Inside Beauty: Why You Can’t Match Makeup Colors in Magazines

Ever seen the perfect makeup color in a magazine and gone to the counter to buy it? It’s never the same color. Or texture. Or really, the same at all. But why? Are the magazines lying to us? What brands do makeup artists really use? How hard would it be to just tell us what color they used?

These are good questions – after all, fashion and beauty photos are there to show us what’s available to try and buy, right? Alas, it’s not so simple. The process of making up is different for photos than it is at home – or even at the makeup counter. Here’s why:

The Kit.

Our makeup is not regular makeup. At least at work:

Here’s my makeup kit. There are a couple logos in there, but mostly it’s palettes. What’s in those? Colors from all over the world – the result of poring through department and drug stores, picking things up in my travels, and receiving gifts from other makeup artists. There are plenty of name-brand products that pass through with the seasons, but there are also mainstay theatrical products that I keep in my kit at all times.

There are a lot of bright colors there – and I do natural makeup! But a lot of what I do on set involves techniques that no sane person should try at home – like using severe burn f/x colors to create a natural glowing blush color. ( Btw, I don’t do this at home either.) At work, I think of makeup in terms of color, texture, cream, powder, pencil, and liquid – in terms of effect, not brand. I blend colors and layer textures to get what I want. Also, I trained as a colorist in art school, so color straight from the tube is never quite right to me.

The Process.

For photos, everything contributes to creating the perfect image – the photographer’s style and lighting, what seasonal “story” is being illustrated (and there are lots!), the clothes, the hair and makeup, and who is modelling. The balance between harmony and contrast, both within each photo and across the story, is something the whole team negotiates over the course of the shoot.

Makeup is the most easily pliable element here – colors are changed and adjusted several times to get just the right look. And if all the mixing and layering of texture and color creates an unstable finish that requires constant upkeep and touchups, that’s no problem with a makeup artist right there.

Do other people on set ask what a spectacularly beautiful lip color on the model is? Yes. Are they surprised when the makeup artist says “it’s something I mixed up”? Not at all. And even fashion insiders get frustrated at the prospect of not being able to find these “ultimate” colors at the counter.

The Magazine.

When the photos get to the magazine, there’s another process: beauty editors have to assign colors to the pictures. They do the best they can, but since they’re not at the shoot they have to match colors with what’s available in the stores. Plus, advertisers want credits – so whose colors are most likely to be written up?

If there’s not a full beauty department, sometimes I get asked to make the list. Aside from having blended all these colors, I don’t usually remember what I used! And if a color is a discontinued one from a ten-year-old stash I keep in the refrigerator – well, that’s really going to be no help either.

Can I Ever Find That &%!*% Color?

Even with all the trickery that goes into making fashion and beauty images, and the trickery that goes into the credits, you can still get a look that’s close to the one you want. How? Most in-store makeup artists work on photo shoots during their off days, and would be glad to deconstruct a magazine look. Also, lots of products are designed by top makeup artists working with companies, so the disconnect is not total: their favorite colors and textures often make it into the stores. So there’s hope: with a little luck, and help from a sympathetic salesperson, you can find that dream color.

Beauty photo by Jeff Tse.

Share this

My Writing

A Week Without Mirrors

What would a day be like without looking at ourselves in a mirror? The idea of seeing our own reflections - first thing in...

Makeovers in the Movies: Grease

There's nothing like the vicarious thrill we get when we see a makeover in a movie. In the blink of an eye, a made-over...

Artist Francesco Vezzoli Shows us What the Ancient Romans Looked Like With Their Makeup On

True Colors (A Marble Relief Head of a Goddess), c.1st century A.D.-2014. Francesco Vessoli It's easy to imagine the ancients in monochrome. Their classic architecture...

My Makeup

more to enjoy