blonde” everything had to change. I found blonde to be more restrictive, but I could wear beige and tan fairly well–whereas with my natural hair beige clothes tended to make me look sick. Also had to change my makeup, again to more neutral colors for the blonde.
      ~Jen

    • This has been something I have been looking into.. as I am constantly switching between cool/warm, I can never tell! I have really really pale skin, so always thought I was a cool, however have brown eyes and (not exactly real) red hair. I have experimented a lot with colour I guess in terms of changing my hair colour over the years. I seem to suit the warmer reds, the purple/reds looked way too harsh against my face. Maybe I am a warm! Have to check the white ivory test out.

      • Yes, haircolor is important! Mine can get a bit reddish in the summer, I’ve been known to dye it black to help make my coloring “clearer” if that makes sense… I think a tan would probably affect the shades of colors someone might wear, but the undertones of the skin would remain the same..

        Stephanie– Siiiiiigh, when is 80’s going to die? Seriously… I remember that from like 6 years ago. Let the 80’s go, people.. Right?

        Jen- That sounds about right. :)

        Kleite: I think mostly redheads are warm… My sister is a redhead, and several of my cousins, and they are definitely much much better in “warm” colors… Since you’re pale, you might find that colors look best on you that are less intense…. We’ll be talking about contrasting and complimentary colors, too. :)

  3. I love discussions of color, and I love your blog, so you have thoroughly made my morning! I can attest to the way people’s coloring can change throughout life. My mum recently went from a warm red-head to a cool with white/platinum blonde hair. Naturally, she has found that the colors she wears need adjusting – even her neutrals. She never used to wear grey, but she looks fantastic in a cool grey now.

    As a cool who looks better in ivory than in white, I like playing with colors that fall outside my “zone.” I have found that when doing so color intensity can be as important as shade. The bolder, cool colors look better on me, so a pumpkin orange also looks better than say a pale moss green.

    • Yes… Skin tones can change with age, too…

      At the risk of rushing in where angels fear to tread, I would say from your description you’re warm… Pumpkin orange is warm, and pale moss green (like the one in my second storyboard) is a cool color. And yes, I very very much agree, intensity can be just as important as shade and tone. There’s only so much info that fits into one post! :)

  4. Great article regarding color, I especially enjoy reading the sentence ” cool or warm have nothing to do with skin color” and “your color changes with age”. The last sentence woke me up, I never cross my mind that as we age our colors ( skin tone and hair changes. Thanks for writting such a great article.

    • Thanks… I spend a lot of time reading/thinking about color, so it’s good to share a bit… :) I hope you like the others, I had fun writing them!

  5. If I put enough white with it, I can wear any color. Sometimes that means I put orange buttons on a white blouse, lol. The colors that look best on you may change as you age, but you will always be either warm or cool. That part doesn’t change.

    • Heheheh. I have tried and tried and tried to wear yellow, but I have found I can’t even work it in as an accent color… Maybe I should try yellow shoes…

      Well– I beg to differ on warm/cool changeability… Here in Australia, there’s a *really* high proportion of 40-something and older people with extreme sun damage. Generally, sun damaged skin reads as “warm,” usually… Even with people who used to have cool tones. It’s interesting, and I know it’s specific to this region, but I think it is possible that tones can change from warm to cool with age…

      • My decades of sun damage that induced rosacea leave me red-faced, but it is a cool red, because I have cool undertones. I still can’t successfully wear yellow, and the greens I affect to offset all that round, red, rosiness on top have to be cool greens. Even when dying my hair to cover up the silver, I have to use an ash blonde or ash brown to achieve a natural effect: warm dyes make me look as if I have a liver ailment. We can disagree and still be friends, thank goodness!

        • Yes, I also see the pink sort of skin damage… But I find the large tan-colored spots and deep perma-tans are more prevalent here for whatever reason and usually reads as “warm”… But yeah, we can agree to disagree (though I’m not really disagreeing! :))

          Hehehe, I hear you about the liver disease thing… Same here. I have to stick to cool colors and blue undertones or I look sick sick sick.

  6. Oh I’m a cool and cool colours make me happy. I like my reds to be on the blue side, not orange. Green is probably a colour I could wear in the right shades but I don’t like it. I’m just not so happy wearing green and I don’t reach for it in the stores (fabric or RTW) so it’s not in my closet.

