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When the Tonal Lines Blur

In the last article, we discussed the question of whether there were “tones between the tones” within the 12 Tone system of personal colour analysis. While there are no “gaps in the coverage” and while everyone will have a best fit in one of the twelve tones, clients may wonder otherwise for reasons which crop up pretty often, and so – with the usual warning that different monitors can show you slightly different things – let’s take a look at some of the situations that can make it harder to keep it all clear.

The first trap for players of any amount of experience is that the tones do approach each other at their borders, and these close shaves can help “blur the lines” in the mind of the beholder. However there will always be subtle but telling differences, and one or the other version of a colour will always work better for the client.

As we saw in the last article,  ‘Could  The 12 Tone System be Missing Tones?’, each tone places colour uniquely within the three axes of colour – hue, chroma and value. ALL of these variables matter to those of us using the 12 Tone system. For convenience we represent colour on our palettes as sample blocks, like paint chips, but in reality colour is a continuum, something most easily appreciated when mixing pigments, or when using computer colour software which can show us the full spectrum available to that application and/or a single hue shading through all its variations of saturation and value, and it is not always easy for the end-user to know exactly where one tone begins and another ends.

Look at the picture below, a screen shot from Photoshop illustrating gradations of a single blue-red base hue from light to dark and from very low to very high chroma. Summers will recognise some areas of this slice of colour space as kin to colours on their palettes, while winters will find that other, different sections remind them of their own swatches. It is not hard to see how someone looking for harmony with their tone might stray from one area to another, led by their perfectly correct identification of hue temperature harmony into going darker or lighter or more or less saturated than is ideal for their tone – or in other words “off the edges” of their palette and into something else.

Magenta Colour Picker

It is quite difficult to represent the fine details of the seasonal boundaries online, as monitors and screens differ in calibration and viewing conditions may cause apparent shifts in hue, chroma and value. Many clients come in with an idea of the Tones gleaned from online photos which may vary widely in how accurately they represent the reality, or from having tried home draping with colours attributed to one tone but which are really something else.

Analyst illustrating the Tones on websites are well aware of this trap, and most will generally try to reduce ambiguity by using examples that are distinctive or diagnostic of the tone, as opposed to trying to capture gradations which are better appreciated through real-life experience in good lighting, but of course even the best examples can get lost in translation on other monitors. Secondly, while it is useful to focus on colours that “couldn’t belong to anyone else”, we risk giving new clients a more limited view of a palette than is the reality and this can also feel constraining and discouraging.

A lot of confusion, then, stems from understandable “filing errors” in supposing that a garment or ensemble belongs to one tone when it is representing another. All analysts have had the experience of having a client come in wearing a colour or colours which they see as being “X” tone but which in fact are best placed somewhere else. In fact, clients often arrive having intuitively dressed themselves in the colours of their 12 Tone home, but may have mentally labelled themselves as something different – a simple classification issue, and something that is very easy to do if you don’t have an accurate reference point and/or aren’t reasonably familiar with other tones.

Let’s now look at a few more specific examples of some of these situations.

One of the commoner dilemmas TCI sees is the darker Soft Summer who struggles to feel quite right in her tone, and who wonders whether she is a winter, most often DW as both are neutral and cool. This tone – Soft Summer – and its warm-neutral neighbour Soft Autumn are very commonly seen in True Colour International’s northern beaches Sydney studio, perhaps because these soft neutral tones best account for the way so many people fall between extremes, between completely warm and cool, neither very light nor extremely dark, and best enhanced by softer rather than more intense saturation.

Winters are less often discovered in the population TCI sees, but their suiting and shirting colours are easily found, and their saturated accents are often the choice of fashion buyers, as they grab the eye from the racks. Many dark-haired Soft Summers have used hair colour and/or makeup to help cope with this wintry market dominance and arrive wondering if they might be Winters of some sort, having instinctively understood that they are on the cool side but not particularly comfortable in or drawn to colours they may associate with summer. They may be happier in darker hues and neutrals, and may feel underwhelmed and chalky in True Summer’s cool mid-blues and blued rose pinks (the popular 4-handed seasonal conception of Summer colours, and which may be taken by those unfamiliar with the 12 Tones as representative of the Summer season group generally).

This group is often intuitively looking for something “more”, and may be logically enough be looking to Winter to supply it. For these clients, however, the key message is that summers will always pull up short of the saturation and “intensity/density” that winters (and bright spring) can carry. This can be a *very* fine line. Just how fine is most obvious in the corporate palettes, where Summer hues often get very close indeed to the closest corresponding ones for Winter, but Winters can handle a true black with distinction, and can push the dial on their accents that notch or two further relative to anyone else’s cool hues, soaking the eye with as much colour as the degree of lightness or darkness allows.

