Color Harmonies: A Guide To The Categories Of Lipstick Shades

Just like the major scale in the solfège system of musical education, lip colors are primarily organized into seven notes of color.
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November 11, 2013
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chanel, lipsticks, lip glosses, color harmonies

Ottavio Missoni, the late co-creator of the Missoni brand of luxury knits, was quoted in the New York Times last week about his use of color in his creations: “Color?” he said. “What can I say? I like comparing color to music: Only seven notes and yet innumerable melodies have been composed with those seven notes. How many basic colors are there? I don’t remember exactly, seven perhaps, like the notes of the scale, but how many tones or shades does each color have? An infinite number, just as always endless are the hues and nuances composing a work of art.”

Just like the major scale in the solfège system of musical education, lip colors are primarily organized into seven notes of color. Each brand may have some idiosyncrasies in the naming and organization of these notes. But for all intents and purposes, these seven color notes are the universal standard for lip color.

So, in the words of the eternal Austrian governess, Maria, let’s start at the very beginning. Here are the Do-Re-Mi’s of lip color harmonies.

Beige lip colors tend to be the very palest of all of the harmonies. In an opaque matte or satin finish, they were popular in the 1960s as a rebellion against the deep reds of the early 20th century. They underwent a revival in the 2000s that often involved a very glossy beige lipstick paired with a smoky eye. Today, they are associated with Asia since they tend to sell better in that market than in North America or Europe.

In terms of depth, beige lip colors can be very pale to quite close to lighter skin tones. They can have peachy, yellow undertones, which tend to flatter warmer complexions, or pinkish undertones, which are more flattering on cooler complexions.

Beige lip color is very hard to wear. It can visually wash out the complexion, yellow the teeth, and look rather unhealthy. It can also risk looking terribly dated, especially when very opaque or very glossy.

The most modern way to try a beige is to look for a very sheer wash of color to get a beige tone on the lips without covering up the natural lip color. Deeper shades also tend to be easier to wear.

Coral lip color is any pinkish lipstick with a dominant orange tone. In depth, they can range from a light orange-pink color to a deep orange, but the harmony does not include orangey tomato reds. The color is associated with satin-finish lipsticks in the 1950s and frosted lip colors in the 1980s.

Coral is an incredibly brightening color on the lips. If you look closely at the movies you watch, you’ll notice that many of the actors and actresses will wear muted coral lipstick to brighten the face and emphasize youth.

It is pretty easy to wear coral lipstick, especially on darker skin tones. Lighter skin tones tend to look better in deeper, pinker corals.

Coral lip color can be particularly effective for a retro, vintage-type makeup look when paired with a cat eye. Corals are having a moment in fashion right now, especially in sheer or matte formulations. Anything frosted will read seriously 1980s, so you might want to leave those lipsticks for a costume look.

As one of the most popular color harmonies, pink is also one of the most diverse. This category includes everything from delicate, soft pink to electric, bright pink and dark, deep pink. It’s a timeless color harmony of infinite variation that can be gentle or affirmed.

Pink can be sweet and pretty or electric and audacious. It can match the natural lip color as part of a no-makeup makeup look, or it can be a marked choice in the colors of the face. The effect of pink lip color is as much a part of its texture as its shade, since a hot pink will look very different in a sheer gloss or an opaque matte lipstick.

With the pink harmony, the extremes tend to be easier to wear than the mid-tones. A sheer, soft pink balmy lipstick or a bright, opaque, matte lipstick are more universally flattering than a mid-tone pink cream lipstick.

Rosewood is a classic lip color harmony that refers to colors between pink and brown. The look of a rosewood lip color is unique enough that it doesn’t fit into either the pink or brown harmonies. Rosewood is sometimes referred to as “mauve” or “bois de rose.”

This color harmony generally tries to mimic the actual tones of human lips to give a makeup effect that ranges from no-makeup to heavy-natural. Recently, this harmony has grown to include lip colors with lilac tones.

Rosewood can be slightly aging and a little gray-looking, especially in the tube. There’s nothing lively or vibrant about a rosewood lip color. However, it can be a chic, professional, and sophisticated choice, especially for everyday wear.

Red is the most powerful lip color harmony. For many centuries, red was the only choice for lip color. This is the color that started the whole industry.

Most product lines will offer one true red, usually as an opaque satin or cream finish. However, the variations are so powerful that it is worth exploring different tones to build up a wardrobe of reds.

One very popular variation of red lip color is a bright red. This is a lip color on a bright pink or bright orange base. Bright reds look sweet, happy, and young.

Another variation are tannic red lip colors. These brownish or purplish reds look like a color you would find in nature, such as on an apple. These colors can look a little more mature, but much more sophisticated and chic.

Cool-toned reds are particularly Old Hollywood glamorous, while warm-toned reds are hot and spicy and perfect for summer. Of course, all colors can be found in all textures, from sheer glosses to matte lipsticks.

The plum lip color harmony is the one that best captures the zeitgeist of 2013. This category is undergoing a renaissance, probably due to the popularity of the early 1990s in fashion. Plum lip color is intense, affirmed, and bold.

The plum harmony includes everything from the sheerest wash of violet balm to the deepest, darkest vamp lipstick. This is one of the most unnatural-looking lip colors because almost every intensity is most definitely a marked makeup look. Very few healthy humans naturally have purple lips.

For an easy-to-wear plum color, avoid gray tones and seek out deeply pigmented formulations with a strong reddish base.

Plum lip color has an extraordinary effect on eye color. The deeper the plum, the more the iris of the eye stands out visually. It can be particularly arresting with brown eyes.

The brown harmony encapsulates all of the chocolate and copper shades. This color harmony has a strong association with the 1990s and the “raisin” type lip color popular then. Browns have been mostly excluded from the plum renaissance of 2013.

Brown lip colors tend to be based on the most tannic tones in natural lip color. On lighter skin or people who have more pinkish lips, brown lip color can read as heavy-natural. It’s a bold look that may or may not be stylish, depending on the decade. On darker skin or people with browner lips, brown lip color can read as no-makeup, especially in a sheer texture.

There are other lip color harmonies on the market, including novelty colors like blue, green, black, and gray. The lip color harmonies above are the ones with a firm hold in global makeup culture. The harmonies grow and wane with the current fashions.

At the moment, strong lip color is bold again. Deeper shades like reds, plums, and browns are taking over the cosmetic counters in seasonal releases.

These seven notes of the lip color scale can create endless harmonies of color. What is your favorite lip color harmony?