The Ladies’ Home Journal, 1948. Internet Archive Book Images / No restrictions

“Seasonal” Color Analysis (for starters)

You probably know something about seasonal color analysis already, how it started with four seasons, went to twelve, later sixteen, twenty-two, and even more. Suzanne Caygill, author of Color: The Essence of You, is generally credited with having created the seasonal nomenclature, though it’s reported that she didn’t actually assign such classifications based on color ranges alone. Rather, she assigned “seasons” (and subseasons) after determining the vibe of the customized palette she created for each client. Many Caygill-trained consultants today still assign seasonal classifications (or no season at all) to the palettes they create for their clients. These may differ from the standardized palettes of the newer seasonal systems.

Of course, the idea of “seasons” is made up, but it makes a convenient shorthand for describing many things with generally defined ranges of human coloring in mind. The concept is based on annual weather patterns of the Northern Hemisphere, which occur in reverse order to that of the Southern Hemisphere and not at all in the tropics. Nevertheless, the vocabulary seems here to stay, because it’s much easier to discuss whether a certain coral lipstick looks good on “Springs” than it is to ask whether it will work on people who are “warm, clear, and bright,” “warm, clear, and a little bit dusty,” “lukewarm, clear, and medium,” and so forth.

In the 1980s the four-season system of Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn, under Carole Jackson’s Color Me Beautiful aegis, sprouted wings, flew, and crashed. It created the simplistic impression that consumers of clothing and makeup could automatically fit into one of four seasons, two warm and two cool, and call it good.

The problem was that 75% of people (according to one report I read) are neither precisely warm nor cool, but kind of neutral. One consultant I know of differed with the whole notion of anyone’s being neutral, though, and I see her point. If you are past the halfway mark of warm/cool by even a fraction, you are technically on one side or the other. It might be more accurate to describe such persons as cool-neutral or warm-neutral. And then there are the very few remaining who seem truly neutral.
It wasn’t long before someone popularized the idea of “flow” seasons to take care of these neutral-leaning people. That is, you might be dominantly one season and then “flow” into another. You could be a Spring flowing into Summer, or an Autumn flowing into Winter. Heck, you could even flow across the broad middle of the seasonal wheel and be a Spring flowing into Autumn or vice versa.

I laid aside the whole color analysis thing for a long time. In 2010, I popped my head in again to see what was going on. The Internet was in full swing by that time, and I found something called Sci\Art, founded by Kathryn Kalisz, a colorist at the Munsell Institute who studied color and psychology and developed a more scientific approach to color analysis. She further defined and subdivided the four seasons into a system based on 12 tones or seasons. However, the Sci\Art theory did not allow for seasons to “flow” across the “doughnut hole” of the seasonal wheel (colored grey in my diagram below). In other words, Winter and Summer could not flow into one another, because Winter was “clear” and Summer was “muted.” Likewise, Spring and Autumn could not flow together because one palette was warmed by clear, yellow light and the other by golden light. (This was the way one Sci\Art consultant explained it.)

I had still had deep questions at the time about how clear or how muted a Winter or Summer coloring could have before morphing into the opposite side. And so the questions got more brain cracking the more I thought on them.

If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
That they could get it clear?

But I digress. . .

Others would deal with that question elsewhere and come up with even more “seasons” and subtle name variances of something like Kalisz’s 12 seasonal tones or the original “flow” between four seasons. There would be additional toned and shaded versions of Soft Summer and Soft Autumn. Some systems began to add Soft Winter and Soft Spring. It reached such a pitch that now some believe that soft-season people may be more numerous than anyone ever dreamed. And there are really two ways to deal with “softness” in sweeping generalities. That is to either expand practically every season into a soft version or to divide everyone into categories of “soft” and “clear” (or “bright) and figure out the color temperature afterward. That is exactly what one consultant I found does.


Once you figure out if you are bright or soft, you have eliminated half the work already. Then you have to decide whether you lean warmer or cooler and match your overall value in the lights and depths of your palette.