12-Tone Classic Dark Winter/Soft Summer Palette

Many Summers can approach these tipping points to within a hair (and indeed might have been labeled as Winters in systems with different boundaries), but winter depths and extremes of value will never look *quite* as good on them as do summer’s slightly softer versions, and they will always do best without the intensity cranked all the way up, however much they might enjoy looking at higher saturation and contrast (and however much the fashion industry might sometimes try to insist that everyone needs it).

Sometimes it is helpful for the Summer to see a Winter wearing the same thing in order to “see” the difference in handling, and vice versa, because we are best able to judge the effects of colour by comparison. That said, in the absence of the ideal some Summers can and do nudge over the line, and while these colours may “wear” them a little in comparison with their best natural harmony, sometimes you have to compromise if you want to get out the door (which brings us back to how the confusion arises in the first place. Sometimes the challenge of finding something, anything to wear means that the colour just has to be good enough to be going on with – and no harm is done, as long as our internal compass doesn’t drift too far off course as we get used to something that’s not bad, but not our best.)

Similar difficulties can occur in deciding on seasonal placement for the warm seasons: is something relatively lighter and brighter, springy, or darker and more muted, autumnal? A client can also struggle to place a neutral colour between related neutral seasons, or on either side of the warm neutral versus cool neutral divide: is this pink Light Spring or Light Summer? Is this teal Dark Autumn’s or Dark Winter’s?

Sometimes the dilemma can take in apparently “unrelated” Tones: the previously-labelled “summer” who really needs the high chroma warm-neutral pinks, teals, blues and purples of Bright Spring, for example, or the “deep autumn” with a fondness for teals, burgundies and deep purples who turns out to be Soft Summer, or vice versa. The differences can be difficult to unpick at a casual glance, and especially if there is competing distraction from hair colour, make-up, other garments, and so on. The best test in these bordering cases is how well it harmonises with known items from the palette, and on the client (and of course if it is really THAT hard to determine and if the garment or accessory hits the spot in every other way, then there probably isn’t a dilemma at all: it works, so grab it and go.)

Another issue is that we often have expectations of associations between tone, texture and style. We might think, for example, that if a garment is tweedy then it must be autumn … well, think again!  Have a look:

Light Spring – Autumnal Textures

or have an unconscious belief that shiny and satiny equals spring.

‘Glossy’ Soft Autumn

And indeed it’s true that these generalizations come from experience, that some textures and tones very often go together – it’s easier to get deep saturation in a silk dupion than when dyeing unbleached calico, for example, and natural wools tend to be fairly soft in colour. Sometimes however it’s not so obvious where a hue belongs. Imagine a natural, outdoorsy Light Spring and a glamorous, formally-inclined Soft Autumn –

Casual/Textured Light Spring
Soft Autumn Glamor

but if you think of spring as inevitably floral and of autumn as all log fires and gumboots then you might not place these folks – or their individual garments, particularly their fashion neutrals – where they best belong tonally.

The fashion neutrals – whites, creams, beiges, taupes, greys, browns, and blacks – can give us special problems too. As seen in a previous article , these low-chroma colours can be hard to classify even with excellent examples to hand, and Soft Summers especially may lay claim to desaturated colours that are not in fact their best but which better serve other tones as fashion neutrals. For further clarification of this blog post by Sheryll Venn at Innate Colour.

Finally, as we have already noted, photographs and colour matching in online editorials can be notoriously misleading. In the first image below, a popular paint and powder finish colour has been represented on four different websites, looking so different that it might well belong to different tones. In the second, all photographs are said to represent the same popular lipstick shade, with only the variations in the gold of the cylinder giving the reader any clue as to how far off the lighting or settings may be from reality.


Dulux/Colourbond “Classic Cream”


Revlon Teak Rose

To summarize the issues above, here are two last shots in which the same pink is compared with both a TSu and a DW palette.


Dark Winter


True Summer

These images were taken with an uncalibrated camera indoors in average daylight conditions. In reality this slightly warmed light cool neutral colour is not a precise match to any particular palette swatch, but it is closest and most harmonious in DW rather than either of the true cool Tones or the other cool neutral seasons. This isn’t necessarily obvious from the photographs, however, and a TSu shopping from these pictures might well feel that it segues into the lightest end of their palette and/or that it works better than anything else on the rack for him or her (and indeed in our real world of limited time and choices you could do far worse). As ever, then, make your final calls in person and in natural daylight whenever you can.

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