Human Tone

What is human tone?

Following the previous colorDNA articles on hue, this article explains how the second element of conventional colour theory – value - has been applied to human colouring.

Value, in the colorDNA human colour system, is referred to as 'tone'.

Value and tone scale


Given biological human colouring is a neutral colour tone and not a flat value from an achromatic grey scale, the term needed to be changed.

The amazing biological contrast of human tone

There is no current universally accepted classification schema to accurately measure the tone of human colour characteristics. 

The two human skin classification scales, which are randomly used or referred to – the von Luschan’s scale and the Fitzpatrick scale – have practical applications but do not scientifically classify human colouring.

The above table combines the 36 von Luschan categories with the six Fitzpatrick categories

In the hairdressing industry there is a universal hair colouring measurement, which has a similar classification process to the colorDNA method.

Hair is measured by a range of 10 tone levels: 1 = black, 10 = very light blonde.

Different colours and colour coverage is considered at each level, with every hairdressing brand using a slightly different scale.

Wella hair colour chart

Human skin, hair and eye tone within the colorDNA system is measured from 0–10, and is described by the perceptible level of darkness through medium to lightness.

Human tone scale

The tone level of all human colour characteristics can be measured and classified using the 0–10 tone scale. 

The colorDNA scale has pure black below zero-0 and pure white above ten-10, given pure black and white are not found in natural human colouring.

This black and white photograph, has a woman in the dark tone area

Pure black is required on the colorDNA human tone scale, because it is used to describe superficial colour characteristic changes, such as tattoos, dyed black hair and make-up.

Natural characteristics such as the eye’s pupil and very dark hair, maybe referred to by some people as black, even if the true colouring is above the zero line on the colorDNA tone scale.

The ink on this New Zealand Mãori's face is black

Pure white on the DNA scale is used to describe such superficial colour characteristic changes as dyed white hair, make-up and face paint.

White may also be used to describe naturally occurring characteristics such as teeth, the whites of the eyes and white hair, even if they are below ten-10 on the tone scale.

The illustration of Victor Hugo has him in the light tone area

Skin tone is usually the most dominant colour quality of a person's colour expression.

This woman’s light tone and low contrast dominate her colour expression – Skin T8, Hair T9 and Eyes T7

The tone of a person’s individual skin, hair or eyes is relatively simple to determine, even as a person ages and the tone becomes lighter.

This woman’s medium skin tone, dark hair and eyes, produce medium contrast – Skin T5, Hair T2 and Eyes T3

The overall tone of a person’s colour expression can be more challenging to establish, especially when there is contrast between light skin and dark hair.

The dark colour characteristics and low contrast of this woman dominate – Skin T2, Hair T1 and Eyes T1

The level and type of contrast between colour characteristics is an important part of a person’s colour profile.

This woman’s colour characteristics create high dominant contrast – Skin T7, Hair T1 and Eyes T1

It is worth noting that because human colouring is organic, it is in a constant state of change. Unlike a painting, human colouring has not been created from a clean, flat canvas.  

People are three dimensional and may have a variety of tones across their skin, hair and eyes.

The woman has medium tone skin and a range of medium tones through her hair

Biological factors such as aging, sun tanning and health issues can be responsible for natural tone changes (albeit by one or two levels in most cases).

For these reasons, it’s important to talk about biological human colour characteristic tone in general colour quality terms, such as light, medium or dark, not as a tone number such as T5 or T9.

The loss of pigment means this man has two contrasting levels of skin tone 

Optical tone mixture

When human hair, skin or eyes have more than one tone, a general optical mixture (average) tone across each characteristic can be perceived as a resultant tone combination. 

The tone would be the result of mixing all of the juxtaposed tones in each tone’s volume, as if they were paint on a painting.

The following three images demonstrate how different levels of juxtaposed tone find harmony with particular levels of tone in the hair.

The light beige tone finds harmony with the light blonde highlights
The light caramel tone is the general optical mixture of all colour tones and creates a general level of harmony across all the hair
The dark brown tone creates a direct link to the dark shades within the hair

With optical mixing of the eyes, the dark pupil would combine with the lighter tones of the iris to create a resultant tone.

 Clear white eyes create high contrast, which makes it difficult to view them any other way

The whites of the eyes can also be considered in optical mixing or separated as a highlight contrast. 

Different levels of whiteness in the sclera produce different resultant tones.

With eyes which have a less than white sclera, the optical mixing is not so severe

The eyebrows, hair, skin and any lighter or darker areas on the skin, such as freckles or blemishes, can also be optically mixed to create a general resultant tone.

Determining a localised or overall resultant tone can be used to harmonise with particular values of make-up or clothing.

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