It may have been invented in 1974 by Maria and Rosy Carita , hairdressers to the likes of Brigitte Bardot who were innovating in their field long before Vidal Sassoon et al, but balayage remains one of the most searched for hair terms on the Internet, with 14.2 million posts on Instagram alone. As contemporary and cutting edge as it seems with a cursory online scroll, balayage as a method is definitively “a technique, not a trend” according to Jack Howard , the superstar colourist credited with bringing balayage to UK shores. This would echo the Carita sisters’ anti-trend philosophy:
“…Carita, trendy? Definitely not! Trends come and go, but you always stay on trend if you keep one foot in the future.”
Speaking of the future, the hand painted hair colouring technique has evolved in a myriad of ways since its conception, but the fundamentals remain the same. The word ‘balayage’ means ‘to sweep’ in French and originally involved painting strands before wrapping them in cotton wool (the Carita way). At the end of the 70s many colourists ditched the cotton wool for an ‘open air’ technique before the brush application method became de rigueur in the 80s. Jack was taught classic balayage techniques by colourist Nancy Braun who he cites as “the pioneer of the technique in the US”, incorporating palm painting (using the palm to smudge on colour rather than a brush) into his colouring method when it became popular in 2010:
“When I moved back to London in 2010 this technique was largely unknown so I started teaching it. Women in the UK were ready for a change - stripy uniform foil highlights take too long, need too much upkeep and aren’t flattering. Your colour should be bespoke to you and tailored to suit your hair cut.”
It’s this individualism that gives balayage its enduring appeal - it’s painterly rather than paint by numbers and can be “as unique as your fingerprint” according to Jack. To get the lay of the land, here’s his prescription for classic balayage - to quote Pablo Picasso (taking hair colouring v highbrow here), you’ve go to “learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
“The colour is saturated at the ends and product is loaded in the mid-lengths. It’s then feathered up to the root and spread down over the surface of the section for a seamless finish. This classic approach is perfect for anyone who wants their highlight to the root : this woman’s probably got longer hair and would need to come into the salon every eight weeks or so.”
Also to get us up to speed, there are increasing variations in balayage application methods. One isn’t necessarily better than another but your colourist will choose the system that suits you best.
The four balayage application methods
Open air: “this is when you don’t use cling film or foil.”
Semi-closed: “this my favourite application technique. It involves wrapping strands with film, but not the kind that you get from Tesco - it’s a professional product! It makes colour look soft and natural.”
Closed: “the colour-saturated ends are covered gently with foil so that you get a ‘lift’. It usually works best for darker hair, and it’s particularly popular in the Far East where hair is often naturally a dark, uniform shade. If you backcomb the section before you put it in the foils, this is actually called shatush rather than balayage.”
Palm painting: “if you want heavier saturation of colour, palm painting the ends with your hands achieves a great effect.”
Why balayage works for everyone
“These four classic techniques mean that balayage really does suit all hair types and cuts, from super short to long, afro to Middle Eastern to Far Eastern to Asian and Caucasian. It can enhance every hair colour too, whether you’re blonde, brunette, grey or a redhead . It’s all about working with the natural fall and colour of the hair, as well as the cut. The only occasion when it wouldn’t be suitable is if, say, your hair is a very dark brown and you want to transition to a Nordic blonde. You’d need a more drastic colour application approach in this case.
“Otherwise, balayage can be used to create a very natural looking highlight or something stronger, but either way it should grow out very softly without harsh demarcation lines. It’s quicker to apply and develop than foil highlights and can be lower maintenance. It’s a freehand technique that can be used from root to tip too. Classic balayage really was a worldwide revolution in highlighting but it has now evolved so you can create so many different looks.”
Which brings us to…
What’s new in balayage
“We’ve seen a slew of trends spring up including tiger eye, ecaille, tortoiseshell, pastelage and a tonne of others, all of which all have their origins in the balayage freehand technique. Sometimes less is more, however…”
Apparently this is the minimal sweet spot for achieving a lift and accentuating your natural colouring and features. Jack explains why 14 is the magic number where balayage colouring is concerned:
“Balayage is always dictated by the haircut (so always get your hair cut as you want it before you colour it) but balayaging just 14 pieces will really lift your colour and refresh your look. The face framing sections are essential to highlight the cheekbones and the eyes, but otherwise this is a low maintenance approach, which is ideal seeing as typically women are seeing their colourist an average of 5.7 times a year.
“Where the 14 pieces are placed will be tailored to your haircut and natural curl pattern of your hair, but it’s super affordable (fewer pieces means less time and fewer visits), more impactful and just colours the surface of the hair, leaving the rest of the hair naked - the pop comes from having fewer pieces, which creates contrast by itself.”
Who does it suit? Anyone who wants to update their look but keep colour, spending and salon appointments low key. Economical from both a time and money POV, have ‘14’ at the forefront of your mind for a natural and altogether more frugal finish that Jack reckons often looks more effective than more extensive balayage:
“Definitely don’t go mad with too many pieces; your hair can actually can look thicker and lighter with less. It’s the negative space that gives you the pop.”