  7. I love this – as I love all your posts (and by the way cannot comment from work any longer due to our massive firewalls – and rarely put on the pc at home due to extreme heat!) – but am no closer to knowing what I am. I think it comes from my very mixed heritage – Mediterranean, German, Norman, Greek…. Just imagine – Daddy was a tall blonde blue eyed Sicilian, and mummy was Maltese with brothers and sisters running the gamut from ice blond with ligt blue eyes through to black hair and almost black eyes – with red, blonde, strawberry blonde and chestnut in between…. good thing they all looked like grandpa! I went to a Presciriptives counter once many years ago and totally confused the poor beautician on duty there. They were supposed to fit you into a colour group – if I remember right, orange, red-orange, and a couple of others – and she couldn’t figure me out. I was born strawberry blond with very fair slightly freckly fair skin and medium brown eyes – red brown, according to m mother – though I have no idea what she was talking about. Hair’s now light ash blonde, according to hairdressers, and I get highlighted by the sun when I venture out, so it’s actually streaky. My skin is darker now than when I was in my twenties even though I’ve used sun prtotection and hats forever. I seem to be able to wear colours across the spectrum – don’t like very bright yellow on me, or baby pinks and blues – but very light pinks and blues and greens, yes – and I lvoe the darker shades of these colours too – and the aquas, purples – whether warm or cold – uff. Oh, yes, lime green looks awful on me too. Can one be a warmish cool or a cool warm? Or is that totally insane?

    • Sounds like a Spring to me. :) Clear colors with lots of personality and warmth. They can be very hard colors to find – you wear pink, but only warm pink, never pastel. You wear endless blue – as long as it has the wee-est bit of green or purple in its tone. Red? Sure – if it’s ever so slightly pink, or light and clear.

    • Yes- I think there’s a fair amount of overlap on the cool/warm spectrum… Check out the color wheel I posted, I like that one because it shows overlap and “degrees” of color range… Sounds like you have some great genetic variation in the family! :) There’s nothing too striking in our family, except the occasional redhead and the green eyes… There’s some discussion about aqua/teal, how it’s this color that everyone can wear. I’m still testing that though… Anyway, I would guess you’re a warm (hair and eyes) who can wear some cool colors. :)

      • Thanks StephC! yu both have made me think a bit. I can’t really tell my veins – they seem to be blue-green if you can believe that….. I like white and ivory, don’t like pale beige but like darker creamier beiges on me… I like most everything o the colour wheel except the yellow and the magenta-ish shades next t the red. But in winter I love foresty green…. I think you’re right in your analysis:) And yes, thankfully we have got great genetic variation – and my mother’s family strength, even to having thick hair when they’re very old (including the men) is great – we totally disprove the pureblood BS LOL!
        I was the teal thing in a mag article on some years ago, along with three other colours – a particular shade of camel, a shade of pink I didn’t like, and another I don’t remember. Teal stuck in my mind as I always love that colour and it’s easy to identify – colours are so personally visual, aren’t they? I call certain shades purple and my sis calls them dark blue – and we’re both into painting. I wear a pale pale green top to work and someone calls it a great shade of blue with my navy skirt. Go figure!

  8. I treated my daughter and myself to a colour analysis/course a few years ago (in The Netherlands using a German method). The technique is to hold all sorts of coloured silks (I think), and gold and silver, under your face (no make-up, hair tucked under hairband) and to see the effect in/via the mirror. It took a while before we got the hang of it and to know what to look for, but the wrong colours definitely made us pale or too flushed and gave us hard lines in the face. Our analyst said, “sometimes you see the dress come in, and only then see there’s someone in it – just because the colour is wrong”.

    With this type of analysis, the division is in seasons – summer, autumn, winter, spring, and each palet has more or less the same colours, but in different (under)tones and degrees of saturation. Winter types can wear really vivid colours and white and black, summer types (like me) should stay away from those harsher tones and b/w, and use saturated pastels, ivory and dark grey instead. My daughter is a spring type and has even lighter colours in her palet. And there’s me, thinking I was an autumn type with my dark brown eyes and blond/brown hair! It turns out I’d been attracted to the wrong colours, as well as dressed in them as a child, all my life. I suppose that’s because they are “like” colours, matching my warmth, whereas complementing colours give a better and more balanced effect.
    Now I know how cooling colours really suit me better and that I should look for a silver or blue “undertone”, avoiding the gold and yellow. I definitely looked better with the silver under my face; the gold seemed to heat it up as well as wash me out and make my face look harsh.
    I found it fascinating!

    But to be clear – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wearing all sorts of colours, you just have to be careful to judge their effect next to the face. I will wear a black skirt, but not a black blouse.

