Do you know your color theory?

In the world of make-up, color is king. Understanding how to develop and use color accurately requires knowledge of the spectrum—plus a dash of philosophy, science and emotional sincerity thrown in for good measure. Read on to see how artists in the fields of film and TV use color theory to wave their spectral wand, so to speak, and create a visually stimulating experience.

Lucy Sibbick

Lucy Sibbick is a special make-up effects artist. In 2018 she took home the Oscar for achievement in make-up and hairstyling for Darkest Hour—along with counterparts in the production Kazuhiro Tsuji and David Malinowski. Sibbick hails from Hertfordshire and has worked on a number of other notable projects, like Game of Thrones, Star Wars: Episode IX and Victor Frankenstein.

Make-Up Artist: Describe how you first learned about color theory?

Lucy Sibbick: I think I first learned about color theory when I was in school. We were encouraged to mix the primary colors to achieve secondary colors which fascinated me. My older sister was also very artsy and she had lots of books on color, drawing and perspective.

MA: What about the subject resonates with you?

LS: I have always been particularly interested in how the masters used to paint oil portraits and blend colors with the limited pigments they had at hand—creating such beautiful, evocative, lifelike images. I was lucky to be part of a film called Tulip Fever, which was set in the 17th century and was based around the scandalous love story of a Dutch painter. Part of the research I did beforehand was looking at Dutch paintings in the Louvre in Paris, which was really interesting. It is one of my dreams to go on a painting course in Florence to learn how to paint like the masters. I saw an exercise not so long ago that was to paint a portrait using just four colors: lamp black, titanium white, yellow ochre and cadmium red. I haven’t got around to it yet but it’s on my list!

"Understanding the value of color can create depth and spacial illusions where there are none." - Lucy Sibbick

MA: Do you often refer to a color wheel or another type of device for reference? What other tools do you use specific to the guidelines of color?

LS: I try to refer to a color wheel when I’m working, as I think it’s good practice, but I work quite organically so I have to remind myself to do this. I always work from a visual reference, no matter what I’m working on. Even if you have a great memory you can often miss subtle color details that you can only find by studying reference—so I would always urge people to work from images. Even when creating something of a fantasy nature, some basis of reference has to serve as an influence. I often work from a lot of wildlife books. You can see some excellent relationships of color, tones and blends when you study the images of mammals, animals, birds, amphibians and reptiles, which can help you find a complementary color scheme that works.

MA: Do you have favorite books on the subject?

LS: There are many good color theory books to get to the very basis of it, but as I paint a lot of skin tones I tend to work from more visual aids and color charts. My favorite books that help me are: Wisdom by Andrew Zuckerman, 100 x 100 by Truss Groen, 1000 on 42nd Street and Portrait Painting Atelier by Suzanne Brooker. This has a great exercise on how to make a color chart, which is the perfect tool.


MA: How has color theory changed or improved your artistry? And can you cite one or two recent projects where this knowledge has been beneficial?

LS: Color theory has helped me to understand the attributes which define colors: Value, chroma and hue, and how to use this to my advantage when working. Understanding the value of color can create depth and spacial illusions where there are none. For instance, a lip color when taken from a darker red on the outside of the lip to a lighter red on the inside of the lip can make the lips appear fuller than they are. This is particularly important in the use of creating shapes, shading and contouring or when altering the shape of your actor’s face or fixing small imperfections on a prosthetic piece.

Using small delicate dots of color on a fine brush has enabled me to make an older person look younger, for example, or a younger person look older by making small changes with color. Altering shapes and imperfections with color is a skill that has served me my whole career. A huge part of being a make-up artist is fixing things that go wrong—anyone can do lovely work if they have lots of time and tools but being able to fix things that aren’t necessarily the best quality and under a time pressure is what I think makes a great make-up artist.

"Make-up artists should study this as it is an essential part of understanding how to make up your actor, how to balance your make-ups, problem solve and how to create beautiful paint work." - Sibbick

Chroma or saturation is one of the most important parts of painting when it comes to make-up and prosthetics. It is as important as the colors you use. Applying the right level of saturation can determine whether a paint job or make-up is successful or not, whether something has the right level of boldness or delicacy and whether you sell the look. I like to layer my colors to let the underneath colors speak, and I find it essential to making something look lifelike, even if of a fantasy nature.

