In a nutshell, seasonal colour analysis is a tool you can use to determine which colours flatter you most. Based on your overall appearance and the colouring of your eyes, hair, and skin, you will fall into one of twelve colour seasons. Each colour season comes with a colour palette, specifically designed to suit your natural colouring.
It is important to mention that seasonal colour analysis does not match colours to your personality or body shape. Rather, it looks at certain aspects of the natural colouring and matches those with colours that will reduce the appearance of imperfections and blemishes and will complement your natural appearance.
In other words, it shows you which colours make you look washed out and which ones make you look fresh and awake. But before you go and find out which category you fall into, let’s dive into some colour theory and find out how the analysis works.
To understand seasonal colour analysis, we need to understand the three aspects or dimensions of colour first. They are:
I. Hue & Temperature / Undertone
The hue defines the colour family of an object, or what colour it is – green, purple, orange etc.
Although not universally agreed upon, we perceive certain colours as warmer and others as cooler. We will refer to this as a colour’s temperature or undertone. It can be either warm or cool, or some combination of the two (neutral).
We tend to associate yellow, orange, and red with warmth, whereas purple, blue, and green appear cool and you will often find the colour wheel divided like this:
This does not mean that all yellows are warm and all blues are cool. Any colour can have warm or cool undertones – think of an acidic yellow and an orange yellow. The former will have a cooler quality than the latter. See the examples below:
When it comes to seasonal colour analysis, there is a general consensus that yellow is the warmest colour and blue is the coolest. This is because warm skin tones tend to have yellow, golden undertones; while cool-toned skin has blueish undertones.
Therefore, colours that are blue-based are classed as cool. The more blue, the cooler the colour. Yellow-based colours are warm. Warmer colours contain more yellow.
If a colour’s undertone is imperceptible it is a neutral colour – neither warm nor cool. Examples are green and red: While pure green contains both yellow and blue in equal parts, pure red contains neither blue nor yellow.
II. Value / Depth
Value designates the intensity of a colour or how light or dark it is. Light colours have had white added to them and are referred to as tints. Similarly, dark colours have had black added to them and are called shades.
III. Chroma / Clarity
Chroma defines a colour’s saturation, or how bright (clear) or muted (soft) it is. Another way to understand chroma is to think about how ‘close to grey’ a colour is. Clear, bright, saturated colours are far away from being grey. The more saturation is taken away, the closer a colour gets to grey and the more muted it becomes. Adding grey to a colour turns it into a tone.
To summarise then:
Now that we understand the basics of colour theory, we can take a look at seasonal colour analysis.
Seasonal colour analysis is not a new concept. In fact, our modern understanding of harmonious colours comes from 19th century impressionist painters’ understanding of the seasons. In order to accurately depict each season, they needed to understand the colours that are reflective of each one.
This means there is a certain set or palette of colours which exists during a certain period of time in the natural world and which appears harmonious to us because of the way the light is reflected on the natural world. Think about the colours of landscapes as they experience the four distinct seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The fresh, bright, and warm colours of spring; the soft, cool colours of summer; the warm, golden, earthy colours of autumn; and the cool, icy colours of winter.
Since we humans are also part of the natural world, it only makes sense to apply these sets of colours on ourselves as well. But it was not until the 1980’s that the application of the four seasons to fashion colour choices gained mainstream popularity, largely due to Carole Jackson’s successful book “Color me beautiful”. Her analysis focuses on two of the three dimensions of colour we discussed above:
The test determines whether someone’s colouring is
WARM or COOL (temperature); and
LIGHT or DARK (value)
In Jackson’s book, which seasonal type you are depends therefore on two basic variables:
the undertone of your skin, hair and eyes (either warm/golden or cool/ashy); and
how light or dark your overall colouring – and specifically your hair, is.
The seasons represent the four possible variations of these two variables: If your natural hair colour is lighter than medium brown, you would be classed as either a Spring or a Summer; if it is darker you are an Autumn or a Winter.
If your skin tone and hair have a warm undertone, or you are a natural red-head, you would be classed as either a Spring or an Autumn; if your skin has a blueish, cool undertone and your hair is more ashy and has no golden or red highlights, you are either a Summer or a Winter.
