Getting Your Value Contrast Levels Right


value contrast

Since I’ve dyed my hair blonde, I’ve lost some of my contrast. I used to have a high contrast, but now I’m just medium in contrast. I’m learning to not automatically reach for my high contrast outfits of the past, but instead I have to rethink everything I wear (and I can tell you it’s taking me way longer to get dressed at the moment as I start creating new outfits in a medium contrast with my existing clothes).

One of the comments I’ve heard many times is that it’s hard to wear ‘nude’ types of beige pinks.  I’m here to tell you it’s not.  The trick is to work with your natural level of contrast.

value contrast levelsHere Princess Mary of Denmark shows how you can wear a nude beige colour well – you just have to ensure your contrast levels work.  She is high contrast, and without the dark chocolate belt (which perfectly matches her hair and eyes) she looks bland and dull.  But with that contrast correct the outfit works.

contrast levels small

When you think about breaking down your features into a grey scale (if you can’t imagine yourself in black and white, turn a photo of yourself into black and white using an app), and then notice the difference (the greatest difference is most important) between the Lightest and Darkest features on and around your face – hair, skin, eyes and sometimes eyebrows (if they are different from your hair or skin).

Here I’ve chosen three blondes who have different contrast levels.  From low to high.  These three would dress differently based on contrast levels alone.

Harmony is what we’re looking for.  So a high contrast looks best in light and dark colours together, whilst a low contrast in all light, or all medium, or all dark together.

contrast levels

You can see in the picture above that when the contrast level is reminicent of the personal colouring, the garment looks most harmonious. Imagine the dress on the right on the low contrast colouring – it just doesn’t work as well.

If you want to wear both light and dark together, and you don’t naturally have high contrast colouring, then you need to wear a combination of light, medium and dark colours together, as illustrated here below.

low contrast wearing high contrast

Getting your value contrast right gives you greater freedom to play with colour.  It’s easier to wear less flattering colours, if you’re wearing the right contrast levels.

If you have high contrast colouring (as I used to do), you need to create contrast in your outfits, even with a piece of jewellery, a hint of cami, or with your garments or pattern.  If you have lower contrast, you will look so much better steering away from high contrast (particularly patterns) and opting to harmonize with your natural contrast level.


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  • Hi, Imogen…..that is extremely interesting. I think I am a Medium contrast “Spring”… (with freckled skin & gold tones in my hair) … I have noticed that , if I wear a print, which, I think, melds together & “matches” my hair, it seems to suit me more than a print with a lot of background or distance between the flowers or shapes . I always gravitate towards the prints that bring out the highlights in my hair. Do you think this is because of medium contrast, or , perhaps more the prints themselves?

  • oh my goodness, you look incredibly gorgeous in the photo here! Love this post. You have such a talent of articulating the how’s and why’s of making color work. Brilliant! Thank you.

  • But what if the “best” value or any specific color combinations doesn’t work with your personal style?

    Ive medium value but I prefer high contrast prints better because it goes with my personal style concepts (classic cuts with feminine or dramatic accents) Grey with Black looks a bit too bland for my taste, I prefer white or pastels with black better even if it isnt my “best” color combo.

    I often notice that personal style can clash with this type of “personal color” guides so I always break them and the talk about “look at your clothes instead of your face” doesnt bother me actually, because I dont get along with people judge a person based on their looks (although this usually has to do with the “message” or the orgin of the clothes so propably a little off topic. :P). I love to be rebelleous. lol! 😉

    • Lina – as I always say, personality can trump all the rules. If you’re expressing your personality then you can throw all the rules out the window, if that is what you want. It’s a choice you make.

      • Thats why I dont follow guidelines and rules because Im “bending” them, but sometimes this is a tricky business when it comes to colors and styles that actually clashes. Personal colorings is easier to adjust.

        I love the way smart corporate/office wear looks, but I feel like my style is too feminine for it yet Ive a babyface so I need more mature looking clothes. Im not sure how you should adjust your personal style with these guidelines. I love wearing pastels and any red and purple color and tops that has lace trims and sheer sleeves, skirts with subtile tiers/ruffles (anything soft and delicate – not super girly or too revealing basically.), but I dont think this type of clothes are “corporate/smart” enough.
        In Sweden, the dresscodes are used very loosely, people wear jeans when “dressing up”, teachers wear sneakers to the office, but I still want to look more “smart”.

