To anyone who isn’t a PMU artist, the idea of selecting pigment for any given procedure might seem “easy.” After all, don’t you just pick a color your client likes and get to work? As you likely well know… that is absolutely not the case.
In fact, choosing a pigment based on preference alone is just as risky as randomly selecting box hair dye from the shelf without any consideration for your own hair color, complexion, and previous dyeing experience. At best, you can end up with too harsh of a shade. At worst, what you intended to be a natural color can literally turn purple or green.
The very same thing can happen when it comes to permanent makeup. But so long as you’re careful and understand a few basic concepts, these mistakes won’t ever happen. You’ll get the desired healed result you want every single time.
So, in this blog, we’ll cover those key concepts: color theory, skin tones, and undertones. Then, we’ll wrap up with a few tips on selecting your pigment once you’ve mastered the fundamentals. Sound good?
COLOR THEORY BASICS
The world of permanent makeup is certainly a colorful one, but we typically stick to similar pigment groupings: browns, blacks, and blondes for permanent eyeliner and microblading. Then, we’ve got our pinks and reds for PMU lips and areola procedures.
Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the color wheel. One or more of the colors on this wheel are present to some degree in your pigment lineup. It doesn’t matter if the pigment is called “Biotek Ibiza” and is a rich, light shade of brown: it’s got underlying colors you may not expect. So, let’s take a peek at the color wheel:
The fundamentals of all color theory exist in this simple (but invaluable) little wheel.
The color wheel divides every color into warm and cool, while also showing their direct opposites. When opposite colors interact, you can neutralize them.
And that’s what it all comes down to when choosing colors in PMU: the interaction of colors, both warm and cool. So, let’s go ahead and break down all the colors on the color wheel, bearing in mind you’ll find them in all of your pigments.
The Three Kinds of Color
The primary colors are red, yellow, and blue. They’re the “building blocks” of the whole world of color. They’re called “primary” foundation colors because you don’t have to mix any colors to achieve them.
The secondary colors — orange, purple, and green — are achieved when you mix certain primary colors together. For instance, when you mix yellow and red — voi la! — you get orange.
Tertiary colors are much more varied. They’re the “grandchildren” of primary and secondary colors, achieved by mixing a primary with a secondary. When we talk about tertiary colors, we talk about much more complicated blends with zesty names like magenta, violet, amber, and chartreuse.
If you’re not thoroughly educated about color theory, you might be asking, “What does any of this have to do with crafting a gorgeous set of brunette brows?”
Well, no matter what procedure you’re doing, it’s always an interplay of pigment and skin tone… and guess how your favorite pigments are mixed? By blending primary colors to achieve a desirable hue for brows, lips, and more.
So, while it may not seem obvious at first (and as we mentioned above): red, yellow, and blue are at the foundation of it all and exist in all your pigments. Moreover, your client’s skin tone is going to respond differently to each and every pigment you choose. That’s why brow procedures can sometimes go awry, and clients end up with red, orange, or blue healed results.
Intimidating, right? But don’t worry. These kinds of blunders are always fixable. And a big part of fixing it is understanding skin tone, skin undertone, and pigment undertone. It’s the interplay of those three factors that determine your healed results.
SKIN TONE VERSUS SKIN UNDERTONE
Skin ToneYour client’s skin tone is simple enough to identify without much trouble. Skin tone refers to how light or dark your client’s skin is. Typically, your clients will fall under one of four skin tone categories:
The six-level Fitzpatrick Scale is a good starting point for identifying common skin tones you’re likely to see in regular clients… but that scale doesn’t cover everything. Every client has a unique amount of melanin coloring their skin tone. So, you should definitely be prepared to handle any tone, no matter what procedure is your specialty. An excellent way to practice this? Honing your techniques on practice canvases that offer a wide variety of skin tone options.
But things get a little trickier when it comes to skin undertone… and you won’t find undertones on practice canvases. Just like skin tone, skin undertone falls under several categories:
Identifying your client’s undertone is a critically important step to choosing the best pigments for them. And when you choose the best pigments, you get the most stunning results. But more on that later. For now, there are a few key ways you can identify your client’s skin undertone.
Do A Quick Vein Test
One of the best ways to determine your client’s skin undertone is to look at their veins on the inside of their wrists. If their veins appear blue or purple, they have a cool skin tone. If their veins appear green, your client has a a warm skin tone. Can’t tell the difference? It’s a safe bet your client has a neutral skin tone.
Peek at Your Client’s Jawline
And do it in natural sunlight! The jawline doesn’t change as much in color or tone throughout the seasons. So, it’s a little easier to determine your client’s undertone by sticking to the jawline.
When in Doubt, Grab a White Sheet of Paper
Holding a white sheet of paper up to your client’s skin can reveal a lot. If, by comparison to the paper, their skin looks yellowish, they have a warm undertone. On the other hand, if the skin looks pinkish, they lean more toward a cool undertone.
Fashion Matters, Too
Another way to determine a client’s skin tone — or your own — is to note which colors flatter the skin. Silver and blue-toned clothing tends to look better on people who have cool undertones. On the other hand, gold and yellow-toned clothing looks fabulous on people with warm undertones. Then, of course, there are the lucky clients who can pair any color with any metallic jewelry and look amazing… those people typically have neutral skin tones.