Some people fall without a doubt into one of these four categories. But what if you are warm and light, yet the colours of Spring are too intense for you? Summer colours are much less intense, but they are cool. What do you do now? The truth is, most people don't fall neatly into one of the four original seasons. The model was therefore refined and developed into a more accurate twelve seasons colour analysis.
The reason the basic analysis does not work for everyone is that there is one fundamental aspect missing from it, namely the third colour dimension of “chroma” or “saturation”. Chroma distinguishes strong, saturated colours from weak, greyish ones.
High chroma = rich and clear/bright
Low chroma = dull or muted/soft
If you take a look at the colour palettes of each season you will notice that while Spring and Winter’s colours are clear and bright, Summer and Autumn’s colours are more subdued or muted. Adding chroma to the four seasons colour analysis creates the more accurate twelve seasons colour theory. The three aspects of colour then result in six, instead of four, characteristics:
WARM or COOL (temperature); and
LIGHT or DARK (value)
BRIGHT/CLEAR or MUTED/SOFT (chroma)
In the four seasons colour analysis, the four seasons are distinct and separate. You can only be one or the other. The twelve seasons colour analysis, in contrast, acknowledges that not everyone falls distinctly into one of the four seasons; and adding the third colour dimension of chroma allows for the fact that the seasons overlap or flow into each other. But before we find out why that is, let’s find out what the twelve seasons are.
If you take a look at the graphic below, you will notice that the original four seasons have been divided into three sub-seasons each, where the warm/cool (the ‘true’) sub-seasons represent the original four seasons:
So in this theory, Spring is not only light and warm but also bright, creating the following sub-seasons:
Bright Spring = bright/clear + warm
Warm/True Spring = warm + bright/clear
Light Spring = light + warm
Summer is not only light and cold but also muted. Sub-seasons are:
Light Summer = light + cool
Cool/True Summer = cool + soft/muted
Soft Summer = soft/muted + cool
Autumn is warm and dark and also muted. Sub-seasons are:
Soft Autumn = soft/muted + warm
Warm/True Autumn = warm + soft/muted
Dark Autumn = dark + warm
And while Winter is dark and cold, it is also bright. Its sub-seasons are:
Dark Winter = dark + cool
Cool/True Winter = cool + bright/clear
Bright Winter = bright/clear + cool
So how does this model flow? As you can see, out of the three aspects of colour, each sub-season has two most prominent aspects. Take, for instance, True Summer. Its main aspect is cool, but it is also muted. Soft Summer, on the other hand, is predominantly muted, but also cool. And similarly, Soft Autumn is predominantly soft, but in contrast to Soft Summer, it is warm. So you can see how each sub-season flows seamlessly into the next via the three dimensions of colour.
At the points where the original seasons overlap, a new season is created. For example, Dark Autumn is really a blend of Autumn and Winter. Someone falling into this sub-season has the warmth of the typical Autumn, but the intensity characteristic of a Winter.
If we take a look at the natural world again, we know that, for instance, summer does not start overnight when spring is over (as the four seasons colour model suggests). In reality, spring moves gradually into summer and the early spring days feel and look different from the late spring days when the trees are covered in all their green foliage. So it makes sense that the seasons flow into one another in the twelve seasons colour analysis.
We have said that each season’s colour palette is a replica of the colours found in the natural world as it moves through the seasons. This means that each seasonal colour palette consists of a set of harmonious colours. But what makes them harmonious?
Let’s take autumnal colours, for instance. When we look at an autumn landscape, we see rich, warm, and fairly dark colours. We wouldn’t associate an icy blue with autumn, simply because it does not exist in the natural autumnal world.
What then do autumn colours have in common that makes them harmonious? Well, firstly they are similar in temperature (warm) and similar in chroma (muted). And while there are, of course, lighter and darker colours to be found, many of them will cluster around a particular value level (dark). The same is true for each of the twelve colour palettes.
Which Colours Belong to Which Season?