    The money spent on these two colour analysis evenings was such a good investment. I’m sure I would otherwise have bought a black winter coat again and wondered why I looked so pale, so in the end it saves me money. And the little booklet with coloured swatches that came with it, is definitely useful in preventing “wrong” or better: unflattering purchases. Now I KNOW how awful yellowish browns and oranges look on me and I will steer away from the warm reds I used to wear so often. More berry colours for me now :-).

    Colours that enhance our person(ality), that’s what we’re after and being able to sew makes us so wonderfully independent – or almost – from the limited colours that are stocked under the name of fashionable.

    • Thanks for that, what an interesting read! :) It’s amazing what a difference a little knowledge about colors can make, I think the gold/silver test is really interesting, it’s much like the white/ivory…

  9. I find color theory when it comes to dressing fascinating. I’ve done some informal research over the last year or two as part of a project I assigned to myself to be more comfortable in my clothes. (Sewing is a huge part of that project.) I’ve purged my closet of clothes that I don’t wear because they are uncomfortable and of clothes that don’t fit my color palette. I have only purchased a very few new items, but I’m struck by how the overall feel of my closet has changed because of the color knowledge. Having this knowledge does make shopping so much more efficient and effective.

    I’m working on “fit” right now as a part of my self-assigned project. It’s killing me because I just want to have some finished garments that I love, but I know I can’t get there without taking all of the steps to learning proper fit in between. (As a side note, I’ve landed on the book “Fit for Real People” by Pati Palmer and Marta Alto and McCall’s 2718 “Learn to Fit” pattern. I can’t find a class about fitting for a sewist with intermediate skills in my area to save my life.)

    After I learn how to alter (and maybe draft a few simple) patterns, I’ll be all about finding lovely fabrics. I know that they’re not available in my hometown or anywhere nearby. I can tell that shopping online and getting the correct colors (among all the other fabric characteristics) based on an onscreen image and description is going to be challenging.

    I look forward to reading these posts and participating in these discussions about color as a part of my overall end goal. Thank you to everyone who participates.

    Steph, as always, this is a great topic and a helpful, interesting post. <3

    • Haha! I assign myself projects, too! It keeps the cobwebs from forming in the brain, I figure… And I applaud you for getting rid of the stuff that doesn’t work. It’s definitely, definitely more effective and efficient to work from a stable color palette rather than just buying whatever.

      I have a crazy idea lately that when I was learning to fit myself years ago I made it too hard on myself. A lot of those books make it too hard.. I’m working on fixing that, though… Part of the reason I started Cake. Because good fit doesn’t have to be tough. FFRP is a really good basic book, as far as it goes. I remember years and years ago going to the Pattern Review Fitting Woes board and throwing myself at their mercy. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, some of the advice was quite good and useful, and some of the advice was poor or not useful or just made me feel like there was something seriously weird with my body.

      You know, I’ve written the color posts because I got all kinds of inspired, maybe I should just write out the list of them… There’s Environment and Observation, Shopping for Color, Contrasting and Complimentary Colors, Intensities, Neutrals, Accents/Accessories, and I may throw in other stuff as it comes up… Making the color stories has been really fun, I might just have to keep doing it for as long as y’all put up with it. :)

  10. Ah, colour fun! I’m pretty sure I’m warm in real life, although if I get the camera/lighting right I can pull off cool colours for photo shoots. I do think that camera colours can be really deceptive. But the colours that make me look at myself and go “WOW! That’s awesome!” are warm.

    When I took painting in Uni, (which was basically a year of colour theory), we mixed just about every colour under the rainbow from six basic colours: a “purple” red (i.e. cool), an “orange” red (i.e. warm), a “green” yellow and an “orange” yellow, etc. It really made me appreciate the subtle differences even within primary colours.

    I think colour guidelines, like writing guidelines, are useful, if only in that you should know the rules before you break them, and if you’re going to break them, you should understand why you’re doing it and what the result should be. :)

    That being said I was draped as a child (I’m a spring… unless that sort of thing can change as you age) and my mom always had that little swatch-book in her purse… and I felt really constrained by it, like I should feel guilty if I went beyond its pages. Not the best feeling in hindsight. (Nor did it save me from some horriffic childhood fashion blunders, but I can blame that on the 80s, right?)

    • Yeah, I always thought of you as warm… :)

      So so right about painting… I took a few watercolor and acrylics classes as “adult community night time” type classes while I was at UT. That knowledge and understanding of color never left me or let me down.

      You’re so right! About being able to break rules. Exactly so.

