How to Wear Color Like a Pro

dress color wheelWant more confidence with color?  Look no further!  I believe I’ve mentioned my sordid history with dressing in head-to-toe brown.  Fortunately I finally discovered color, and now I can’t get enough of it.  Seriously – I have an acid-yellow trench coat I wear with a yellow and pink leopard-print scarf.  But I digress.

Some people have a natural sense of color.  Lucky them.  Personally, I had to develop mine.  My natural instinct was always to match everything.  Hence the whole head-to-toe brown thing.  But I digress.  Believe me, if I can learn to confidently use color, you can, too.  You just need to develop the color-sense muscles which may have atrophied.

We’re going to start with the basics and then move on to an unbelievably easy way to do amazing things with color.


you need to understand the color wheel

Think of it as a rainbow circle.  A round ROY G BIV.  It may seem odd at first, but eventually you’ll have it in your head and you’ll be able to choose colors without even thinking about it any more.


Let me explain some of the gibberish.  You all should have learned in school about the primary colors: RED, BLUE, and YELLOW.

They’re called the primary colors because all other colors are made by mixing them in different amounts and combinations.  Equal quantities of red + blue = purple, blue + yellow = green, and yellow + red = orange.  These half-and-half combinations are the “secondary” colors.  Carry it further for the “tertiary” colors: green + yellow or green + blue, purple + red or purple + blue, and orange + red or orange + yellow.

It gets a bit more complex when you discuss SHADES.  By adding white or black to any of these colors, you can make them lighter or darker.  Red + white = pink, red + black = burgundy.  Got it?  Good.

Now I’m going to unleash my inner nerd.

Those colors are all shades of PAINT, or dye.  The primary colors of LIGHT are different :primary_colors_of_light

The three primary colors of light (yellow, magenta, and cyan) combine to give us red, blue and green. Combine all 3 colors of light and you get white light (which is why we can’t see the colors in sunlight until there’s a rainbow which separates them).  No light = black. Yay science! But I digress.

Flipping off my nerd switch before I lose you all, let me just say that I use magenta, cyan, and acid yellow as accent colors a lot because I find them more unusual and interesting than red, yellow, and blue.


Okay, theoretical lessons over, let’s move on to the juicy practical uses for this information:

  • Complementary colors are found next to each other on the wheel.

  • Contrasting colors are the ones lying exactly opposite.


examples of complementary color combinations


examples of contrasting color combinations


Now let’s look at the colors placed at thirds around the wheel:

primary vs. secondary or tertiary colors


Notice how those colors look surprisingly good together?  By the way, up to this point I haven’t used a single item over $50.  Click on the photos to view the details on Polyvore.


Let’s see how you can apply this information in your wardrobe:

Here is a capsule collection I built a while back, all around a chartreuse (that’s a fancy word for yellow-green) handbag:

13 outfits, 1 chartreuse handbag


We’ve learned that plum and chartreuse are perfect contrasts, as they lie opposite each other on the wheel (red-violet and yellow-green).  I’ve also used complementary colors, like green, violet, and blue-violet.  The neutrals are navy, black, and grey… and the lovely chartreuse bag goes with EVERYTHING.


 a quick note on “shade” vs. “tone”

Different shades are created by adding white or black to a color to make it lighter or darker.  Different tones, however, are created by adding ANOTHER color.*

For example, add white to bright pink and you get pale pink.  Add black and you get fuschia.  However, if you add orange, you’ll get coral – not a different shade, but a different tone.

When mixing colors, remember that it’s very easy to mix different shades of a color, but it can be very difficult to mix different tones.

"Shade" vs. "Tone"


Or… stick to one colour family

However, if you stick to one color “family,” that is, all pastels, all brights, or all darks, and follow a few extra rules, you have tremendous freedom.

stick to one color family, and you can go crazy


When trying this, just remember to stick to solid colors (generally not even color-blocking), avoiding patterns and prints, obvious textures, and embellishments.  Remember “KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.”


*If you want to get picky, or if you’re just really interested in this topic, there’s actually even more to it than this – hue, shade, tone, tint.  Technically tints are lighter, shades are darker, and tones are muted.  I’ve mashed all of this into “shade” for simplicity.  Here’s the full breakdown.

But I digress.


Now for the awesome stuff

You should already be feeling more confident with your understanding of color, but can you step outside the color-wheel rules?  I’m sure we’ve all seen someone wear a stunning color combination and wondered HOW they thought to put that together, haven’t we?  Well, for those of us who are NOT born color-geniuses, I have a solution (you can thank me later).

Basically, you’re going to steal… yes, STEAL ideas from wherever you can.  I get great ideas from artists (photographers and painters), but the all-time undefeated champion of glorious, mysterious color combinations is mother nature.  Wherever you see colors that look beautiful to you, you can use that as inspiration.


Just look at what I was able to come up with by looking at a photo of a California sunset:

Color inspiration: California sunset



Or how about cherry blossoms?

Color inspiration: cherry blossoms



These outfits are all based on a scrap of wallpaper:

Color inspiration: wallpaper



You really can get inspiration from anywhere. How about a photo of an English pub?

Color inspiration: British pub


Now go forth!  Try something new!  Be a shade (see what I did there?) bolder.  Seek inspiration, find what moves and delights you.  Some color combinations will cheer you up, some will make you feel powerful, others will make you feel younger.

Let me know when you discover something new – whether it’s the outfit, the inspiration, or the way it makes you feel.

I will be posting lots more of these color inspiration sets in the future.  I find them immensely useful, I hope you do, too.  And feel free to send me challenges. If you have a photo and you want to see what I can do with it, send it to me!  I love to stretch myself.

But I digress.


on “How to Wear Color Like a Pro
6 Comments on “How to Wear Color Like a Pro
  1. That chartreuse bag is great. I wish it had a shoulder strap. Not enough great handbags come with shoulder straps.

    I like the olive tones more than the sea-greens in the wallpaper outfits.

    • I know, right? I’m trying to figure out how I can justify having more than the 2 I already have myself.

      I would ABSOLUTELY wear that boombox bag. You have to be careful not to look like a clown (particularly after age 30), but I think you can get away with a lot with the correct balance. I’d wear it with something like tailored black pants and a white shirt with black and white boots. Or nice jeans and a yellow silk blouse. Another planned future blog post is how to dress with a sense of humor and still be classy and age-appropriate.

  2. Oops, complementary colors are not found next to each other on the color wheel. Once you change that, I’ll be able to concentrate on your beautiful examples.

    I have always loved color. I’m not sure if I own anything brown other than a leather purse.


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