Overtone vs. Undertone

Happy day, dear reader!

Hope your week has been full of only the pleasant kind of surprises! Today I want to talk about a color quality that people often confuse, undertone and overtone. Specifically as it pertains to choosing colors, whether for clothing or makeup.

I often hear people say they are a Spring, Summer, Winter or Fall. They know that their coloring is cool (Summer and Winter) or warm (Spring and Fall). They understand that if their coloring is cool, they will look better in cool colors, and if warm, warm colors. This is an oversimplification that leaves out lots of other variables like value and intensity, but is, in general, correct. Warm colors suit warm complexions. Cool colors suit cool complexions.


When you are typed Warm or Cool, the typing should be based on the undertone of your skin. Your skin’s undertone is determined by the chemistry of the pigments that give you your personal coloring. Everyone’s skin has the same three pigments. It’s the amounts of each that create the beautiful diversity of human coloring!

Depending on your personal chemical cocktail, your undertone can be warm (yellow based) or cool (blue based). You may have heard people talk about the “wrist test.” Warm skinned people are supposed to have veins with a greenish cast, and cool skinned people are supposed to have veins with a blue cast. This isn’t particularly precise, as the lighting, depth of the veins, and transparency of the skin all play into what color you will see in your wrists.

To further confuse things, skin can have a conflicting overtone and undertone. For example, a very ruddy olive-complexion looks pink (cool) even though the undertone is warm. Or suntanned cool complexion may look warm when it’s not! Although the same pigments affect hair color, hair color alone is not a determinant of skin tone, as brown and blonde hair can be warm or cool. The only hair color that does signify skin undertone is red. (Naturally red, not colored red, or sun-bleached brown!) Natural red-heads are warm complexioned; they have an abundance of carotene that colors both their hair and skin…  Coloring your hair does not change your skin’s undertone!


Overtone is the “feeling” we get from a color. Do we associate the color with warmth? Or with coolness? Humans associate yellow, red, orange, and pink with warm. Think sunshine, firelight, and flushed faces. We associate blues, greens, and purples with cool. The feeling of running water, shady trees, blue fingers in the snow. On a color wheel, the overtone of the colors on the wheel are labeled.  Yellow Green through to Violet are labeled as cool on the right hand side of the wheel.  The left hand side, Yellow through Red Violet, is labeled warm.

Playing Together

Once you know your undertone, it should be a snap to choose colors that are good for you, right? Not necessarily… Does the color have more yellow in it? Or no yellow at all? A great example is green. There are thousands of shades of green, some warm and some cool, but on a color wheel, green is labeled in the cool colors. Cool greens look better on cool complexioned people, and warm greens on warm complexioned people. Although Yellow-Green has a cool overtone, it has a warm undertone! This is why many shades of olive look wonderful on those with a warm complexion; most olives are yellow based. There are warm and cool pinks, purples, yellows, reds, browns, greys; all colors (except orange) have both warm and cool variations! I hear people say, “I’m warm, so I can’t wear blue.” This isn’t true. There are warm blues out there for them! White and black aren’t colors (by definition) but they are both cool. Thus the Undertone/Overtone Confusion!

Long ago when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I was in university. During the height of the seasonal color typing heyday, the mother of a hall-mate came to visit and type the young women living on our wing. Since I had dark brown hair and green/brown hazel eyes, I was promptly placed in the Fall/Autumn category. I was confused; I knew the colors of Fall made me look like the dog’s dinner. Charcoal grey, bright blues, and bright pinks were great colors for me, and camel, orange and olive made me look like the paramedics needed to be called! So I wrote the whole thing off as rubbish. (I was young, and judgemental.)

Thirty some-odd years later, I understand that hair and eye color aren’t the keys. When I color type a client, it’s all about the skin! When we work, I give them not only their swatch, but also a color wheel, and we talk about the skin chemistry that gives them their coloring and all the variations of value and intensity that come into play. These tools and teaching help them make flattering color choices for themselves. We also talk about how to wear those colors that aren’t ideal. The very nuanced Absolute Color System, with its 18 different color palettes , was designed to take into account all skin tones, and the combinations of warm and cool that genetic diversity creates. And for the natural changes that occur to our skin and hair color as we age… (There’s a reason the hair color we had at 20 doesn’t flatter us anymore at 50!)