      Always blame the 80’s. I think guidelines are pretty good as far as they go, but it’s important not to get too tied up in them…

  11. Color is really quite subjective; a perception more than an absolute. Just yesterday I had a bit of a disagreement with a cosmetics counter clerk as to whether a foundation shade was warm or cool.

    I used to work in the photo industry (custom color processes) and so warm or cool is an important consideration. It usually refers to yellow versus blue in the photo color chart. Color is really a personal perception. The lab I worked in kept files on the clients, pro photographers generally, as to their personal preferences and perceptions. Some were, for example, “very warm,” which meant that they probably perceived colors to be much cooler than photo neutral. We would accommodate that perception and print that person’s photos as quite warm (yellow or yellow-red, depending). People actually see color in this way quite differently and the lab’s clients were often unaware of their own tendencies. (The file date was the result of prior business with them). Whether its an eye-thing or a brain-thing, I don’t know. FYI, the first purple image (lavender field) would be considered very magenta in the photo world and the second (woods) would be blue (at least on the screen I’m viewing them). So the field image would be cool but closer to neutral than the blue woods, but both are really on the cool side of the photo spectrum.

    Color is complicated, I think, in mixing tones and shades. In my opinion, most fabric/fashion “mistakes” are in saturation (depth or intensity of color). But I also think that most people get too stuck in an idea of what is good or bad for them and experimentation is useful. Personally, I don’t like yellow and in the winter I would look downright ill in it, but in the summer it’s a possibility when I have just a little color in my skin.

    My take on a huge and interesting topic! Thanks!

    ~Jen

      • Which Fandorin? I think the later ones are a bit more enjoyable than the middle, I need to try to order the rest because my library “ran out” of them, but I know there’s still more titles! I’m thinking I may sink my teeth into Winter Queen next..

        Amazon does pay me a commission. A small one, but it’s still there. I have yet to make enough from commissions for them to send me any money though. ;)

        Like you said, color is subjective. I probably wouldn’t argue with a makeup artist about paint colors, especially since as you said color perception depends on the person…

        SO interesting about the warm/cool perception color files in photography! Thanks for writing about that… I would guess color perception is probably eyes and brain, with all kinds of genetic variation thrown in to keep things interesting.

        I see what you’re saying about the two palettes, and respect that that’s your perspective from a printing point of view. I’m coming from a place of dressing people in colors that make them look their best, and closely observing what colors work for people. I am absolutely one of those people who likes to sit in busy cafes and people-watch and take copious notes on clothing and color and cut and movement. My sister and several of my cousins are very warm warms (with fiery hair) and I have a lifetime of paying attention to what looks good on my sister vs. what looks good on me… ;) And now I have a little tiny warm running around to dress… There’s LOTS of variations of course, we’ll get into all that later… It’s not as cut and dried as “warm and cool” but it helps to start somewhere.

        • I just started the Winter Queen, which is what I randomly it chose when my first choice was sold out. It’s been a really stressful summer, some I’m glad to disappear into the story for awhile. My first choice was the one that you had posted about and I later read a chunk of it on the Amazon preview. Next time I guess.

          Warm and cool is a good starting point. I think it’s helpful to look at nature for combining colors and balancing saturation. Anyway, photo color is ultimately about manipulating light, but color in other contexts has so many other factors. With (oil) painting, for example, the white that the painter chooses as a mixing base is important. Different whites, with different mineral or metal bases have slightly different effects.

          Great topic– I’m restraining myself from writing an essay size comment!

  12. I still stick to the old (the *old*) Color Me Beautiful seasons. I think they’re the clearest set of colors out there, and not unduly restrictive. (The new ones have 12 seasons instead of four, which is a bit crazy to me).

    In that set, I’m a Spring (clear and warm) but if I did cool/warm I tend to get identified as cool, with dark brown hair and blue eyes. Same dark brown hair, same blue eyes… but my daughter is a Summer (cool toned) because her skin runs raspberry pink at lips and cheeks rather than my ruddy red/orange. It’s easy to see the skin tone differences – just look at our skins rather than our coloring. She’s sooo pink and I’m soooo ivory/gold.

    I always resist strict cool/warm because there’s no home for me – who can wear navy and turquoise and coral, but can’t wear warm peach or pastel blue or black.

