Chapter 1 – Back to the Basics

1.1 Colour Theory

Colour has three main characteristics: Hue, level, and intensity.


You will have learned in Hairstylist Foundations that the three primary (or “pure”) colours are red, yellow, and blue.

Three squares showing the three primary colours: red, yellow, and blue.

Every colour (or hue) that exists is the result of mixing two or three primary colours in varying proportions.

When all three are mixed in varying, yet fairly equal amounts, these primary colours create our natural looking hair colours from light to dark. But how?

Let’s have a look at the colour wheel:

A colour wheel showing 12 different colours. The colours are listed in the following text.

As you can see above, the colour wheel contains:

  • Our three primary colours
    • Red
    • Yellow
    • Blue
  • Three secondary colours, created by mixing two primary colours together
    • Orange
    • Green
    • Violet
  • Six tertiary colours, created by mixing a primary colour with its neighbouring secondary colour.
    • Yellow-orange
    • Red-orange
    • Red-violet
    • Blue-violet
    • Blue-green
    • Yellow-green

The position of each of these colours on the wheel indicates its tone. In the graphic above, the left side of the colour wheel contains our cool colour tones (green, blue-green, blue, blue-violet, violet, and red-violet), while the right side contains our warm colour tones (red, red-orange, orange, yellow-orange, yellow, yellow-green).

Colours that sit directly across the wheel from each other are called complementary colours. Mixing two complimentary colours together will create a brown or grey colour result. Voila! Our natural, neutral hair colours are born!


The level of hair colour is the darkness or lightness of colour in relation to itself and other colours. Level is the direct result of how these colours are mixed.

For example, what happens if you have an abundance of blue in your mixture? Or an abundance of yellow? Because blue is the darkest of the primary colours, an abundance of blue creates our darker levels. Yellow is considered the lightest, and so a majority of yellow in our mixture results in our lighter levels.

Universally, hair colours exist from a level 1-10, with 1 being darkest and 10 being lightest. Some colour manufacturers may use a 1–12 system, with 12 being the lightest colour level.

The 10 levels of hair colour, from black to light blonde.


Finally, intensity refers to the strength, or saturation, of colour. A colour will be much more saturated at a darker level compared to a lighter level. Colours are most intense in their “pure” form. For example, the red gradient below.


A gradiant of the colour red showing saturated and dark red to intense and bright red to muted and light red.ed.
Deeper, saturated                                             Intense                                                     Subtle, muted

So how do the 3 main characteristics of colour, hue, level and intensity, affect how you will formulate artificial hair colour?

Remember this principle?

Existing hair colour + artificial hair colour = resulting hair colour

This means that in order to create the desired results, you must understand how to alter the existing hair colour with an artificial colour formulation.

Let’s get started: Imagine that you have a new client sitting in your chair. Would you simply have them choose a hair swatch and slap that colour on? Hopefully not!

Before you head to the colour room to begin mixing up a colour formula, you must assess the following:

  • What is the client’s existing hair colour? This includes the hue (or tone), as well as the level.
  • What is the client’s desired hair colour result? Again, this should involve a discussion about hue and level, as well as intensity.
  • Is the client going darker or lighter?
  • Do you want to enhance or neutralize the existing colour?

In Chapter 2: The Consultation, we will have a more in-depth look at each of these factors. For now, let’s revisit the science of hair, trichology, to explore how the hair strand itself can influence your colour choices.

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Hair Colour for Hairstylists: Level 2 Copyright © 2021 by Arden Magtiza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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