The Sun Reveals All
Maybe if it’s summertime, you can see how your client’s skin responds to the sun. Skin that burns easily tends to have a cool undertone. On the other hand, skin that tans or browns without any redness has a warm undertone. If your client experiences a combo of burning and tanning, it’s likely they’re neutral.
Once you’ve got your client’s skin tone and undertone all figured out, you’re halfway there. But, as mentioned above, your pigments have undertones, too. So, even in a brunette microblading pigment, you’ll find traces of warm and cool colors. Understanding your pigment’s undertone is crucial before making your pigment selection — otherwise, you might be in for some unpleasant results.
For instance, if you have a client with a warm undertone, but you select a cool pigment with traces of blue or gray… well, we all know what happens when blue mixes with yellow or orange. You could be in for greenish results.
Here are the best ways to determine your pigment undertones before going to work on a client:
SWATCHINGSwatching different pigments on your client’s skin can reveal how the pigment is likely to interact with their undertone. You can easily swatch your client’s skin or perform swatches on a sheet of sketch paper to analyze which pigments are most suited for your client.
SWATCHING ON PAPER INSTRUCTIONS
- Use a piece of sketch paper. Computer paper isn't advisable. You want a thicker sheet of paper that won't become weighed down by the pigment.
- Write the name of the pigment you're swatching. This will serve as a label so you won't forget which pigment name is associated with which color.
- Shake your pigment well.
- Use an applicator bottle to wet your Q-tip with clean water. Then blot the Q-tip on a paper towel or medical bib to get rid of any excess water.
- Apply a drop of pigment to your Q-tip.
- Perform a "draw-down," where you color down the paper with your Q-Tip until the pigment starts to look more sheer. The top part of your swatch will show the pigment at its most opaque. The sheer, watered-down version of the swatch will show how the pigment is most likely to heal on your client's skin.
SWATCHING ON SKIN INSTRUCTIONS
- Using an applicator tool or a Q-tip, apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly or other petroleum-based product to your client's brow. This ensures your pigment swatches won't dry out, oxidize, and give you an inaccurate color reading.
- Shake your pigment well.
- Using an applicator tool or Q-tip, lightly apply a small dot of pigment to your client's brow. Be sure to tap it with your finger. Keeping the pigment amount small and tapping it ensures an accurate color reading.
- When swatching directly on your client’s skin, you'll be able to see how the pigment interacts with your client’s unique undertone. If your swatch experiment reveals that a pigment is either too warm or too cool for your client’s skin, you may have an opportunity to mix, modify, and correct the pigment to something that works better.
CHECK OUT THE PRODUCT LISTINGOkay, so finding out if a pigment will interact well with your client's undertones isn't always as simple as just reading the listed undertones on a product listing… but sometimes, it certainly can be. Many pigments from artist-favorite brands include the undertones in their product listings as well as their ideal use. Knowing whether you have a warm, cool, or neutral brunette pigment before it even ships to your door is an excellent way to understand your palette before you’ve even built it.
CHOOSING YOUR PIGMENT COLOR
So, here’s the fun part: choosing the right pigments for your client. After all, when it comes to permanent makeup, the most important factor to consider is the color you’re going to use. The right color can make all the difference in achieving a natural, flattering look. So how do you choose the right color for your skin tone?
Well, if you’ve done all the steps above, you’ve done the hardest part. Now, it all comes down to a crucial judgment call. So here are a few rules of thumb when it comes to making the big decision about what pigments you should use on your client.
If your client has a cool skin undertone, you should choose a cool-toned pigment, such as one that has blue or purple undertones.
If your client has a warm skin undertone, you should choose a warm-toned pigment, such as a red or orange shade.
If your client has a neutral skin tone, you have the flexibility to choose either a cool or warm pigment, depending on their personal preference.
Yes, Personal Preference Matters
Personal preference definitely plays a role here. Obviously, your client is coming to you for your experience and expertise. However, their voice also matters, seeing as they’re permanently altering their appearance by choice.
This isn’t to say that you should choose a pigment that will react poorly with a client’s undertone simply because the client requests it. You should always make wise and informed decisions based on your understanding of color theory, results from swatches, and knowledge about the pigment brand you’re using.
Nevertheless, it’s always good to offer a client several pigment options, all of which will react well with their skin tone and undertone. Then, make a decision based on which one the client likes best.
SET THE TONE FOR OUTSTANDING FUTURE RESULTS
There’s only so much you can glean about color theory, tone, undertone, and pigment without really putting it to practice. So, if you’re just starting out with this knowledge, try identifying your own skin tone and undertone. Then, swatch yourself to experiment.
If you really want to start from scratch and get a good, solid foundation for understanding color theory, check out some of the top PMU online courses you can take. No matter your experience level, a thorough education in color theory is beneficial for any PMU artist. After all, we’re looking to make something beautiful with color. So, get to it! If you feel ready to start swatching and trying for stunning results, explore our carefully curated selection of artist-favorite PMU pigments on our Web store.