    • From what you describe, I’d say you have a mix of warm and cool… If the spring stuff works for you, then go for it for sure… You’ll probably find more of interest in the next post about observation and environment… ;)

  13. I’m definitely a “warm” tone person. From as far back as I can remember, my favourite colour has been browns and oranges and golds. And it’s a very visceral thing with me. My mom is a cool colour personage, and sewing for her literally makes me feel nauseous sometimes, depending on the colour (royal blue does it every time, but so go some cool greens). Way back in high school I had my colours done by the Colour Me Beautiful people, and it just confirmed what I’ve known since I was four: autumn all the way and loving it!

    • That’s so funny! Both of my fabric shopping buddies are pale warms, so we never fight over the same piece of fabric… And it’s funny because sometimes I’ll hold up a piece of fabric and they’ll wrinkle noses, and I realize it’s just the difference between our preferences based on our own coloring! I do the same, too… When Enid holds up a greeny-gold color or something orange or brown, I tend to think “bleh” because that’s how it makes me look. But those colors make Enid glow. :)

  14. I always thought I was a warm, but I am starting to wonder if I am actually a cool. I figured that since I have dark skin, I would automatically be a warm. I look really good in turquoise and apparently orange. So yeah, a little confused.
    Have you heard of the gold/silver test?

    • I have, and one of the commentators above mentioned the gold/silver test, too. It’s pretty much the same as the white/ivory test. :)

      I’m thinking of doing a post or two where I look at/analyze Michelle Obama’s wardrobe color choices, maybe Condi, maybe Beyonce/Halle/Blessing Ibiang to take a look at coloring and black skin. Those ladies know how to dress themselves (or I guess they have a stylist) and I’m thinking we can learn a lot from them. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information out there about colors that work best with dark skin, but I’m really interested to dive in and see what we discover.

      The very very best color advice I can think of is- warm or cool or neutral, wear the colors that you like and that make you look nice. :)

  15. Great post! Another trick I’ve heard about is to look at the veins on the inside of your wrist, if they’re green you’re most likely warm, if they are blue you are most like cool.

    I’m trying to get away from wearing all black, all the time so hopefully a chart like this will give me some confidence.

    • Yep- the veins are good, too. :)

      You know, I made a similar decision to give up all black a few years ago. I do love wearing black and it loves me (another “cool” indicator, apparently) but I kind of scared people (remember, I live in tropical Queensland, not New York…) so I had to figure out which colors to work into my life… I started with red, then blues because they tend to go well with black. And whites, I definitely replaced my black habit with a white one… Again, that goes back to environment I guess… :)

    • Really? Because I’m about 98% sure I’m a ‘warm’ (auburn brown hair and eyes, pinkish skin, and I look attrocious in white), but my veins look blue on my wrist. Of course, my skin is also fish-belly white in underside/unexposed areas and really thin at my wrists, so maybe that’s it… :D

      • Well, I’d call the blue/green vein thing a secondary indicator… Hair, eye and skin tones are more important… I’d go more with what you know works, and then branch out from there… And I’d also venture to call you a pale warm, like my little girlie or my sister… It’s your coloring…

  16. As fascinating post, once again. I think I am warm and the colours in the palette above are certainly the colours I gravitate towards and look best in. Having said that, though, there are times when I think I am cool. If Janice’s vein test is right, then I am definitely a cool! My veins stand out so blue it’s scary (phlebotimists love me). I suspect we all waiver between palettes depending on time of year, hair colour and colour of skin. At the moment, after a long cold Tasmanian winter and given that I currently have platinum blonde hair, some of the oranges I was wearing when I lived in Byron and was very tan with dark brown hair don’t look so good. These days I hold fabric up and look in the mirror. If I look like death, I know it’s not for me. If you think of a colour wheel as wedges, rather than concentric circles, you realise you can be anywhere within that wedge; ie closer to the centre, closer to the edge and closer to the wedges on either side, if that makes any sense. Francesca above mentions warmish cool or coolish warm and I think (using my wedge idea) that she is right. I’ve really enjoyed reading all of these comments today. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

    • Thanks, Carol. :) I’m pleased you like it.

      Yes! Yes to everything you said! :) Exactly exactly!

      (My veins are bright blue and look like the want to jump out of my arms they’re so prominent at the wrist and elbow… They always tell me i have good veins when I need an IV or blood drawn… ;))

  17. Born with black, really black hair, very dark brown eyes and very fair and freckled skin, I am a bit of a mutt. As I have aged my skin color is more sallow and my hair is lighter due to coloring. I used to be able to wear blue/reds next to my face but now, I look rather jaundiced. There goes lots of clothes.

