Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Value Contrast: What It Is and How to Find It

Quite Possibly my Longest Blog Post Ever.  Sorry.  Nah, I'm Not Really.

I am fascinated by the use of contrast values to understand which colour combinations are most flattering.  We often respond instinctively to this but there is an explanation as to why you just don't feel your best in some combinations or why some cause that well known phenomenon of the dress wearing you instead of you wearing the dress.  We all fit somewhere on a value contrast scale, which can be roughly divided into low, medium and high contrast colouring.  Whichever contrast level we are in our personal colouring, will look great on us repeated in the colours of our clothing.

Finding your value contrast level is most easily done with a black and white photo, which shows how much difference or contrast there is between your darkest tones and your lightest.  So I took this photo and made it black and white in an attempt to compare the values.  This is about as natural as I can get.  I'm in bright light, which lightens up my colouring a bit, without makeup and I'm tired.  It's the real me complete with allergy eyes! Even in colour you can see I am not high contrast.  I have fair skin, light to medium eyes and medium toned hair.  The whites of my eyes don't pop and if I were showing my teeth, they would not be Hollywood white.

So now I want to look at the contrasts between my lightest and darkest values.  There are some charts which can help with that.  I found this chart below on a cool blog for men called Effortless Gent.  The information is just as useful for women  so here  is the link.  This chart below allows you to use a simple mathematical formula but you don't really have to.  It is also intuitive.

So it's a bit of a guessing game, but a black and white photo makes it easier to see the contrast between my lightest value and darkest one.  If I look to see where I think my skin tone falls on the contrast scale  I'm inclined to think it's a 2 maybe with some 1 highlights.   My hair is probably 7 or 8 in the darkest spots.   Now it's time for some arithmetic.  I subtracted my lightest value from my darkest and since it isn't precise I calculated a range.
According to the Effortless Gent, a low contrast score is a difference between one and three, a medium is between four and six, and a high contrast is between seven and nine.  I think I am a medium with some potential to lean in the high contrast direction.   If I dyed my hair a bit darker I would slip into the high contrast category.  I think dying my hair lighter would still make me medium contrast.  Generally blondes who are high contrast are those with very dark eyes and low contrast with very light eyes.  I think my eyes keep me medium but I could be quite wrong.  I have no plans to become a blonde any time soon.

What does all of that mean for choosing clothing?  You can completely ignore it of course, but it does help to explain why we all look better in some colour  combinations than in others or why we may feel  uncomfortable in some combinations.  If we are wearing something that makes us look washed out or that overwhelms us, it could be that the value contrast isn't compatible with our natural colouring.

If you are in the high contrast value range you look great in clothing with high contrast.  That could mean very light and dark, or very bright and dark or black and white. 
Some High contrast celebrities are:

                                          Winona Ryder

                                          Gwen Stefani

                                                 Alek Wek

If you are low contrast, where your skin, eyes and hair are all very similar in value you will look best in light colours paired with light, or dark with dark and medium with medium. It doesn't mean that you will look bad in a higher contrast value outfit, but that it could be the outfit that stands out more than you do.  There is an excellent illustration of this on the Effortless Gent blog.

Celebrities who are low contrast:

                                              Jennifer Aniston

                                          Cameron Diaz

                                           Leona Lewis

Medium contrast allows room to experiment, which is a mixed blessing if you are someone who likes rules or clear guidelines.  Because this is about where you are on a scale, so you will be slightly closer to high contrast or to low contrast.  I favour more low contrast outfits if I am mixing colours but don't mind a medium contrast of a darker toned colour with black  I am going on instinct  that but I feel a bit uncomfortable pairing really bright colours together or pairing black with a pale colour or white with a dark or bright colour.   I rarely wear light colours paired together because really light colours tend not to suit me.  I will usually increase the contrast to a medium level if my outfit includes a lighter colour. 
From Inside Out Style Blog (links below) I borrowed some pictures of celebrities whom Imogen identified as medium contrast, turned the photo into black and white and then compared it with my own. Well that was brave of me; maybe I should have put makeup on!

Then I started playing with clothes!

In this slightly blurry photo where I have cut off the top of my head, I believe I am pulling off black and white, a high contrast look, though one thing I like about this shirt  is that it's a softer white which tones down the contrast every so slightly.  It may or may not be my best look, but I seem to be close enough to the medium/high contrast border that I can get away with it.  I grabbed a bunch of shirts from my closet to experiment with and I would not necessarily put these things together but for what it's worth, I did here. 

The red and white and the blue and white are also pretty high contrast and while I don't think I look terrible because the individual colours suit me, I think the combination and contrast might be overwhelming me a bit.  Sandra  would absolutely rock this sort of contrast because she has high contrast colouring.  If you aren't a high contrast person but want to wear some high contrast it helps to include a transition medium tone and this might be found within a print of mixed colours or mixed tones such as ombre. 