        So my question were actually how to adjust your colorings and personal style with your lifestyle. Im currently editing my wardrobe now but when reading this type of guidelines, I feel a bit lost. haha 😛

  • Thanks for another excellent post! I think I’m starting to get this. The side by side comparisons are striking. I wouldn’t have thought that blondes that look fairly similar on first glance would harmonize so differently with selected dresses & placement on the gray scale until you pointed it out, nor that Princess Mary’s belt presence/absence could make or break the outfit. I especially liked your note on how people who aren’t high contrast can wear light and dark together as seems that very bold/high contrast prints seem to be most common.

  • As you reassess outfit choices for high/medium contrast with your existing clothes, is it more a change of adding more medium colors in with light and dark ones (like the last visual where the light blue moves though the medium blue to dark blue for the lower contrast blonde) or not wearing your lightest colors together with your darkest colors, or maybe something else altogether? In case the question isn’t clear, it’s neat reading these installments about how you tackle this color transformation.

    • Yes, at the moment I’m having to look for more of the lighter colours in my wardrobe and mix them with more medium and then dark, rather than just the straight light/dark of my old high contrast colouring.

  • Loving these posts Imogen. Thanks for sharing your very personal journey. I am making the same adjustment as a “Winter” who has now gone grey (well, nearly white), and have fair skin and blue eyes. Those beautiful deep rich colours are no longer my best.

  • Is it my imagination or is your hair color more brown at this time. I think this deeper blonde/brown suits you. This is another very interesting post on color. It is certainly a very complex topic with many more variants than the original 4 seasonal color theory.

  • Wow, this post is so very helpful for me. I’ve never thought about why saturation/desaturation of tone makes such a difference in the way one appears. I’ve taken a recent photo and using your scale, found out that I am “high contrast”. This explains why I look so washed out in pastel colors but I never knew why. Thanks so much for this information!

      • Imogen, one more query please, if I am high contrast, I have to wear dark and light clothes/jewellery together (what does silver count as?) with the added option of in-between medium? I shouldn’t wear medium and light only or medium and dark only?

        • Silver is light and bright. You can always do a medium as well if you wish. You can wear medium and light or dark, provided the medium colour is bright as that creates a higher contrast.

  • You look fantastic Imogen!

    You advised low-value blondes how to wear dark colours by blending it with a light/medium, sounds great, although I suspect dark will never suit someone blonde low contrast as well as a lighter colour?

    What if I am high contrast but want to wear a single colour? Not really possible?

    • PS I mean a single block colour, ie not shades of lighter or darker? (I know that for value contrast as well, dark brown hair and bluish-green grey eyes I need again different colours but that’s a different matter.)

  • Imogen, I love this post. I am seeing more clearly how contrast works and what contrast I am. It is helpful to see side by side comparisons and the grey scale chart. I love your outfit in today’s post, the colours look fabulous on you.

  • Q: I have medium brown hair and brown eyes, so I usually dress monochromatic. However, I have light skin, which would lend itself to high contrast. So which should take the lead: hair and eyes or hair vs. skin?

  • This is fascinating! One of the missing links in my understanding of colour.
    As a result of your hair colour change, would you also consider your self moving further into the warmer colour line or does it stay the same? Would silver jewellery still be still your best choice or do you feel your can wear both?


    • Irene – still cool with the hair colour change – the hair colour needs to follow skin colour. I can’t wear gold, it looks brassy and tacky on my skin.

  • Hi Imogen,

    I love your new hair colour. I never know whether to change mine! On the chart my skin is a warm very translucent 8 but my eyes are also an 8 and are a clear aqua green colour. My natural hair/eyebrows are a very dark brown, like 0. …..Right now I currently have my hair dyed with caramel colours which are between 4 and 5, so medium contrast, but I sometimes think it looks all too similar and wonder if having a different hair colour or higher or lower contrast would make my eyes stand out more? x

    • Your eyes would probably stand out more when you don’t have the highlights – that will give you higher contrast. Right now you have elements of high and medium contrast which overall lowers your apparent contrast levels in a way.

  • I am learning so much. I took your suggestion and changed a photo into black and white to understand my personal contrast better. My hair, eyes and eye brows appear to be 0-1, while my skin appears more of a level 5. Would this make me a medium contrast?

  • This is fantastic. I love the new you! I used to have the same dark hair, dark eyes, pale skin look that you did–Snow White! As I’ve gotten older my skin has warmed up (not sure why) and I’ve lightened my hair so that it has light brown roots and lots of mid and dark blonds throughout. Even though I still have dark almost black eyes, I feel that I look best in mid values. When I put on something very dark it seems to strong for me now. But shouldn’t it be OK because of my eyes?