    • Your coloring sounds just beautiful. I would think warms would suit you well, have you tried orange? Orange can be a very soft and lovely color, it doesn’t have to be citrussy…

  18. Thank you for saying that hair color doesn’t automatically determine your color palette! I’ve always been fed up with those color sites because if your hair is black, according to them you should be cool, which I am not. Ivory works so much better for me, and it’s only recently that I’ve started trying to notice what colors work better against my skin. I’m also fascinated by the idea of changing tones as you age…can you give an example of that?

    • Yeah, that whole “black hair means cool” thing is just silly. Well, maybe not silly, but it doesn’t apply to many of the skin types that would have black hair. So it’s limited. I’d love to build a library of palettes that work well for various skin tones, I think that would be fun and useful….

      Well, a big example of skin tones changing with age would be sun damage. Many, many people over about 35-40 here in Queensland have extensive sun damage to their skin, and it generally reads as “warm.” Think large freckles, that kind of thing. the intensity of someone’s skin color and the clarity can change with age, too, which is the effect of changing hormone levels and just plain old ageing. So many women will find that the colors that suited them at 20 don’t work for them at 50. I have read and seen many times that older women are more suited to softened versions of jewel tones and neutrals… Like… For many older women, black is too harsh, but a deep brown or charcoal or raisin works well. We’ll get into that more later.

  19. Huh. I always thought I was a cool, although why I thought that when I’ve got pale pink skin and red, coral, and olivey green are fantastic colours on me, I have no idea. Probably got mislead by a rouge colour chart or something. :D Your ivory/white test was a big ‘aha’ moment for me! I look attrocious in white (although I always thought that was because of my less than white teeth).

    You know, other than the reddish purples there, I nearly always bee-line to the colours in the warm side of that palette. I really like how that’s laid out. Although actually, lately I’ve been obsessed with navy blue and grey, which is maybe my rule breaker. :D

    Thanks for the great post, Steph! I’ve been sort of considering colours for a winter wardrobe, but it’s all been sort of hazy. I think I’m going to get a lot out of this series of posts!

  20. Yes back in the 80’s I had ‘my colours done’ – in those days it was done through Church group and was all part of dressing up nicely for Church on Sundays! So I will always associate it with that.

    I was a “winter” – according to that catagorisation. Now they have loosened it up a lot and I would be a “muted medium cool” – in other words I look better with softened rather than pure colours and in the medium cool range. This is much more accurate than the “winter” allocation- many of the colours I didn’t relate to at all, being too bright, strong or saturated. Also I look terrible in black.

    It’s true that we all look better in some colours over others – and I think most people instinctively know what they are – we naturally gravitate to things that suit us. In all things, being mindful of what we feel good in is the first step to finding ‘colour happiness’ – I could never pay anyone these days to tell me what colours to wear even if I did look better with the knowledge. The journey is much more fun than the destination.

    • That is so so cute… Dressing well for Sundays. I love it. :)

      A BIG part of color-awareness is understanding contrasting types and “complimentary” types… It’s really interesting.

      And yes, I completely agree with “color happiness.” Completely. :) I’m also a journey person. The destination is nice, but I really like getting there if you know what I mean…

  21. I had my ‘colours done’ a few years ago under a different system from the seasons one, and it all made so much sense. I am a pale skinned brunette with brown eyes, but I am definitely not an autumn or a spring, although I suit many warm colours, and I am SO not a winter, so had given up on it all. Turns out I have less contrast in my colouring than I thought, and I suit cool, deep colours with a dusky taint to them, like mexican reds and grape purples, And I LOVE the colours in my pallette! It explained why bright colours always felt overwhelming to me. I like the system they use which puts colours on three values – warm to cool, dusky to bright and deep to light. Or something like that anyway.
    Having said all that, I still tend to wear teh colours I always have, which are mostly in my pallette, and don’t wear the colours in my pallette that I don’t care for, like the blues and greens. My heart is warm coloured even if my skin tone isn’t!!

    • Yeah, I think good old trial and error is much more useful than a “system,” for exactly the reasons you mention.

      I stick to more or less the same colors for myself, but I do try to make an effort to try new things every once in a while. It either comes as a nice surprise when something works, or re-enforces my ideas about what works when the new thing isn’t right. You know what I mean? :)

  22. OK, this is a short one in comparison to everyone else’s. I never wear black from head to toe – I disappear. That might a good thing in some people’s eyes though – LOL. Blonde with pale skin tending towards the yellow spectrum, so wearing yellow is also out. I’d like to hear your views and ideas on patterned fabrics too – large prints and tiny prints, the garment shape etc – how they effect the perception of body size and shape. Interesting post, thanks.

