Color swatches

Color swatches need not be actual swatches. Use what’s around you. 

Colors. What are your “colors”? Are you sure? 

It helps to know the answer, especially when dealing with face mask fabrics. The right colors make us look healthy and vibrant. The right colors help us glow. The wrong color resting against a cheek, however, will fight the face, making us look ashen or sallow or sickly, because the eye of the beholder will try to blend the colors of the mask with the skin. That’s what eyes do, and blending can be a problem. Remember the messes we made with our preschool watercolor sets? The result were downright dishwater-dull. Not all colors on the color wheel are friends, either. They elbow each other for attention, or engage in sabotage. Some colors dominate. Other colors try to hide. And who needs that kind of tension across their face?  

In picking a face mask color, it helps to know if your skin undertones are more orange-yellow than pinkly-purple, or more pinkly-purple than olive green. But I am not convinced it is as simple as that. It’s been years since a professional analyst put color swatches up to my face and said, “Hmm. You are a difficult one. I can’t quite tell if you are a ‘summer’ or a ‘spring.’” Ever since, I’ve referred to my undertones as Memorial Day. I get it, though, this color theory. I know that on me some hues look better than others. But I’m human. I buy the colors I love. I’ve forgotten to stop and make sure those colors love me. 

I decided it was time to revisit my “colors,” and I would begin with a few standard YouTube tests. 

The paper test

At a window, hold a piece of white paper up to your neck or chest. If your skin takes on a yellow glow, then you can wear a wider variety of reds and oranges, and richer browns. If your skin appears pink or blue, you have pinks and blues in your undertones. Gray can look downright sexy on you. If your skin actually appears gray when doing the paper test, then your undertone may be olive or neutral. 

The veins inside the wrist

Blue or purple veins means a cool skin tone. Green veins get you to the warm side. If you cannot tell, then your undertone is neutral or olive. 

The metal test

Hold a piece of gold jewelry up to your face. Then experiment with a piece of silver or platinum. If the gold looks best, you have a warm skin tone. If the silver sparks you up, then you are a cool. 

Check your eyes

Blue and pale brown eyes may indicate cool undertones. Gold flecks and chocolate suggest warmth. Some swear that it isn’t the color of the eye so much as the patterns in the iris. A starburst around the pupil, for example, suggests warm undertones. A spoked pattern suggests cool.  

None of these tips helped me, though. My neck looked yellow, but I swear a pink peeked up from my chest. On my wrist, I had four purple veins and three green. I could not choose silver over gold.Both seemed, well, nice enough, nothing more. And as for my eyes—my irises turned out to be a weird combination of starburst and bicycle spokes, or maybe they were halos and petals. With my ashen hair and blue eyes and failed attempts to rock an orange lipstick, I’ve always assumed I was a “cool.”  My mother was a redhead. Now I was beginning to wonder if my undertone was plaid. 

I almost gave up on this mission, then I found it: Terri Tomlinson’s Flesh Tone Color Wheel. Tomlinson designed the wheel for make-up artists who need to cover dark circles and red blotches, and pick an accent color to use on an eyelid or lip. I wasn’t interested in makeup, but I still felt so inspired by what I saw. My eyes moved from the outer edges of the wheel, where the flesh colors were, and in toward the center of the wheel, to find an undertone’s best hue. I felt myself nodding in agreement over how perfect each color looked coordinated with each undertone. She gets it, I thought. “Don’t quit,” I whispered to myself, and came up with these steps. 

Identify your undertone. Find flesh tone color swatches online, like at, and ask a friend to help you pick the right one. Do this near a window letting in natural light. (Store lights add blue. Direct sunlight adds yellow.) Or visit a cosmetic counter or paint seller. Grab paint swatches or smear a few different foundation tints and shades on the inside of your arm or an untanned patch of neck, and find a window. 

Once you have your flesh undertone, match it with an online program like Adobe Color, Converting Color, or Color Picker. It will help to know your skin’s hex color (for example, #fff6df or #c68642), which you can find at Scheme Color. Run your hex number through one of many color programs that create palettes that harmonize or accent your undertone. 

OK, got it? Yes? No? It doesn’t matter because, now, close your computer screen, put down your phone, and swipe all of your cosmetics and paint swatches into a drawer because this next step is all you need: walk around your room or apartment or house picking up objects of color, things like book jackets and pillows and coffee mugs and vases, highlighter pens and candy wrappers. Sample as many colors as you can, from vivid to muted, deep and intense or shy. Grab metals like copper or aluminum or vintage whatever. Then head to a window full of indirect light. Hold the items, one at a time, against your cheek and look into a mirror. Focus in only on the part of your face where the item meets your skin. Most of what you test will be blah blah, but carry on. Do not “think” you see something. Do not quit. Keep at it because, at some point, with some color, you will see what happens when harmony and heartbeats perform a meet-cute across your face. You will see the flash. You won’t even mind looking in the mirror. A miracle. 

I no longer identify as a spring-summer. I identify as a pale yellow zinnia, a muted celery flower pot, the dark red-orange of the Scrabble Dictionary book jacket. I’m a Johnny Tremain gray and red hydrangea. Plum—who would have guessed—really works on me, as does the purple that is so deep that it starts arguments in our house. “Look at that purple car!” “Are you nuts? That car is blue.” “How can you tell; you have boy eyes!” Anyway, I have accepted that golden yellows, grass greens, chirpy blues, and my favorite orange are off the table. Yet I don’t feel deprived. Getting to that “Oh, yesss—wow!” moment, witnessing it myself, has changed everything. It made me smile. Finally, in 2020, I have one discovery to feel good about. And it came from the directive to put other people first. 

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