  • i know this is an old post, but i’m just catching up on all this fantastic info! I changed a photo to b&w also, and eyes 4 hair/brows 2 and skin 7. i’m guessing that’s medium? I’m not sure how that relates to my clothes tho. Is the outfit you wear in the top pic medium contrast or high?

  • I so love the hair colour Imogen, it really works and was a very brave but wise move to make. I used to be about a 2 on hair, now dyed to about a 3, eyes have gone from a dark 2 to a 3 ish as well. Skin has gone the other way, from about a 9 to an 8. I’ve been thinking about lightening even further to a mid 6 ish or lighter as totally grey underneath the dye now. Hairdressers seem reluctant to go that far though! How do you cope with dark eyebrows? Mine are still nearly black. I notice you’re wearing a fairly dark lipstick, it that to balance the eyes? I don’t want to look totally washed out, as my dear husband fears! Also, alas, I have eye problems again and if I lose a lot of my sight in the future, won’t be able to see the roots myself when they come through the dark hair, so feeling I ought to make more changes in advance, so things easier to deal with.

    • Trisha I don’t have dark eyebrows. They faded years ago, I had to dye them dark Cant see why they wouldn’t lighten you up if you have all that grey.

    • No – the brightness of the colours that suit depend on your skin/hair/eye colours and whether or not brighter or more muted colours suit you. Then it’s how you mix the colours that flatter you together to create your contrast level. if you have a low contrast then you will just put two of “your” colours that are more similar together to create that low contrast.

  • Hi Imogen! I’ve followed your blog a bit through a fB style group and love the tidbits I glean! Things I sense somewhere, but haven’t become concrete for myself before I see them in black and white here. I have a value/color contrast query, and wonder if you could help me out? I think from your blog that I’m medium-high colour contrast and medium-high to high value contrast, but the reverse of Ruby, it’s my eyes that are dark, and I’m blonde. I wouldn’t mind you using a pic if it helped you, as long as my real name isn’t given. Do you have an email I could send a pic of myself to? Your contact form won’t let me pass the encrypted word portion.

    • Marguerita, dark eyes mean wearing mostly light colours with pops of dark colours, rather than dark hair which means mostly dark with pops of light colours.

      • repeating the proportion of lightness to darkness? Makes sense. I’m not sure I’m seeing my value levels correctly, though. I feel I need something medium to medium-dark on. Your breakdowns are so helpful, I guess where it breaks down for me, though, is not being sure I see myself accurately! Just need to keep fine-tuning, I guess! Thank you!

  • I know this is a few years late but I just came across this awesome post! A question in regards to brides (I’m a makeup artist) – for brides who have medium and high contrast, but don’t want to break up their white/ivory/cream with a darker sash or belt, how would you suggest getting the correct contrast levels? Would you feel bringing it in with makeup be appropriate, or make the dress look even more disharmonious? Of course the correct choice of flowers could help a lot I imagine! Thanks!

    • Flowers could help, as could brighter lipstick if appropriate. We expect brides to be in white so it doesn’t look out of place as it does in everyday outfits

  • Thanks, Imogen! Brighter lipstick was my gut instinct, as well. A high contrast bride with the right red lips is just unforgettably gorgeous, IMO.

  • Love your hair like this. That is also my present color. I have naturally darkest brown hair which is graying. It is hard to change your dark hair to this and figure out how to adjust your clothing and makeup. Is this why you went to a much cooler color?

    • My hair was around 80% grey when I went blonde – I’d lost most of my natural depth, my eyebrows had faded too. Because I have cool colouring, there isn’t much in the middle between dark and light in hair colours, because of the nature of synthetic hair colours, they tend to bring out warmth which would be very unflattering to me. So I had to make a radical change.

  • Thanks so much for all your wonderful posts! I enjoy reading them! Your kindness is greatly appreciated! Have a wonderful day!

  • Love this post. Today the Duchess of Cambridge was dancing with Paddington bear. Peach dress with black velvet trim. Black velvet shoes and clutch with pale pink earrings. So ‘put together’ with hair and shoes dark making a balanced outfit. Reminds me of Princess Mary mentioned above.

  • My skin is very pale (between 9 and 8, some 7 – 6 freckles in summer) while my copper-golden brown hair is medium (4-6) and my eyes are a medium dark greygreen, 3. Medium contrast all the way. I really love pairing light-medium colours with medium-dark colours.

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