3.3 Colour theory and how it applies

To be able to provide sound advice to your clients about which colours will work best for their skin tone, it is important for you to have a good understanding of the colour wheel and colour theory. Many of us learned the basics of colours at school, and you may even remember songs about the colours of the rainbow! The easiest way to think about the colour wheel is to look at the categories of colours.

According to colour theory, there are primary colours (red, yellow and blue), secondary colours (green, orange and purples) and tertiary colours (blue-green or red-violet).

When it comes to tanning solutions, many suppliers refer to the ‘base colour’ but actually mean the top bronzer or dye – it does not impact the actual tan development as this is controlled by the percentage of DHA. Some companies claim to have developed tanning solutions that have legitimate differences in base colours, but the jury is still out on this! That said, being able to change up the top bronzer or dye to suit your client’s skin tone is essential when your client wants the colour of that bronzer/dye for a specific event or competition. For bodybuilding competition tanning, for example, your client may need to achieve a particular top colour for their competition which will differ from the actual tan itself (true base colour).

When it comes to selecting base colours for your clients, you need to consider their eye colour, skin colour and the look they are going for. Colours that are opposite each other on the colour wheel are categorised as complementary, and they will result in a vibrant, strong contrast. For example, if you have blue eyes, wearing an eyeshadow that has an orange hue will make them pop!

Key phrase | Hue: another word for the term colour and refers to the dominant colour or ‘colour family’ on the colour wheel. For example, the hue of sky blue is blue, the hue of terracotta is orange, and the hue of emerald is green.

Key phrase | Saturation: tells us how colourful colour is in terms of intensity. If there is high saturation, this means the colour will be more intense, and in reverse, if the saturation decreases, the colour will be paler or appear washed-out.

Key phrase | Tonal value: refers to the amount of light that is reflected off the colour, resulting in how light or dark a colour is. For example, fluorescent yellow is brighter than a mustard yellow, so fluorescent yellow would be higher in value (brighter) than the mustard yellow.

Depending on the sort of look your client is going for, you will need to carefully consider the type of hue, saturation and tonal value needed to achieve the look. Assessing skin types is never trainable at first sight. The best way of knowing how deep a clients tan will develop is by knowing how well their skin tans in the sun. Because DHA is a natural substance, it reacts to the skin’s natural pigment, similar to the outdoor tanning process. Therefore, this is the perfect gauge for grading a client who has never used faux tanning products before and how well their skin will develop and react to the product.

As you learned earlier, skin that burns in the sun and never tans has less pigment. It is usually possible for faux tanning products to develop on these skin types; however, we use a ‘less is more approach. You are always best to apply a light coverage of primer and spray tan or self-tan for their first application. Once they have revisited a few times to test the product, you can then increase the number of products in slow increments to the client’s satisfaction. A spray tan that is not quite dark enough is nearly always better received than one that is way too dark or turns orange!

Using the colour wheel, we can further categorise colours into warm, cool and neutral. If we draw a line and chop the colour wheel in half, cool tones are to the left, and warm tones are to the right:

As you can see, cool tone colours include greens, blues and blue-based purple. Warm tone colours include orange, yellow and red. Neutral colours tend to include black, white, brown and grey. There are certain colours that will look better on certain skin tones and undertones.

Key phrase | Skin tone versus undertone: Skin tone (overtone) is the surface skin colour (fair, medium, dark), whereas skin undertone is the subtle hue underneath the surface (warm, cool or neutral).

Knowing which colours work best with your own skin tone and undertone is an excellent place to start when learning to apply colour theory professionally. Most of us know our skin tone in terms of whether we have fair skin, medium skin or dark skin. Our skin tone can change throughout the year, depending on how much sun we are exposed to, whereas our undertone never changes.

Key phrase | Melanin: a natural skin pigment found in hair, skin, and eye colour in both people and animals. Variation in colours depends on the type and amount of melanin they have.

A good way to think about the impact of a client’s natural melanin is to compare an olive skin client (more melanin) and a fair skin client (less melanin). The sort of coverage and colours you will need to select for each skin tone (melanin level) will obviously vary between someone who is very fair versus someone with a darker complexion. We will look more at colour matching later in this module.

As a general overview, consider the following recommended colours, which can apply to makeup, clothing and the bronzer/dye colour in the tanning solution with regard to skin tone:

Skin toneRecommended coloursColours to avoid
Fair and light skinDark brown, burgundy, grey, blues, deep purples, lavender, lilac, sapphire, and emerald greens.Yellow and orange, as well as any pastel shades or soft colours as they may wash you out.
Medium skinDusty pink, soft rose, peach, jade green, taupe, grey, off-white and blue.Bright red, bright yellow and neon colours as they can look overpowering.
Olive skinOrange, red, golden yellow, amber, warm greens, blue, turquoise, moss green, magenta, purple, chocolate brown and creamy whites.Colder blues, soft greens and yellows as they can be too similar to the undertone of your complexion.
Dark skinPurple, pink, peach, orange, yellow, jade green, cobalt blue and bright colours in general.Brown, navy and lots of black – these dark colours won’t contrast nearly enough with dark skin and can blend in rather than be complementary.

Determining your undertone can be a little tricky and can sometimes seem like a bit of a guessing game.To determine your undertone, consider the following questions:

What jewellery looks best on you?

People who look better with silver jewellery tend to have cool-toned skin, and those who wear gold usually have warm-toned skin.

What colour are your veins?

People with blue or purple veins are generally cool-toned, and those with green coloured veins are usually warm-toned, and if your veins are blueish-green, then your tone could be neutral.

What colour are your eyes?

People with green or brown eyes tend to have warm undertones, and people with blue or grey eyes tend to have cool undertones.