Look More Closely

Next time you are at the shops, take a closer look at the colors you see. What’s the overtone? What’s the undertone? This is especially important when choosing makeup colors! The wrong undertone is often why a new lipstick, or blush never looks quite right, or only flatters when you have a good tan! If you keep buying bronzer, hoping to find one that give you that sun-kissed look, but keep on finding it makes you look “dirty,” I’d venture a guess that your complexion is cool. I’d LOVE to have all the money that I spent on bronzers over the years, looking for the one for me! There isn’t one. And that’s ok!

HINT: If a shop assistant tells you that the blouse or dress you just tried on simply needs a brighter lipstick to look “perfect,” that’s a sure sign that the color isn’t a good one for you! That’s an example of the color wearing you, rather than you wearing the color… Thank him or her kindly, walk away, and save your hard earned money on something in a color that works for you, and not against you!

So how about you? Have you ever had your coloring “typed”? Was it a good experience, or leave something to be desired? Are your favorite colors more in the warm overtone group or the cools? I love to hear from you! Let’s start a conversation in the comments below!

Stylishly yours,

Thank you to Shelbee at Shelbee on the Edge, and Nancy at Nancy’s Fashion Style for the Link-Ups! You ladies are fabulous!



    Liz, I was typed many years ago as a Spring. I haven’t changed over the years. Spring colors still definately look best on me! Some pastels that aren’t in my Spring Colors (like a flesh pink) I know I’m unable to get away with like I did when I was younger. I don’t wear much color because it was drilled into me growing up that it is low class. I’m having a very difficult time getting over that. Infact, I wonder if I’m able!

    • Liz K

      You are able if you choose! It’s about recognizing where those rules came from and whether YOU want to live by them anymore. It’s simple, but not always easy.

  • Susan Terry

    I’m relieved to discover I’m not alone in my skin tones conflict but still no closer to finding a makeup foundation worth a damn. To begin- I have a fair/light complexion with a zero margin of error or forgiveness for wrong colours. At first blush, i have a warm cast to my complexion; it’s only on closer inspection or proper lighting the cool red blue undertone comes out. Warm tone foundations turn orange or look as if I’ve been dirt rolled face first. Cool tones tend to be too pink making me look as if I’m blushing or mildly sunburned. Neutrals seem to give me an ashen look. That makeup brand Prescriptives? They used to custom colour blend foundation for customers?.. Yeah..i sent the women behind the counter home in tears. This has been a quest decades in the running and as I near my half century mark I just want to be able to blend out my freckles and red splatches for a more even skin tone for once in my life… Maybe find an eyeshadow palette for blue/gray eyes that doesn’t include orange, copper, rust etc. I know…first World problems.

    • closetplayadmin

      Thank you for visiting, Susan! Foundation is frustrating, and you’re NOT the only one… Have you found any of the BB or CC creams to be more forgiving? I know I do better with much less pigment, and a couple of dabs of concealer well blended for the red patches.

  • Ruth Baxter

    I always find colour theory fascinating – but as a stawberry blond (warm) with blue veins (cool) in my ultra-pale skin (who knows) it’s never straightforward!!

    • closetplayadmin

      Sounds like you are a very light and soft warm! (If that strawberry blond is natural.) The veins can be tricky, because of light, depth, sun exposure, and especially skin thickness and age. (You can even throw in temperature for another confounding factor.) I was always mistyped; my brown hair and green/brown hazel eyes pegged me as warm. I always looked ghastly in tans, camels, and olives, and gave up on color typing! It wasn’t until I found the Absolute Color System that any of it made sense and worked for me.

    • closetplayadmin

      I thought I had replied to you earlier, but it didn’t take! Arrrgh. If that strawberry blond is natural, it sounds like you are a very light warm. The commonly used veins question can be tricky; there are lots of confounding factors to vein color: age and skin thickness, vein depth, sun exposure, lighting, even temperature! I was always mistyped as a warm because of my brown hair (when younger) and green/brown hazel eyes. I was told to wear browns, camels, and olives. Those colors made me look like the proverbial dog’s dinner, and I decided that color typing was a lot of hooey. When I found the Absolute Color System, with its nuanced types, my muddled mess became so much more clear!

      • Ruth Baxter

        Update – I was recently colour typed (by Imogen) using the Abolute Colour System and classifed as Serene so COOL, light, soft. I was suprised because I’ve thought of myself as “spring” for so long and I don’t think my skintone has changed from warm to cool over the years (the commenter mentioned Prescriptives, they classified me in a blue/red shade choice 20-odd years ago) but I think the red hair was my predominant feature and now it has softened my skin colour is more to the fore.

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