    • Hehehehe- invisibility would be an asset in your double life as a ninja… ;)

      I dunno… I might dig up a few photos of Doris Day in yellow that I always found very fetching… But you have to wear what you’re comfortable with and what you like.

      I do plan to touch on patterned fabric in a few posts, I could put my brain cells together and do a “digest” on what other people say about patterned fabric… I tend to stick to solids and rather graphic prints so I don’t really feel like it’s my forte. But I can definitely turn it into a research project. For sure.

      Thanks, Ruth!

  23. Hmm.. fair, easily burning skin, green eyes, dark blond hair… I wear silver rather than gold, that beautiful coral/peach colour that was so IN a couple of years ago makes me look like a corpse, and I have a huge amount of blue in my wardrobe.. but I also wear a lot of brown. I honestly have never thought about it much beyond “that colour looks terrible on me.” The fact that my hair is purple at the moment won’t help me check, either. Sigh.

    • I would think you’re probably cool. There are some cool browns, and really the whole “warm/cool” thing is more like a spectrum than an absolute way to think about color… :)

      I really, really want purple hair. Like Leela. Real bad. I just don’t want to do it myself.

      • I wanted leela purple, but refused to bleach it first.. so I settled for a dark blue-tinted purple. It’s fading redder as it washes out, but for $5 a box I’m not complaining!

        • Ah. Yeah, I found the same with the purple rinse I put on a few months ago. I’d LOVE to have Leela hair, but I’d want a pro to do it, and I know the upkeep would be a nightmare. I wouldn’t really want to run around with purple hair and dark roots.

      • Ha! I hate yellow on me too – but just made a dress out of some quilting cotton i couldn’t resist by Laura Gunn with yellowy flowers on white with touches of green and aqua. I;m not that happy with it – it’s a 40s pattern and I thought I didn’t like the overall look, but maybe it’s actually the colour…..

      • That’s a super cute dress on Llady… Super cute. I might have to dig up some photos of teenage stephanie and her yellow dresses… Sigh. I used to always choose yellow, and the photos are not happy…

        Though I did realize that I have one way I can wear yellow… A yellow silk belt I like to wear sometimes with my black and white graphic print “Birds” dress. Next time I wear it, I’ll take some pics.

  24. Orange makes me look like the Grim Reaper is after me. The same with some greens and purples. Blues….I can wear pretty much the whole lot of them. Red is tricky. Orange or pink reds. No. Blue and cherry reds…I look fab in them. It is tricky and I know for one I don’t always get it right. But you know that you’ve hit the nail on the head when people are telling you that you look really well even when you haven’t slept for 4 days. That will be the colour you’re wearing lifting your look.

    I do love how you seem to live in my head, though. This is a subject that I’ve been giving a lot of thought recently as I’ve be working my way through my stash fabric and wondering about some of my not so brilliant past purchases!

    • Heheheh, love that description.

      I’m wondering, just wondering… You described a varied range of colors, I wonder if perhaps it’s not the color itself but the color intensity that doesn’t work so well for you? Hmmm…

      Yes- the “You’re looking well!/Are you sick?” response from other people is the primary indicator to me which colors work and which don’t. It trumps seasons/warm/cool/whatever.

      :) We do seem to be on a similar wavelength, don’t we? It’s great.

      • Half a world apart and on the same wavelength is pretty cool in my book!

        It is about the intensity of the colour as well as the shade, you’re right. Pink is classic in this regard. Hot pink yes…pastel…hell,no!

  25. At some point in the 80s there was a book about what “season” you were. According to that book I am a winter which is the cool tones but, if you look at your color primer chart, I look best in the bottom 5 rows of the cool tones. I can get away with wearing the spring tones, which are the top 5 rows of the cool tones but if I want to really “knock em dead” I should stick with the winter colors. If I want to look ill and/or depressed, I should wear the warm colors (top 5 rows are summer, bottom 5 are fall). 30 years later, I have stuck with that system and it hasn’t lead me astray. One thing they have said is too take out 3 or 4 of your absolute favorite items in your closet…the ones you feel super in and get lots of comments on. Chances are extremely high that they are all grouped in the same season. Also, chances are very good that the vast majority of items in your closet are in the correct color range. We instinctively know what looks good on us.

    • Yeah there’s quite a few of those books… And one called “Color Me Beautiful” or something. I won’t say I’ve read every book out there about color, but I have read stacks and stacks of them over the years. And tend to test the ideas out, some of the advice is great and some of it is silly and some is inadequate and some is brilliant…

      Wanda- why would you WANT to look ill or depressed? heheh. ;)

      I think that last bit of advice is very very good and I’ll work it into my next post on color. Thanks for that!

