Color

What is Value Contrast?

And Why Does It Matter?

Happy day, dear reader!

Is your week rolling along smartly? This one feels a bit like the Keystone-Cops… Lots of busy-ness, but busy doesn’t equal accomplishment. We’ll have to see how it all plays out, and whether at week’s end anything got done. If nothing else, at least there will be another post!

When I drape a client for a color consultation, and we get into the nuts and bolts of evaluating his or her personal color, my client is often surprised that it’s not just about the palette! There is so much more to creating combinations that make you look your best than just the colors themselves. The personal coloring stool has three legs, the first is your Color Palette, the second–Value Contrast, and the third–Color Contrast. Getting your Value Contrast right is the biggest difference between you wearing your clothes and your clothes wearing you, and it also makes not-so-swell-for-you colors work better!

Image from Amazon.com.

Since Contrast means “the difference between”, and Value (in color terms) is lightness or darkness, Value Contrast is the difference between the lightest and darkest parts of your personal coloring. Another way to imagine it is to think of yourself with a B/W filter. Although this is deceptive, because the apps correct for a more natural look… (For more color information check out the Color Primer, here.)

When I explain Value Contrast to a client, or at a workshop, I default to the Disney Princesses… Because the Disney ladies are iconic examples of contrast, and almost everyone knows their princesses. Even if you don’t know their names, you’ve probably seen them in ads, on store shelves, and running down the street on Halloween! To keep Value Contrast simple, we’ll start with Low, Medium, and High. There are, of course, people who fit between these three, but we need to start somewhere!

High, Medium, & Low Value Contrast

The princess of choice for High Value Contrast (HVC) is Snow White with her raven hair and fair skin. Her skin is 10 and hair is 1: 10-1=9. That’s about as high as Value Contrast comes! That’s why she looks like herself in her dark blue bodice, white collar, and light yellow skirt. If you are looking for a darker complexioned HVC princess, think Jasmine! (Or certain images of Mulan, but not this one!)

For Medium Value Contrast (MVC), we need lighter hair, and darker skin to create less of a difference. Belle is a good choice here! Her skin is about a 9 and her brown hair a 3: 9-3=6. Belle’s pre-transformation white blouse and medium blue apron dress create a flattering Value Contrast for her. I don’t think too much of her yellow ball gown, although I appreciate how it works beautifully costume-wise as a complement to the Beast’s jacket trim, creating a visual whole when they are together. And that’s the fairy-tale point, isn’t it? For a darker complexioned MVC princess, look to Pocohantas or (not pictured) Moana.

Cinderella’s light hair and light skin create her Low Value Contrast. Her skin looks like a 10 or 9, depending on the image! Cinderella’s hair is about an 8… 10-8=2, so her Value Contrast is Low (LVC). She looks just right in her varying shades of light blue. Tiana is a great example of a darker complexion with Low Value Contrast. I’d like to see an even darker princess… Maybe soon!

Sorry, I don’t have medium in this image… I’m working on a new one!

Why Value Contrast Matters

Value Contrast is one of those pieces that makes an outfit work. When our clothing is in harmony with our natural coloring, it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but rather draws attention to the wearer. When our clothing is in conflict with our coloring, it fights for attention, and draws the eye to it, and away from our faces. If you’ve ever had a sales associate say “You just need a bright lip and it will look great!”, that’s a clue that something is not right for you… Unless you are one of those who wears a bright lip every day! Then knock yourself out. For more thoughts on what makes an outfit work or not, read here.

Images from Land’s End.

Ways to Correct Value Contrast

Adding a bright lipstick is one way to raise your Value Contrast to match that of an High Value Contrast outfit. You can also lower the contrast of an outfit by “stepping,” that is, adding a medium value item to bridge the gap between the HVC pieces.


Images from Land’s End.

You can step from Low Value Contrast to MVC the same way…

Images from Land’s End.

A Medium Value Contrast is harder to change, but you can change it’s overall look from lighter to darker! I could raise this Value Contrast higher by changing the pink shirt to white, or by adding a black scarf or shawl to the pink and wine.


Images from Land’s End.

Hopefully this is clear. And not clear as mud! In the interest of transparency, Value Contrast was one of the most challenging bits to wrap my mind around during my color training… I was HVC in my younger days, with dark hair and fair skin. Since embracing my grey, my Value Contrast is lower and my personal coloring lighter (although my dark eyes keep it from going totally LVC). Now, I look better in overall lighter colored outfits. It took a lot of seeing myself through a camera lens regularly to help me grasp the difference AND how much better I look when I bring the Value Contrast down a notch. It takes time to retrain a lifetime style habit, but the effort has been sooooo worth it!

I think another Value Contrast post with some IRL examples is in order! Hopefully I can get to that next month. In the meantime, please feel free to ask any questions I may have raised… What do you think your Value Contrast is? Who’s your princess? Let me know in the comments below… I do so love to hear from you!

Stylishly yours,

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8 thoughts on “What is Value Contrast?”

  1. So interesting. Would love another post on this subject with more examples. I am high contrast, dark hair, blue/grey eyes and pale skin. I noticed that when I wear a white top and a white bottom with no other strong color I don’t really look so good. As I get older I thought I should steer away from black near my face, yet the other night I received so many compliments in a black t-shirt – I was literally told it is my colour. So perhaps I can still run with it. I love intense but cool colours and they definitely look better. I believe I am a true winter. btw I never miss a post ! Lise

    1. Thank you for the visit, Lise, and the question! The reason the white top and bottom alone don’t look as good is that the outfit is lacking the contrast your personal coloring has. If you top that white on white (which looks so chic) with a dark scarf, you will get the dark near your face that you need. Black may be a good color for you, but it is often too harsh on us as we age, even a slightly lighter charcoal grey can be a better choice, and still create the contrast needed! If the compliment was a night, it can be hard to tell, as evening light is softer and more flattering, and we often wear a brighter lipstick at night as well. Both of these make black (even when it’s not our best) work better!I used to look fabulous in black; as my coloring softens and lightens with age, alone black is too harsh for day on my now without some tricks to help it along…

    1. Hey Angie, thank you for the question! I left out colored eyes (and color overall) in this post because I wanted to address only Value Contrast. I’ll tackle Color Contrast in another post! Eye color adds to a person’s Color Contrast, but adds to their Value Contrast only if the eyes are very dark or very light. For example, a very fair, light haired blond might have large intensely dark brown eyes, that would leave her Color Contrast all neutral, but raise her Value Contrast. Value Contrast is one of the reasons a dark skinned, dark haired person with very light eyes is so striking!

  2. Hi Liz, this was really interesting. I have blonde (dyed hair – underneath it’s dark brown), olive skin and brown eyes . So I’m not sure what value contrast I would be. Medium?

    1. Thank you for visiting, Dimitie! I popped on over to your blog to look at some pictures of you. Great fun there! Your eyes look fairly dark compared to your hair, and it looks like you wear your specs all the time? They’re dark too, and so that brings more dark to your contrast level higher. I’d say you are medium. Love the pics from last year’s Elton John gala on Insta. What an adventure!

  3. Love this explanation of value contrast. Also loving the way you put your pic collages together- do you use a particular app or program to achieve this. Would be good to use for my own wardrobe! If you’re happy to, please let me know. Thanks

    1. Thanks for visiting, Chris, and for the compliment! I use PowerPoint to create a lot of my images, and then use the snipping tool to save the image as a jpeg. Hope that helps!

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