Level Up Your Color Game

This one right here is a shout out to all the colorists out there in the world creating amazing formulas, swimming through natural remaining pigments and designing bomb placements.

Am I fighting Red or Orange at this level?  Should I place cool tones by her face or warm?  She wants a balayage result but I'm going to use color melted singles to do it. #boss

Every time we make those choices we are giving our own shout outs to one of the fathers of Color Strategy: (NO not Guy Tang) Johannes Itten.  Itten was a Swiss-born Expressionist painter in the early early 20th century and was a core member of the Bauhaus School in Germany, a renowned institution that combined crafts with the fine arts.  He developed the seven Color Strategies that we as colorists employ today whether we realize it or not.

  1. Contrast of Saturation - The contrast between pure, intense colors and those that have been diluted or grayed out. 
  2. Contrast of Light and Dark - The difference between light and dark values.
  3. Contrast of Extension - The contrast between much and little.
  4. Contrast of Complements - Placing two colors that are opposite on the color wheel next to each other.
  5. Simultaneous Contrast - Placing two colors that sit nearly opposite each other on the color wheel next to each other.  The result is a vibrating resonance.  Example: Red/Orange and Blue/Green.  Violet and Orange.  Salmon and Teal.
  6. Contrast of Hue -Separating colors with white or black lines.
  7. Contrast of Hue (Warm and Cool) The contrast between warm colors (Red, Orange, and Yellow) and cool colors (blue, green, violet)

Whoa that looks super academic.  It is.  It's also what we do every day when we color hair.  This is leveling up from understanding the color wheel and N.R.P., this is what the iconic colorists in the industry know about and utilize every day.  So how do all these strategies tie into hair color?  Let's explore some scenarios.

A Study In How Colorists Use Advanced Color Theories From The Bauhaus School As Described By Johannes Itten

Hair color levels are assigned a numeric value of 1 through 10.  1 = black, 10 = lightest blonde.  This system describes the gradient values of light and dark.  The ombré technique employs the gradual blending of one hue into another.  The Contrast of Light and Dark is used in ombré, balayage, grayscale, and creating highlights and shadows.

A cool level 10 is placed next to a neutral level 10.  It appears darker; a striking line through the swatch.  This can be a haircolorist's version of Contrast of Hue (Cool).  The use of highlights and lowlights isn't just about using a light level and a dark level to create shadows and dimension; we can choose different tonal values at the same level to create the same effect.  Ever have someone ask for lowlights and afterward they complain they are too dark?  This is a great solution.

Both swatches below are a level 6.  One is with a warm tone and one is with a cool tone.  Although both are the same level, the cool toned swatch appears darker because cool tones absorb more light.  Have you ever picked a cool (blue, green, violet) toned formula and the client complains it looks too dark?  You may have picked the right level at the time but the tonal value makes the end result appear darker.  The reverse can hold true; choosing a warmer hue can cause a client to think the color is too light.


Pop quiz, hotshot.  Which of the two top swatches below is darker, the left or right?

Trick question.  They are exactly the same.  One is on top of a swatch with warm tones and one is on top of a swatch with cool tones.  It's what we place each formula choice next to that can affect the visual result.  This is an example of simultaneous contrasts.

A yellow swatch next to a violet swatch, both shown at a level 9, display Complementary Contrasts.  Below, Sue Pemberton's winning NAHA entry in 2013 showcases Simultaneous Contrast.  Green and orange are not QUITE complementary, violet and copper don't QUITE cancel each other out and the result of these formulas and placement is a haircolor that vibrates in a still photo.

The red and green designs from above look like they could be a design pattern for color.  What they are is examples of the Contrast of Extension; how much of one color goes with another.  As colorists we could choose the highly contrasted color blocking pattern on the left or we could pretend the red dots on the right are balayage singles.  The minimal amount on the right makes them stand out like candles in the darkness.

Contrast of saturation is one of the most prevalent practices in haircolor.  The rise in pure and pastel tones is a perfect example of this.  Colorists use pure tones for an intense result or soften the blow with the addition of a clear base to sheer out the result.  Sometimes this is done for us by the manufacturer and sometimes the colorist is the one choosing the saturation level.  Keep in mind, in this instance we use saturation to describe the intensity of the result, not the amount of color needed to fully cover the hair strand.  The image below depicts Green diluted with a clear base at different ratios.

Understanding and employing these 7 strategies is a major step in designing jaw-dropping, award winning haircolor.  Choosing a full head of highlights with a gold, a neutral, and a cool intermixed adds more dimension than just one formula.  Where we choose to start blending a balayage section; at the cheekbone, eyebrow, or higher, creates different effects that refine or emphasize features.  Placing a yellow next to a periwinkle in rainbow hair is an immediate eye catcher. 

 In the top right corner, which yellow square is bigger?  Answer: They are the same.  The black and white frames that surround them affect the perceived size.

In the top right corner, which yellow square is bigger?  Answer: They are the same.  The black and white frames that surround them affect the perceived size.


Including a client's eye color and skin tone with the haircolor design is another major step in growing expertise.  Blue eyes can be affected by either a cool tone or a high contrast copper at the front hairline.  Putting a plum brunette on a client with yellow-undertoned skin can cause a jaundiced look.  Say that client really really REALLY wants plum hair.  Keep a halo of a warmer brunette around the hairline, and let the rest of the hair that doesn't sit directly next to the face be the plum glory.

Interested in leveling up your color game even more?  Run here immediately and buy The Elements of Color.  The emotions attached to Itten's descriptions of color will make you fall in love with color a thousand fold.

On orange, red-orange seems smoldering, dark and lifeless, as if parched,  If the orange is deepened to dark brown, the fire of the red flares with a dry heat.  It is only in contrast with black that fire red develops its most unconquerable, demonic passion.