If you are still struggling to identify your undertone, carefully examine your skin and see what hues appear. If you have pink or red hues, then it is likely you are cool-toned. If you have yellow or golden hues, then you are likely warm-toned. If you have a balance of hues or have olive skin, then it is likely you have a neutral undertone.

Practical exercise – determining skin tone

Look at the celebrities below and see if you can determine who has warm, cool or neutral skin tone:

How did you go with your undertone assessment? If you assessed the celebrities toward the left to be warm toned and those on the right to be cool toned, then you are correct!

As a quick reference guide, identify skin tones by looking out for:

Veins on the underside of the wrist appear green
Suits gold jewellery
Skin tans easily
Veins on the underside of the wrist appear blue/green
Suits silver or gold jewellery
Skin tans well but may not burn
Veins on the underside of the wrist appear blue/purple
Suits silver jewellery
Skin burns easily and rarely tans

If you are interested in learning more about determining skin tones or if you haven’t quite managed to determine your own undertone yet, watch the videos linked below:

To appropriately understand colour bases and colour matching, we must first understand the ingredients that create these bases. In almost all circumstances, these colour bases are created with artificial dyes. If you are ever unsure, check out the ingredients list of any product, and they will be there! As you learned previously, artificial dyes will dry out the skin and only last a few days after the initial tan; however, they are extremely popular in spray tan products that are made in bulk to satisfy the entire market.

It’s important to note that when these exist in a product, they are not advising you how much of any dye is in the product, rather that it exists. Remember, dyes are also commonly used to counteract any reactions caused by over-saturation in the application or skin reactions. These reactions vary based on skin tones, and thus treating them with a dye additive is a quick fix for a fast result.

As you have already learned, premium quality spray tan products will usually avoid dye additives simply because the products themselves are high enough in activity that they will counteract any unwanted results. However, as mentioned, if your client needs a solution with a ‘base colour’ to achieve a specific look for an event, it is important that you understand which colours match which skin tones, which is where the colour wheel comes in. When matching colours to skin tones, you want to think about complementary colours:

GreenGreen-based products will generally suit all skin tones. They use a more subtle array of dyes and additives to create a subtle effect and are most active at counteracting orange tones and redness in lighter (typically Anglo/English) skin types.
VioletViolet based products are made to adapt to warmer yellow undertones. The purple die used in tan creation with these products will stain these skin types for a more prominent and radiant colouring. The violet highlighting counteracts any yellow in the skin tone and resembles a richer finish. Skin tones to adapt these products to are usually Asian and Anglo European.
BlueAny mention of Blue bases and additives in the ingredients list is a combination or a meeting point between violet and ash bases in product mixing. These dyes will lend themselves to a mixed base for clients with skin that fluctuates between yellow/red undertones and rich olive skin. Here we are looking for combination skin that may have a mixture of Anglo, European and Mediterranean skin type.
Ash / Charcoal Fantastic at covering red and ivory skin tones, the ash and charcoal dye additives are very popular. Simply because they do suit almost all skin types, and they will always leave a rich finish due to the heaviness of the dye that is staining the skin after tanning.
RedRed based tanning products are typically used as a mixing point for stage, dance and runway. These products are best mixed with harsh bronzers and additives to create a finish that is customisable. The products are often blended in micro-batches. Although many products that are red-based will claim they suit every dance, fitness or photoshoot need, this is simply unattainable. Many factors go into creating these styles of products. Particularly client demands, lighting and environment. Red based products have become unusual in day to day tanning; however, they are very popular still in event tanning when mixed correctly.

Just to make things even more confusing, some suppliers say that their red colour bases suit everyone and the green colour bases are solely for those with pink/rosy skin tones. Colour bases and matching is a relatively new area in spray tanning solutions, and much of the hype is just that, hype! If you are unsure, just contact your supplier, and they should be able to help you select the correct base colour.

DHA is golden yellow-brown in tone and is considered to be a warm tone. On some clients, the DHA reaction may look more or less golden due to a range of factors including, but not limited to:

  • Their overall skin chemistry
  • pH levels
  • Light refraction
  • Skin thickness
  • Existing pigment
  • Moisture levels
  • Quantity of dead skin cells
  • Any irritation or existing skin conditions

Some ingredients (not just the bronzer or dyes) can be added to a finished spray solution, which can also alter how the chemical reaction appears in terms of the overall tone. As a general guide, remember that less is more and if your client has fair skin, you will need fewer coats and a lower percentage DHA solution. If your client has darker skin, you can increase the DHA percentage and the number of coats. Your supplier will usually have product information to help you determine which solutions will be suitable for different skin tones. As an example, the bran Norvell has the following guide:

As you can see from the guide above, it tells you visually on a sliding scale how light or dark a product will develop. In contrast, the Mine Tan Body Skin brand outline their products by explicitly stating the DHA percentage across three DHA levels (12%, 13% and 14%) with a recommendation for which solution to use based on the skin tone and look you are trying to achieve. Many tanning product companies are very savvy with their marketing tactics, so try not to get fooled. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is!

You might now be wondering about clients with darker skin types and if they would even want to use tanning products. Many clients with darker skin tones may want to opt for a spray tan to even out tan lines, create a glossy glow and or remove any grey undertones for photos or special occasions. Skin scarring and tan lines can easily show up on clients with darker skin tone, especially in areas on the body closely exposed to bone or crease marks. A gorgeous spray tan allows a glossy finish covering these areas and is capable of evening out tan lines and creating a dewy finish to the skin. Spray tans are for absolutely everyone, no matter their tone!

If you are interested in learning more about colour matching and which base tones to select, access the resources linked:

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