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Subjective Timbre – Getting It Backwards

Itten’s observation that his students tended to be drawn to a natural palette home and to produce their best work within it is a foundation story and key concept in the history of Personal Colour Analysis. It is as true now as it ever was, but there is a qualification: our modern world of hair dye, cosmetics and advertorial pressure to the effect that anyone can be anyone they want to be might be helping to separate us from this instinctive timbre. There is a chance that we can then get so invested in a colour identity that isn’t our natural home that we take it for granted that it is.

While Itten’s original insight – that people are drawn to their natural colours – continues to resonate and inform, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we *never* admire or aspire to be something else. Having the impulse of “I love it, therefore it must be mine” can help us get in touch with our instincts and natural best, but it can also get the cart before the horse when it comes to discerning your tonal place.

Dr Ted Tries on Winter
Dr Ted tries on Winter for size

Take a simple example, a summer type who enjoys the striking effect of a black dress and deep red lipstick against her natural lightness and who may start to wonder if she is “really a winter”. To my eye, this combination will look as if it is wearing her rather than the other way around, the black and the lipstick dominating her native colouring no matter how otherwise arresting her bone structure might be. She is no more or less a light summer for these choices, her natural features standing out most spectacularly and harmoniously in her cool neutral, light and lightly-muted palette.


I don’t mean by this to necessarily invalidate her decision to step off-piste. She may have other imperatives (corporate expectations, a role description, a dress that otherwise fits like a glove that she loves), and we are all free to use colour however we wish. Sometimes these disharmonious choices are very deliberate and knowing, as we’ve discussed before in previous blog posts (“IS DISHARMONY EVER DESIRABLE“/“BREAKING BAD PART V”) . Our light summer and I may therefore be disagreeing in no more than that we are prioritizing different things, but it is important to note that her choice to go darker and deeper than her native timbre means extra “work”, both for herself (perhaps brightening or darkening her hair colour, and using “balancing makeup” in the attempt to meld it all together, when needing either of these to feel you can wear a colour is a red flag that you are no longer on tonal home turf) and for the viewer (the eye is taxed by the differences, whether consciously or not). Any extra “staging” in the form of added cosmetic colour doesn’t alter the essential parameters of her tonal colouring. Nature presents us with coherent palettes, and the human eye tends to notice when we alter the scheme.

Ted Tries on True Summer
Dr Ted tries on True Summer for size

To whatever extent, many dress conventions are culturally conditioned. Coco Chanel, a winter, once said that “Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony” – and thousands of editorials ever after never dared to question her. Similarly, a famous Australian fashion editor, also probably a winter, insists that her family all wear white on Christmas Day (which may indeed be a great foil for her, but mightn’t do much for a Soft Summer cousin or Autumn in-law.) A lot of fashion gurus seem to be winters, come to think of it, and perhaps this projection and marketing of personal bests as universal truths is a key point to understanding the industry as a whole. If these oft-repeated advice clichés work for you, is it that bit more likely that you will gravitate to the industry as a result of this easy success and confidence, and then spend the rest of your career perpetrating the generalization and, with it, the idea – or hope – that it really can work for everyone if only they can work out how to do it “right”, that is, support it with the “right” hair, makeup and so on?

Ted Tries on Soft Autumn...getting closer
Dr Ted tries on Soft Autumn.  Getting closer …

Another factor that can help disconnect us from subjective timbre is that of “supernormal-stimulus”, a phenomenon in biology where an organism tends to respond more strongly to an exaggerated version of a natural stimulus (the classic story was of baby birds ignoring their mother’s beak for a stick with a bigger, brighter and bolder version of her bill colouring). In PCA, this manifests as wanting more contrast or chroma than is compatiable with the person’s home tone, and in more general terms, hair dye and makeup are often good examples and enablers of this tendency to “ramp it up” and “push it out”, a bit like artificial colouring and flavour enhancers in food, which can make it difficult for those accustomed to it to appreciate the “unplugged” natural norm. The first principle of PCA is that we accept what is naturally there, but those used to these habitual exaggerations of the normal range may have a real struggle with this as they are looking for a result, consciously or not, that an honest PCA cannot give.

I say it so often, but the key to harmony in personal colour is a relatedness between the person and the colours framing them. It can’t be said too often: our best colours will be found in a range neither warmer nor cooler nor markedly darker or lighter or higher or lower chroma than we are. There will be an absence of competition and a sense of resonance and relatedness, of being “painted from the same gamut”, though just what this means is different for every palette (a soft has a different overall feel than does a bright, for example) and, more subtly, for everyone of that tone who uses it. We will stand out because it all makes sense, rather than feeling like we are in the wrong picture and do not fit there.

DA Dr Ted
Dr Ted finds his tonal home in Dark Autumn

Adventure is wonderful. Most of us enjoy trying new things, travel, new sensations, new tastes, new sights and sounds, and colour is no different. This can also drive the “love it, got to try it for myself” factor in fashion, and of itself I don’t think this is to be condemned in the least – we enlarge our world and learn a lot about ourselves this way, as long as we retain our core sense of self and our judgement and don’t get confused, overwhelmed, and separated from our best instincts by trying to be everything we see. What I am trying to say is that it doesn’t always follow that we can reverse engineer our palette from our interior decor or current wardrobe preferences and adventures, instructive as this can often be, and that we need to bear in mind the original sense of the saying “the exception proves the rule”. When we make an exception of colour for whatever reason, we need to keep our perspective, see what is really in front of us, and not discard our general principles and understanding.

5 replies to “Subjective Timbre – Getting It Backwards”

  1. Thanks Amelia, only yesterday I had been attempting to explain colour harmony, this article is great and the images are very helpful.

  2. I have been reading several PCA sites for years, and this is the best article I have read and how easily we can be tempted to stray from our true colour story.

  3. I do feel like the picture of the buxom lady “power dressing” tells me something about her personality, though. She might be good to talk to, whereas the other lady looks like she’d take six months to get to know and might be a tad precious about herself, or so obsessed with her four children she’s not interested in other people.
    I know who I’d rather have a cocktail with.

  4. Well, if what you mean is the cocktail lady sure looks like she would not mind getting familiar with in six minutes, i can appreciate that analogy. But if you are saying that subtle colouring is necessarily boring or self-important, then i’m beginning to lose you…

  5. Ruby, you seem to be prejudiced against soft coloring. The grass is always greener on the other side, as they say. A person dressed in soft colors but does not have natural soft coloring may give a demure impression, but a soft colored person dressed in soft colors looks friendly and self assured. A soft colored person dressing in strong coloring can look like they’re trying too hard and are false. Personally, I find soft people dressing in their own colors to look confident and mature, comfortable in their own skin and harmonious. It takes guts to not wear black, white, red, and bleach or dye your hair trying to chase away the “mousiness” and be true to your soft, “unpopular” colors. But those that do always look spectacular and I always admire them. This coming from a deep winter that would look grayed out in those colors. As I say the grass is always greener…

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