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Hair Color > Articles > The Complete Guide to Balayage
By Ronni Ross

We’re grateful to the French for so many things.  They gave us Champagne.  Chanel.  The four hour, red wine lunch.  And for hair color pros who love the freedom of foil-free application, they have their French brothers and sisters to thank for the art of balayage. 

Like an artist stroking paint onto a canvas, the balayage colorist sweeps his or her brush over the hair.  (The term is derived from the word “balai” which means “to sweep.”) This freehand style of painting the hair that originated in the land of a thousand cheeses and haute couture, has evolved over the past 50 years into one of the premiere coloring techniques in the world.

Lisa Marie Garcia, an executive artist for Farouk Systems Group and owner of the Color Salon in Austin, TX, discovered the technique as a young stylist.  “It was the first way I learned to highlight hair,” she remembers.  After a hiatus, she noticed that it has become increasingly popular among her color colleagues, so she is once again offering the service to clients.

Nancy Braun, owner of Bhava Salon in Los Angeles, says she loves balayage because it looks so natural and grows out so gracefully. “Balayage creates contrast, and what makes it beautiful is the way the pieces light up,” she says. “The end result is very much like a child’s hair. You re-create the beauty of that sun-kissed look.”

Braun learned the technique at L’Oreal in 1989 and has been using it ever since.  She notes that her clients like it because it allows them
more time between services. “They can go three months between touch-ups, whereas with other techniques, they have to come back every six weeks.”

Kaz Amor, an educator with the Redken Exchange and a partner in the Warren Tricomi salons in Los Angeles and Manhattan, first took a balayage class in Paris nine years ago. He added the technique to his repertoire because at that time, runway hair was awash with soft, natural-looking highlights, and balayage was the perfect way to achieve those looks.
Balayage Then and Now
In the ‘60s, notes Braun, highlighting meant streaking; in the ‘70s, frosting caps were used. In the ‘80s, it was all about foils; and in the ‘90s it started to become the sophisticated, personalized service that it is now. “Balayage has been around through all of this, but it started receiving more press in the ‘90s and continues to do so today,” she says.

Amor recalls that balayage was popular in London in the 1950s and ‘60s during the Vidal Sassoon era, with highly geometric placement the trend. Simultaneously, the Carita sisters in Paris, known for styling Brigitte Bardot, were doing a softer, more free-flowing version.

As balayage has continued to gain in popularity, hair color has evolved along with it. “Products have been designed specifically for this technique now, and they are easier to work with than they used to be,” says Braun.

“The latest color technologies, such as ionic lighteners and ammonia-free products, provide more options for balayage than in the past,” adds Garcia. “The applications are easier and safer with less likelihood of mistakes.”

Application How-Tos
When it comes to working with this technique, notes Braun, consistency is important. “Make sure your product has the proper consistency so it will easily spread through the hair,” she says. And, have a vision for the end results, keeping in mind that placement is key.

Amor says the biggest challenge with balayage is getting foil-conditioned clients (and stylists) to try it. To overcome this
apprehension, try combining balayage and foils. “Most stylists who do foils have a difficult time switching because they cannot replicate the looks their clients are used to,” he notes. “But if you do foils with balayage between them, this is a great way to transition.”

One goal with balayage, Amor says, is that when the hair is wet, you should not see obvious lines. To achieve a soft look, it is crucial to use the proper amount of tension when holding the hair.  It helps to work with a short-bristle brush. Once the bleach is mixed, transfer it to a small Pyrex bowl or a flat surface such as a Lucite board. This helps produce a better consistency.  He adds, “Be sure to take the time to recharge your brush with each strand; don’t try to rush the process by picking up globs of color.”
Garcia likes to use a board and an artist’s fan brush to paint on the lightener. “Use a platform board and weave or slice the hair on the board,” she says, “then paint on your lightener, and finish by sliding your board out and letting the hair fall naturally,neatness counts and it helps," says Amor, to place cotton between sections to separate the hair. Also, suggests Garcia, work with thin slices or weaves so the lightener can penetrate to the top and underneath section
of the hair. “Let the hair fall naturally,” she says. “Don’t push or smash it into the other hair. This will keep the highlighted area more noticeable.”

Ultimately your best bet, notes Braun, is to take a class with an expert in the field. “It looks easy,” she says, “but it’s not. If it were easy, the whole world would be doing it.”

Modern Design
Current balayage design trends focus on a natural result. “The design of the color is based upon the shape of the haircut,” comments Braun. “The cut is the foundation, and the color is the makeup used to accentuate movement.”

One of Amor’s favorite balayage clients is the one who comes in for the same Level 5 brown tint each time. To lighten up the color build-up that occurs in this instance, he balayages front and top sections with a non-ammonia formula, (non-ammonia to limit the amount of lightening) then glazes the entire head for shine. Another technique he likes for these clients is to refresh roots, and balayage midshaft to ends while the regrowth processes.

Garcia points to Farouk Systems’ new Gallery Edition collection as a great showcase of the latest balayage trends. “It demonstrates multi-dimensional color placement in one application by adding natural highlights to colored hair, or dimensional color for gray hair that is being colored,” she explains. The looks were created by using block sections and painting lightener over those areas to create a stronger color placement. When working with block sections, Garcia recommends sub-sectioning the hair for even application, and when painting over the top of color, she recommends working with compatible tones. She also loves to balayage curly and wavy hair and often uses it for color correction on blondes who wait too long between services and develop a band.

Another technique that Garcia uses often is called “smudging.” With this process, you paint color on the hair and smudge it one-to-two inches out from the base to create a seamless effect that goes from darker to lighter. “This can also be used for adding lighter effects to the ends if you want a more advanced color and lightener placement,” she says.

“As you can see, the possibilities of balayage are limitless,” says Garcia. “As a colorist, the hair is your canvas. These techniques give you so much freedom with your applications, just be sure to choose the correct product to ensure success.”

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