Shopping With The Color Wheel: How My Art Education Took The Anxiety Out Of Eye Makeup

Intimidated by colorful eye makeup? I was, too, until I realized I could use good old-fashioned color theory to pick the perfect shadows and liners for my eye color.
Publish date:
April 17, 2013
eyeliners, eyeshadows, maybelline

When I told my mother that I wanted to wear makeup like the other girls in my seventh grade class, she did what any mildly conservative Southern mother would do: go to the Clinique counter and buy the tamest taupe eyeshadow in existence.

It was very pretty in a makeup-that-doesn’t-look-like-makeup way, and the first in a long line of lovely yet boring neutral shadows in my makeup bag.

I embraced eye makeup for its practical purposes. I used beige and tawny colors to subtly enhance and brighten--nothing more.

However, since starting to contribute to xoVain, my curiosity about trying FUN eye makeup has been piqued. Could I pull off a bold eyeliner? Would colorful eyeshadow make me look like a clown? Which colors should I try first? I’m so overwhelmed!

I posed these questions to my friend who just happens to be a real-deal makeup artist. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Beth, are you kidding me? You’re an artist.”

Well, yes I dabble, but what does that have to do with makeup? She whacked me over the head with a wooden spoon (not really) and reminded me about our good friend, the color wheel.


I will quell my makeup intimidation using something that is friendly and familiar to me. Then, I shall pass along some tips to you. Actually, not so much then as right now.


Complementary colors are two hues that are directly opposite from one another on the color wheel. When they are placed next to each other, they appear more intense and brighter, which is a phenomenon called simultaneous contrast. The basic complements are red and green, blue and orange, and yellow and purple.

When we apply this idea to eye makeup, we’ll have to get a little creative, as most of us don’t wear straight primary pigments. And I don’t know anyone with yellow eyes who isn’t a cat.

I was born with blue eyes that seem to be getting progressively grayer as I age. When I look closely at them, I can just make out some yellowish flecks. Taking a complementary approach, I might try some eyeshadows in the orange or coral family. If you’re not ready to go straight into tangerine eye makeup, start with a nice warm shimmery gold.

Those with green or hazel eyes have several options for complementary shadows. I know that I just told you that red is green’s complement, but pure red is not always easy to wear, unless you’re Annie. If you decide to try a straight red eye, I’d love to see some pictures, ‘cuz you go, girl.

Purple and violet contain red, so start with them as not-scary basics. Pink is also a safe place to start experimenting as you can go from baby pink to magenta. Adventurous ladies may want to try a bold hot pink.

Explore some rich, warm colors with red undertones. Burgundy. Deep copper. A cool, vibrant violet will make golden flecks pop.

Brown is a combination of all the primary colors, so she has no complement. However, that means a brown eyes can get away with wearing pretty much any color.

Most brown eyes are fairly warm in tone, so cool shades of blue, green or purple would be super-flattering. If your eyes are golden brown, try a bold jade or emerald green.

Deeper shades of brown are a bit cooler, so you might try rich bronze shadow or a dark aubergine liner.

I have a theory that slate gray would look great on brown eyes. See, if you mix two complimentary colors, the result is a neutral gray; brown is all primary colors mixed. Yeah, OK, the theory isn’t based in good science, but I still think a nice silver or gunmetal would look awesome.


There’s an outdated notion that women shouldn’t wear eyeshadows to match their eye color. I’m not going to tell someone with blue eyes to slap on a frosted blue, but I do think it’s possible to wear colors that are similar to our irises.

Analogous colors are adjacent to one another on the color wheel, and they are very harmonious and pleasing to look at.

Blue is situated between purple and green on the color wheel, so analogous colors would be on the cool end of the spectrum. Blue eyes look dreamy with a shimmery lavender shadow.

For a more striking effect, I tried this shiny hunter green liner. I am, how do you say, still figuring out how to apply the liner? Please be kind.

Green and (for our purposes) hazel exist between blue and yellow, so we’ll be looking for colors within that range. If your eyes are this color, you might try a matte navy, a peacock blue, or perhaps a golden olive green. Spring green would highlight those hazel-y flecks, too.

Brown eyes are a special thing. I like to think of brown as a deep shade of red or orange. (Quick lesson: shades occur when black is added to a hue; tints are hues plus white.) So, from this perspective, you could try something ranging from maize yellow to burnt orange, violet red to neon pink.

The color wheel may very well make more sense of your quest for a bright new eyeshadow color. Whether you take baby steps or dive right into the most saturated hue you can find, you can always refer back to the idea of contrast and harmony in color.

Remember to keep skin tone in mind when narrowing down your choices. Personally, I try to avoid tones that would pull more red into my already rosy face.

I’ve also learned that my deep-set eyes start to look tiny with really dark shadows or heavy liners. Spend some time looking in the mirror, my pets.

So, what color are your eyes? How do you choose your eyeshadow colors?