To understand how colours are matched to each season, we need to go back to the three dimensions of colour. Let’s start with hue and temperature (warm vs cool).
If you remember, a warm colour is based on yellow, whereas a cool colour is based on blue. So a colour that is completely warm has yellow undertones and no blue ones; and it will belong to either True Spring or True Autumn since these are the two “warm” seasons.
Completely cool colours have blue undertones and no yellow ones; and they will belong to either True Summer or True Winter – the “cool” seasons.
Remember, that within each colour warm and cool are relative concepts. A colour is warm or cool based on how much yellow or blue is added to it.
For example, a warm yellow will be very yellowish, whereas a cool yellow will appear somewhat greenish. Why? Because if you mix blue into yellow, you get green. And vice versa, if you mix yellow into blue, it will appear greenish because of the yellow undertones.
So while you might find yellows on the Winter palette, these are very cool yellows compared to the warm yellows of Autumn and Spring.
Now we know that cool colours belong either to True Summer or True Winter and warm colours belong to either True Spring or True Autumn. But how do we determine which of the two potential seasons they belong to?
For this we need to look at their value (lightness or darkness) and their chroma (brightness or softness).
Let’s look at value first. We know that warm colours contain a lot of yellow. And yellow in its purest form is a light colour. Whereas blue in its purest form is a dark colour. If you mix blue into yellow, it will become darker; and if you mix yellow into blue, it will become lighter.
But that is not the only thing that happens here. If you look closely you will notice that the two hues in the middle of the chart are ‘muddier’ than the two hues on the outside. We have changed their chroma from extremely saturated to slightly muted. If we add this third dimension of colour to the chart, we get the following:
As you can see, the purest forms of yellow and blue have the highest chroma. Where these pure colours get mixed with each other, they not only change in value but also in chroma. They become less clear, less bright, and more muted.
If we rearrange the chart once more, we can see the workings behind the basic seasonal colour analysis model: While True Spring and True Winter contain the clearest, purest forms of yellow and blue, respectively, both True Autumn and True Summer contain more muted colours, which have been mixed with either blue or yellow.
This means that:
Spring – being completely warm and bright, has a lot of lighter colours (because yellow is inherently warm and light). That’s why we find lots of tints in Spring.
Autumn – being completely warm but muted, has more darker colours (because inherently light yellow has been mixed with inherently dark blue causing the colours to become muddied and darker). That’s why we find tones as well as shades in Autumn.
Winter – being completely cool and clear, has a lot of darker colours (because blue is inherently cool and dark). However, Winter is the season of high contrast and high intensity; hence we not only find shades but also tints in this season.
Summer – being completely cool but muted, has more lighter colours (because inherently dark blue has been mixed with inherently light yellow causing the colours to become more muted and lighter). That’s why we find lots of tones in Summer.
In summary, the colours you find on each colour palette will have the following qualities:
How Does This Translate Into The Twelve Seasons Colour Analysis?
The same principles apply to the twelve seasons colour analysis. The only difference is that each season is further divided into three sub-seasons. That means that there are three colour palettes for each season instead of one. All three palettes will cluster around the same hues, but depending on the sub-season's most prominent colour dimensions, the colours will be slightly brighter/more muted, lighter/darker, or warmer/cooler.
Let’s look at Spring, for example. Spring is divided into Bright Spring, True Spring, and Light Spring. If we look at the three colour dimensions for each, we can see that they are similar but not the same. While all three palettes are on the warm side, True Spring is the warmest out of all. This is because its dominant characteristic is warm. Bright Spring is the brightest out of the three, and Light Spring is the lightest and least bright one.
Bright + Warm
Warm + Bright
Light + Warm
The matching colour palettes reflect these characteristics. While all three palettes contain similarly warm hues, we can see that the Bright Spring colour palette contains the most intense, saturated colours, the True Spring palette has the warmest colours, and the Light Spring palette has the lightest ones.
So while all three palettes belong to the Spring colour family, different colour aspects are intensified and highlighted in each one of them. And if you are a Spring, depending on which colour characteristic is the most dominant in your colouring, your colour palette will be built around that.