Recently, on Star Wars when painting some of the prosthetic make-ups for the creatures, you have to bring white yellow foams to life. You can only do this by layering your colors in a considered way. Doing this with controlled accuracy, and a sensitivity, can allow you to create a real sense of depth and let all of the colors you’ve chosen work in harmony.

Understanding hue has been vital to me in making sense of the age, ethnicity and journey of a character and has been a great tool in helping me find what colors work together or cancel each other out. For instance, coloring foams you often find … you can be fighting the yellow so knowing that a purple violet wash could calm that right down is really useful. A lot of this knowledge has come from studying images of skin tones and patterns. For example, if I was painting the skin tone of a young man or woman I would use a green closer to the blue scale, such as viridian, however, if I were painting the skin tone of an older man or woman I would choose a green closer to the yellow scale, such as olive. By studying these scales and images of what I’m working to has helped me make accurate choices which execute the final look.

MA: Why should make-up artists study color theory? 

LS: Make-up artists should study this as it is an essential part of understanding how to make up your actor, how to balance your make-ups, problem solve and how to create beautiful paint work.

MA: How does the camera and lighting dictate or change the typical rules of color theory?

LS: Often lighting can throw more light onto your work than you’re expecting, making things washed out, flat and under painted. Or it can be lit very dark where your work can look very contrasting. It all varies so massively. Some sets are bright and the cameras crystal clear and some darker with added elements of on-set smoke and when the project goes into the grade you can lose your subtlety. This all needs to be compensated for. Hopefully, you’ll get camera tests where you will get to see the tone of the set you’re working on—but more often than not you have to be armed to do things on the hoof and make changes on the set to make things work. This is where all of your color knowledge will come in handy.

Lucky Bromhead

Make-up by Lucky Bromhead and photo by Wade Hudson

Lucky Bromhead has had a prolific career spanning over 20 years and her talent and passion account for this. Bromhead is currently working as Catherine O’Hara’s and Annie Murphy’s personal make-up artist on Schitt’s Creek (see Issue 137 for more on that). She has also worked with celebrity favorites like Zooey Deschanel, Kanye West and Elvis Costello. Bromhead’s varied background as a make-up artist includes being a trainer for M.A.C. Cosmetics, working on Fashion Week and making up faces at numerous festivals. She has been able to travel the world doing what she loves.

Make-Up Artist: How did you learn about color theory?

Lucky Bromhead: I started learning about color theory from my godmother, Dee Thorne, who was an incredible painter and sculptor. I used to watch her paint and was fascinated by how much one could get out of primary colors alone!

Make-up by Bromhead, photo by Hudson

MA: What color theory rules do you find most applicable when it comes to make-up?

LB: Probably the rules of context (how color behaves in relation to other colors) and complementary (how opposite colors on the color wheel look more vibrant when placed alongside each other and can camouflage in certain aspects). The color wheel is constantly in play when it comes to achieving character or beauty looks.

MA: How does color theory help you in setting a mood with your make-up?

LB: We know that color affects us in different ways. For example, red is associated with a lot of intense emotions, whereas blue is more soothing and yellow is joyous. Analogous colors are more harmonious to look at, whereas complementary colors can be somewhat jarring and attention grabbing. All of this is crucial when setting a mood with make-up. I love how emotional color can be.

"I’d say a good rule of thumb with almost anything, though, is to abide by the rules until you know them well enough to break them." - Lucky Bromhead

Make-up by Bromhead, photo by Hudson

MA: How does the camera and lighting dictate or change the typical rules of color theory?

LB: Lighting and make-up go hand in hand. The intensity of the light or a colored gel can change everything! Lighting, as we know, absolutely dictates how we see color. There are so many factors in play with all of these elements that the typical rules fly out the window in some situations.

MA: Do you ever break the rules of color theory and if so why?

LB: Oh, sure … Sometimes a thing just works and you have to go with it. Skin, especially, can be a fickle palette! I’d say a good rule of thumb with almost anything, though, is to abide by the rules until you know them well enough to break them.

Order Issue 137 today to learn how artists Eugenia Weston, Terri Tomlinson, Dominique D’Angelo, Howard Berger and Melissa Street use color theory.