Never heard of negative space? Onto the next…
Our Who What Hair columnist Ayesha covered this in her new season hair trends round-up but it has to be mentioned in the context of modern balayage techniques because, as Jack emphasises, sometimes shade is as vital as light:
“Negative space is such a popular balayage technique at the moment. Negative space is either your natural hair colour contrasted against pre-lightened pieces, or we create negative space with hair colour - you need contrast to stop colour looking solid, which can end up looking like an ombré or a single process dye. The negative space is as important as the lightness, it’s what creates the ‘pop’ and helps keep the natural softness.
“Visually, it’s about making sure that the darker hair, or natural hair colour, flows with the lighter pieces. Colour is lighter around the face and the look has a balance that’s pleasing to the eye.
“Sometimes people shy away from adding depth because of literally negative past experiences - it can look muddy or orange in the wrong hands. Think of negative space in terms of an old fashioned lowlight instead. It’s about having a more modern conversation about depth and creating dimension. You don’t want negative space around the face, the placement needs to be really well thought-out and personalised for each individual look.”
Who does it suit? “It’s for all hair colours - it suits anyone who wants a modern, fresh, more natural feel and works on hair that’s bob length and longer. It fits perfectly with the push back to a more natural, sophisticated feel - the opposite of the heavy colour incarnations and bright blondes we often see on Instagram.”
“This is generally when colour is saturated at the ends and product is loaded in the mid-lengths. The difference compared to classic balayage is that while we spread the product down to the ends, we only feather it up the hair shaft ever so slightly for a more lived-in feel and finish.”
Who does it suit? “This is great for women who want a lower maintenance look and is perfect for all hair colours and types. It’s edgier than classic balayage and allows you to achieve that ‘next day’, nonchalant hair feel that’s so hot. It’s brilliant for longer styles, shag lobs and mid-length looks in particular. Upkeep is from the 10-16 week mark but I have clients who come in just twice a year, so it’s really versatile and fits in with every lifestyle.”
“This a much heavier incarnation of any of the balayage applications - think cool, icy metallic blondes. This is a high maintenance look and application; it’s still very soft at the root but gives heavier coverage throughout the mid-lengths and ends.”
Who does it suit? “This is great with a root stretch, a technique that helps to build up more contrast, and works well on everything from lobs to longer hair. The super-heavy application gives an ultra cool vibe but it’s really only for lighter bases.”
“This is finer, more delicate application. It delivers very soft finish regrowth is minimal - you might need it touching up up after about 8-10 weeks.”
Who does it suit? “It works well on all hair colours but is exceptional for women who want heavier colour coverage, women transitioning from more traditional foil highlights to balayage or for those who like to flip their partings around, and on fringes.”
Described as a “subtle, luxe halo of light around the face that brings back your childhood tones”, the prism lights technique was created by award-winning colourist and founder and director of Stil Salon Christel Ludgvist . It’s essentially a counterpoint to hair colour contouring and the chunky balayage that was super popular in the early 2000s and Christel aims for “whisper-light” application of light-reflecting colour (hence the ‘prism’ descriptor) with the aim of uplifting the face and creating the kind of gloss and shine that coloured hair so often lacks.
Prism lights are painted onto hair in fine strands, with light concentrated around the mid-lengths and through the root. The ends of the hair are then also free-painted by layering two tones of subtly lighter shades, “creating a polished yet natural appearance”. I tried the technique and found the colour transition more seamless than balayage I’ve had in the past and far from streaky. It’s a minimalist technique and one that you can’t quite put your finger on, which is a good thing in my book. Sort of the "no makeup makeup" for hair.
Image by NYFW Jonathon Simkhai shot by Alexander Barron-Hough
The new colouring service is becoming increasingly popular with Christel’s clientele and it’s apparently especially effective during the winter months:
“Prism lights are brighter, cleaner shades that are cleverly relevant and upgrade winter light. British light is very ‘blue’ so getting the shades just right is even more important. The prism method allows light to open up and stream through the hair, ‘bouncing’ off of the cuticle six times more than it normally would and creating radiance around the face.”
The shades that created a ‘prism’ effect for me included a combination of creamy beige tones to offset the natural gold tone in my brown hair. If I went too warm with my balayage, the end result could end up looking too orange, whereas ribonning in cooler blonde hues creates a delicate effect that's ‘barely there’ but fresh.
Who does it suit? Everyone! Blondes will likely require more toner to create ‘negative space’ contrast, whereas darker hair such as mine needs more light.
The balayage ‘dos and don’ts’
Jack has seen it all and has a few pointers before you get in the chair…
Do talk about which type of application will suit your lifestyle and haircut with your colourist. It could be that a combination of techniques might work best for you. Also, always do your research before you book a consultation - any hairdresser worth their salt will showcase their work on Instagram.
Do keep your expectations in check - sometimes it’s about the journey. You can’t go from a full head bleach to balayage in one go, neither can you go from a box dye black to blonde in an hour for £60.
Do always have a gloss over your balayage because you’ll need it. I recommend Schwarzkopf Igora Royal Vibrance - it’s a liquid colour so the shine is incredible.”
Don’t get it done too often, just top up your glaze.
Do use a thermal heat protector when styling at home and use a shampoo and conditioner designed for coloured hair - I particularly rate BLONDME shampoos and conditioners , from £9.
Image credits (excluding prism lights):
Colour & concept: Jack Howard
Hair styling: Zoe Irwin
Makeup: Violet Zeng
Fashion: Sabina Emrit
Photography: Jay Mawson
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