How to Mix and Match Colors Like a Pro
If you peek into your closet and come face-to-face with a sea of neutrals, navy, and black, you're not alone. Many people struggle with incorporating color into their wardrobes. The primary reason? They're not sure what colors work together, what the rules are for mixing and matching, and which hues they can best use to their advantage. But there's good news: there's a science behind color (discovered by none other than Sir Isaac Newton himself—seriously), which means there are easy-to-apply rules that you can put into effect in your own outfits, so you'll never fear a pop of red or a accent of orange again. Here's how.
The Science of Color
The guy who discovered the laws of motion also left a gift for anyone struggling to get dressed in the morning: the color wheel. Holding a prism by a window one sunny day in 1666, Sir Isaac Newton proved that light refracts into a rainbow spectrum. He then displayed the natural progression in a circle, which turned out to be handy for painters looking to create harmonious color schemes. Today’s iteration of the color wheel, which has evolved to include in-between tones (like yellow orange and blue green) and warm and cool versions of key shades (warm orangey red, cool bluish red), offers the same help when you’re putting together an outfit. Pull out a single hue or mix opposing or bordering colors to reveal a range of palettes that are scientifically proven to look gorgeous.
Why it works: Light and dark variations of one color blend beautifully. (Picture a paint-chip swatch.)
For best results: Wear darks on the parts you would like to downplay and lights, which catch the eye first, on the areas you want to play up. Mix textures (say, satin with knits) to give the look depth.
The Bold Palette: All Red
Wear one knockout shade (a cayenne sheath and matching pumps) to turn an outfit into an exclamation point.
The Mellow Palette: Layers of Lavender
Subtle tone-on-tone combos, like an orchid skirt with a lilac blouse, have “a soothing watercolor effect,” says stylist David Zyla, the author of Color Your Style ($13, amazon.com).
Why it works: Opposites on the color wheel are such a huge visual contrast that they enhance each other. Red, for example, looks brighter when paired with green. That’s why leafy tones flatter redheads so well.
For best results: Use about 75 percent of one color and 25 percent of the other. Donning two hues in equal proportion can look like a sports uniform, says Kate Smith, the founder of Sensational Color, a color-consulting firm in Ashburn, Virginia.
The Bold Palette: Cobalt and Tangerine
Cinch a blue cardigan with an orange belt. But don’t overdo the accents. If you throw in a flame-colored bag and shoes, “the eye will be drawn to too many areas at once,” says Leatrice Eiseman, the executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. Supplement the outfit with neutrals.
The Mellow Palette: Pink and Seafoam
Paler complements are still energizing and are easier to pull off than vivid, primary-based combos, says Eiseman. Highlight a mint blouse with baby pink bangles instead of gold.
Why it works: Neighbors on the color wheel flow effortlessly together. This scheme is a stunner in nature, too. (Think sunset shades.)
For best results: Let one color take the lead, and give the others supporting roles. “Asymmetry is more interesting,” says Eiseman. Avoid combining bolds and pastels (like red and peach), because the brighter color makes the muted one look muddy.
The Bold Palette: Fuchsia, Red, and Orange
When you want to turn heads, opt for uniformly saturated brights. For instance: a poppy-and-tiger lily floral punched up with hot pink flats.
The Mellow Palette: Aqua, Pale Blue, and Periwinkle
Low-key analogous medleys look especially ethereal. Try a pale purple tunic and a teal scarf over light denim.
Why it works: Two analogous colors (neighbors get along) are joined by one complementary color (opposites attract) for a grouping that has an unexpected, nuanced feel.
For best results: Use the two adjacent colors as one dominant shade and the opposing color as the “surprise,” says Zyla. Again, aim for a ratio of 75 percent to 25 percent.
The Bold Palette: Violet, Indigo, and Orange
Chances are, the patterned items in your closet have a built-in split-complementary or analogous scheme. So just draw out, or add, an accent. A print blouse in deep blues and purples gets enlivened with orange earrings.
The Mellow Palette: Yellow, Purple Gray, and Plum
An earthy purple tee with a thistle sweater is drab until you add a saffron scarf.