Here I am all dressed for Christmas.  YIKES!  I would probably not wear this combination but it feels like it is working better for me than the higher contrast of the white and red.  What do you think? The colours contrast because they are complementary colours and I think I can pull that off, but the value contrast is low.  I would, however, quite happily mix pink and green, which would be a high value contrast as well.

Despite the fact that I may have just turned into a zombie, I would feel comfortable in this one because my motto is Blue and Green make me a Queen!
The contrast here is low-medium with the green a bit darker in value than the blue but not significantly so.

So the idea is to have the contrast between the two colours I'm wearing about the same as the contrast between my darkest and lightest values which in my case are hair colour and skin tone. 

Looking at that colour value chart again.....
Suppose you want to create an outfit pairing teal and violet.  For a low contrast outfit using the violet and teal, you would choose the two colours from the same numbered row, so teal 3 and violet 3 would be a low contrast.  Teal 1 and violet 9 would be high contrast.  Violet 7 and teal 5 would be a medium contrast combination.  My personal inclination, of low contrast but dark colours would be to pair the teal and violet from the same row anywhere from 7-9.  Ten is getting too black for the colours to really register.

This is not the same as colour contrast.  The examples I chose, violet and teal, are not analogous colours (side by side on a colour wheel) which would give an even softer, subtler look overall if that is what you were after.  You can use both colour and value to give what you wear significant impact through contrast.

I love this colour wheel pictured below.  I wasn't able to enlarge it any further while still keeping it in focus.


You can find more detail and interesting posts about this, including pictures, on Imogen Lamport's blog, Inside Out Style Blog

A slightly different take on it is here, where the focus is on just low and high contrast with no concept of medium.


  1. Reminds me of my days as a personal stylist. I remember books like Color Me Beautiful that discussed these formulas in a less terms. It use to be that clients would have their colors analyzed by skin undertones. Then they were given a chart of colors based on the season that described your skin...spring, summer, winter and fall. The big problem was that it was difficult to shop and find specific colors on the pantone wheel when colors are always changing.

    The formula you shared with us today is better because it doesn't limit one to specific colors. Interesting post.

  2. shawna - you go really academic here ;-)
    i´m impressed. you´d opened up a can of worms but you can handle this worms so they turn into butterflies!
    over all this colors and tones i want to say - this is my own experience - when you have a beloved high quality item (2.hand hand/homesewn) made from very gorgeous fabric, perfect fit and shape, all over chic and timeless, then you can get away with the wrong colors or contrast.....but is has to be really your own choice, not something your mother/friend/stylist gave you :-)
    same vice versa - poor made clothes from poor fabrics look poor anyway which hue they have......
    i know how hard it can be to find good stuff today - even the department store stuff, in the past better quality then mass chain, goes down the hill quality-wise, not in the price of cause.
    and the old good stuff in 2.hand stores goes rare. i know.
    so more worms for you to create butterflies ;-)

  3. Damn! Good thing I haven't drank my coffee yet, that's a long post indeed! :D And a very interesting one! I have no idea which contrast I am...I think that maybe high or medium....hmmmm...Would have to think about it for a while :D
    Love the red and green Christmas combo, I think you look quite vibrant with it! And the red and white is very complementary too! Great post Shawna, you gave me a lot of food for thought :D

  4. What an interesting concept. I've never heard of this before. Thanks for the info.

  5. It all seems very involved and complicated to me despite your explanation. I'm attracted to bright colours and wear them regardless of whether they do anything for me.
    I was singled out and had "my colours done" when i was helping at an exhibition back in the 1980s - apparently I was all wrong and needed to wear pastel shades and off white - not sure what that made me - I've tried to black the experience from my mind - my boyfriend at the time pissed himself laughing at the result - frosted lipstick, layers of beige foundation and a colour chart only an old dear in a nursing home would embrace! xxx

  6. Very interesting. I have always been a learn by my mistakes on what colors look good on me, but I like the science behind it all!

  7. It is an interesting subject isn't it? I have read your other posts about it and you worked out I am high contrast too! thank you! I would have struggled with working out what I am, I remember I had a brief blonde patch which weirdly buggered up my wardrobe, the colours I wore didn't match the hair - the pic of you with the white/blue/green top is fab, blue and green makes you feel like a queen! you can tell because you look so relaxed and queenly in it! with colour, I am drawn to bright/jewels but don't wear orange and black I adore, I pretend I am chic in it!! x x x

    1. You ARE chic in black. Your high contrast and cool colouring makes black a good one for you. Going blonde would definitely bugger up your wardrobe because of how it changed your value contrasts. If you went cool blonde -icy, platinum or ashy- you would at least still have had the right colours to wear.

  8. Now this is all far too tricky for me! I can't work it out at all, and feel utterly confused by all the information, so I will continue to go with my gut instincts and hope for the best! xxx

  9. This is in depth!

    I don't know if it is my artists eye or what but I can just "tell" what'll look good on someone.

    I do know I can wear a whole lot more since I went red rather than blond.


  10. Interesting post Shawna.


I love visitors and I love comments. I will try my best to respond to everyone! Thanks for stopping by.