  26. I know that I suit bright colours but I’ve never worked out if I’m warm or cool. I love red best and feel that I look good in red but I also wear purple, cerise and electric blue. My hair is dark brown but my eyes are hazel so I feel a bit of a combination. What I do know is that whatever colour I choose has to be bright and a muted colour like khaki or a washed out pastel makes me look really ill.

  27. I totally agree with you that most people can wear most colors in one form or another. In fact, it’s remarkable to me that moving this way or that way on the color wheel or changing a hair in hue, shade, or intensity can be the difference between vibrancy or funeral gear on any given person.
    My coloring probably skews more warm than cool, though there are many cool colors I can wear like aquas, and some that look better on me than their cool counterparts like cool greys. White and ivory both look fine on me, and I find that intensity is often a bigger problem for me—deeply saturated colors tend to overwhelm me because there’s not much contrast between my hair and my skin tone. For this reason, I stay away from black and deep browns. I also don’t really like pink or purple and red makes me feel like little orphan Annie.

    • It sounds to me like you know yourself very well. :) Also, I’m really interested in aqua because many warms and cools can wear it… I found an article about it YEARS ago in Cosmo (it was research, really, I was looking for color advice anywhere I could find it!) saying that teal was this magical color that everyone could wear. I didn’t really believe it but then had a big draping session with about 30 ladies, and tested the teal… It worked on everyone. I was astounded. So ever since then I’ve been obsessed with “magical aqua”.. ;)

  28. I did a bit of reading about this a few months ago and it reaffirmed what I thought I knew- I am a cool. Then it can get confusing as there is so much more to it! Having said that last week I went dress shopping and the sales woman immediately steered me towards the colours that she thought would suit me and they were all cool colours :)

    With blonde hair I can wear yellow, as a brunette I can wear it but have to be careful about the tones I wear.

  29. This is something I’ve been thinking about recently, and all the internet research I did on it was so confusing. I really like how you’ve simplified it, and the white/ivory test made so much sense.
    For the record, I’m cool(!), which totally explains why I always feel most comfortable in blues and greens. Never knew that real was so magic though! That explains why everyone always looks great in it – I thought it was just me being biased toward it.

  30. Pingback: Conversant In Color: You and Your Environment Pt #1 « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

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  33. I am over from Cation Designs, and I just love, love, love, this article. Thanks for the simple white/ivory test. It just makes sense. AND I’ve been fighting with my mom over the warm cool thing for years. Decades! And now I realize that yes, she is right, I am a cool. And I realize I am right that I can still wear lighter pastel hues, just they need to be bluer. :) Thank you, thank you for settling the discussion.

    • Oh good, I’m really pleased this article was useful to you! I wouldn’t chain myself too closely to the whole “warm/cool” thing, but it *does* help when trying to figure out colors to try that might be wonderful… I remember the first time I tried teal, very resistant but my bestie made me do it. And wouldn’t you know, it’s a very good color for me…:)

  34. My daughter is a pale/cool kinda girl, looks good in salmon pink, lilac and light blues. I prefer warm/saturated colors, and started sewing from my own remnants for her. The result was terrible, she looked pale and ill, the clothes totally overpowered her own natural look. It took me a couple of years to find the right kind of shades for her – being so totally opposite my own, and WAAAY out of my comfort zone.
    But now she looks so much better, and the clothes actually get worn. That’s an all around win :-)

    • Oh cool! I’m glad you found the solution. :D

      My daughter gets remnant clothes, too… Her eyes are a different color than mine (which opens up browns and yellows and oranges) and she’s slightly warmer in general, but we have a lot of color overlap… So she looks ok in my remnants and I pick a few special “Lila Colors” every now and then. :)

  35. Pingback: Conversant In Color: Separates « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World

  36. wonderful and informative post. I have noticed, too, when I see a dark-skinned woman looking fabulous in a royal blue with white accents and recognize she is wearing the same winter colors I favor. It seems that many women’s complexions are not as extreme in terms of how cool or how warm are the colors that flatter them. Many women are closer into the neutral portion of the spectrum and they can wear more colors. Of course, these are just observations and speculations on my part. I just love color and love looking around me to see it everywhere. hee hee the little things in life can provide such pleasure.

  37. Pingback: Conversant In Color: Saturated Tones on the First Lady of the United States « 3 Hours Past the Edge of the World


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