Well that sounds simple enough. Does this alternate approach have holes in it? Probably, but don’t they all? There is always the person whose coloring sits on the warm/cool line and maybe the bright/soft one at the same time. This approach seems to me to be the most idiot-proof for the do-it-yourselfer or the color consultant with not such discerning eyes. The point here is really to get to the bottom of your most dominant color harmony.

Custom Palettes

Photo by Melville Holmes. Used by permission.

Unlike seasonal color systems, customized color systems aren’t tied down to the bell curve of how color, saturation, value, and temperature are supposed to harmonize in predictable patterns. Custom color consultation tends to be pricier than seasonal color consultation, though most of the women I’ve met who have had both types done seem to prefer the customized method. You could, I’m sure, classify most custom palettes in broad “seasonal” terms, but you’d be capturing only one dominant harmony of that coloring. Skin tones are typically the driving factor of both seasonal and customized color analysis, so the more typical an individual’s other coloring is to the imaginary seasonal norm, the more overlap there will be between the two systems. In custom analysis, we are really getting into other dimensions of secondary and tertiary harmonies.

Color Philosophies

Most color systems today aspire to the goal of “authentic beauty” for their clients. That is to say you become empowered and heightened by wearing colors derived from your native coloring.

Jennifer Butler, a prominent custom consultant, believes that wearing the wrong colors and lines makes it harder for other people to figure out who you you are. How can they focus on what you are saying when their eyes are trying to figure out a visual scribble? Butler’s philosophy, in keeping with a growing relaxed attitude about self-expression in the workplace, concerns aesthetic beauty and visual harmony. The resulting arguments over which methods were better stemmed from people talking at cross purposes.

John Kitchener, another custom consultant with Personal Style Counselors, has a philosophy more in line with Butler’s. I once observed him in a verbal wrestling match with Sandy Dumont, “The Image Architect” (she has recently passed). I found Dumont a little off-putting when she pronounced every other system except her own as “wrong.” Maybe she really thought that, but long after the tit for tat with Kitchener, I realized that they were talking at cross purposes because their philosophies were different. Hers was partly rooted in John Molloy’s Dress for Success method. If your goal was to be powerful and get noticed, she could sell you like a 10-lb. bag of sugar on a shelf.

Dumont’s method included a certain measure of aesthetic beauty, but the goal was business success, not authenticity and self-expression. If it’s corporate power you seek, and if you need to control insurgents with a serious, no-nonsense demeanor, Dumont’s method might just work. On the other hand, if this isn’t really who you are, then you could come off looking like a cheese puff dressed in a suit of armor. I’m so thankful that women in the workforce are gaining more leeway to dress as the women they really are instead of having to become imitation men.

What is the Upshot?

I suppose it takes a bit of foresight to figure out what our choices are going to gain or lose in the long haul. I personally concur with Butler’s belief that everything has a spiritual basis, even our coloring. Our native colors are how our spiritual selves show up in the physical world. If we are to be understood in our essential character, our clothing expression should support that.

An Artistic Approach to Color

Some colors remind us of chalk, velvet, watercolors, pastels, tree bark, snow, eucalyptus leaves, and so on, even sometimes the ineffable effects of sea spray, dust, star shine, butterfly wings, and fire. I remember trying to understand why one color expert associated the artist Corot with the Soft Autumn color palette. Was it only because of the colors the artist used or was it also the textures produced in his paintings?

To me, a truly personalized color palette — even one you develop from a seasonal palette — has top, middle, and base notes like a perfume. Top notes give the initial impression, while the middle notes define the palette’s heart. Then the base notes make themselves felt as they begin to pull away from the middle (but not too much). If middle notes represent the general essence of a color palette, then top and base notes create that palette’s unique fingerprints.

Consider these works of art. You could place them into any seasonal palette description, but there is so much more going on. Do they not also create textures through color, saturation, and hue as well as through medium? This is what human coloring and texture creates, too. You could take any of the artworks below and find someone whose coloring and physical makeup evokes the colors and mood of each. What kind of art does yours evoke?