What is Under My Overtone?

What exactly is an overtone?

It’s the coloring of a person’s outward appearance: skin, hair, and eyes made from each person’s unique levels of melanin (black, blue, brown), hemoglobin (pink, red)  and carotene (yellow, orange, red). We make assumptions about coloring based on how cool or warm they look, or how light or dark. But is what we see what they really are?

Overtones are used in so many color analysis methods today. I read about them on the internet and hear about them from my clients. I’ve see the color swatches the clients get. While some of the given colors may work for the client, many don’t. There are usually colors that don’t go with anything else within the palette making it difficult to create outfits. The colors just don’t harmonize with each other. People are disappointed because they spent a good amount of money for something they find difficult to work with and is limiting in wardrobe planning. 

When we look at people, whether in person or in photos, it’s all too easy to assume a particular season based on what we see. What we forget is that their appearance may be altered by their hair, clothing, and cosmetic colors, which is why analyzing to overtones is not helpful.

A skilled analyst MUST understand the science of color in order to interpret the drapes to determine your seasonal tone. The knowledge of contiguous colors and how they create simultaneous contrast is the most important aspect of color analysis draping. If your analyst can’t explain the principles of simultaneous contrast to you, I would seriously question the outcome.

In Kathryn Kalisz’s book, “Understanding Your Color,” she writes, “While it is important for the analyst to be trained and experienced, it is also important for the person being analyzed to know how and why the procedure works in order to have full confidence in the results.”

The main reason I am writing about this topic is for you, the client, to help you understand how overtones affect our perception of a person’s coloring. There is information you need to know about color and human vision. This is such an important subject that I want you to be familiar with these concepts so you can discern whether your analysis is being performed correctly.

Simultaneous Contrast

Contiguous colors are any two colors that are next to each other: hair to skin, clothing to hair, clothing to skin, etc. We are almost always seeing contiguous colors which touch at the border, as we rarely ever have just one color in our field of vision.

Simultaneous Contrast is the effect that those contiguous colors have on human vision. One color acts as a color agent to produce a reaction, while the adjoining color supplies the color effect – meaning a color is altered as a result of this reaction. 

These five blue circles in the center are exactly the same. They look different because they are being altered by the surrounding color.  The blue inner circle surrounded by neutral gray is what the blue color really is – or the best human vision can see it.

Kathryn Kalisz states in her training manual, “There is no such thing as a color. A color is only what it is based on the color next to it.” The reason neutral gray is used is because it is a gray that contains such small amounts of color that they cannot be detected. Therefore, the color is neutral and has little effect on an adjoining color. If you can see traces of blue, green, yellow, or red in the gray, it shouldn’t be used in the color analysis environment.

If your friend has put blonde highlights in her hair, it will alter her skin tone – for better or worse, depending on if it is her best shade. Remember, every color we wear affects whatever color is next to it. Because of those highlights, you may think your friend looks like a Summer – but compared to what? By not comparing other colors, you can’t determine if what they are wearing are their best colors, let alone what seasonal tone they are in.


The skin’s undertone is most important in determining a person’s seasonal color tone. So what is an undertone? There are many explanations; all of them valid. I believe the undertone is determined by the red coloring of the blood, which is unique to each individual and lies beneath the surface of the skin.

Colors are warm or cool depending on the amount of yellow or blue they contain. The red coloring of the blood varies in its yellow or blue content to produce either a warm, cool, or neutral color undertone. The precise shade of our blood color that flows throughout our body creates an undertone that can be seen through the translucency of our skin. It is this color undertone that so beautifully unifies our overall coloring.

In Kathryn Kalisz’s training manual, she writes, “Nature has unified our personal coloring. Our natural hair and eye colors are in perfect harmony with our skin (under) tone…By going through the draping process, we…find the colors that harmonize the very best with a person’s skin (under) tone. We are working with illusions. Our skin is translucent and we are analyzing to an undertone based on the color of our blood.”

If you squeeze the tip of your finger, you can see the blood’s color effect through the translucency of the skin. If you compare your squeezed finger to someone else’s, you can usually see the difference in the reds, even if you are the same seasonal tone.

So if an analyst tells you they knew exactly what seasonal tone you were when you entered the room, be suspect. You weren’t in full-spectrum lighting, surrounded by neutral gray, or had comparisons that caused simultaneous contrast to know if “A” looks better than “B.”

Terry Wildfong divides her time between California and Michigan. In addition to in-person Color Analysis, Terry is also an instructor for the Color Analyst training program. Please click the link buttons below for more information.
Terry Wildfong