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Last updated: January 31, 2018

16 Secrets to Seamless Balayage from George Papanikolas

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“Whether they’re celebrities, models or regular salon clients, women all want the same thing,” declares Matrix Celebrity Stylist George Papanikolas. “They want hair that’s healthy, modern and effortless.”


With clients like the Kardashians, Britney Spears, Miranda Kerr and Minka Kelly—and clients on waiting lists in L.A., New York and Dubai—George’s signature balayage techniques deliver just that. Using approaches like his 2-Step Backcomb Balayage, he creates seamless, natural-looking color, while maintaining the integrity of the hair and keeping his books full with clients willing to pay $600 and up for his highlighting services. Even better? His techniques are quick and efficient. Here are 16 of his balayage secrets:


1. Hold the Toner
“I don’t do a lot of toning,” says George. “I’d rather lift the color to where I want it in the first place. Toners look great when the clients leave the salon, but they can shift. And if you lift to white and then tone, it will look good when she leaves, but after a while, it becomes streaky-looking.”


2. Color For the Cut
Because balayage highlights are typically applied to mids and ends, it’s essential to understand the shape of the cut, especially if your salon is departmentalized and you’re not the one with the shears. “The consultation is critical. If there are going to be a lot of layers,” says George, “you’re going to have to stack a lot of color. Blunt, one-length cuts require fewer highlights. And guess what? I always encourage blunt, one-length cuts!”


3. Get Horizontal 
When George balayages, all of his sections, except those around the face, are horizontal.  “That’s the way the hair falls,” he explains, “so horizontal sections provide maximum impact.  And I want to get the most impact from every section. Plus, if you don’t put in a zillion foils, the hair will stay healthier. But remember—this is just for balayage. If you were to put these horizontal sections into foils, you’d get hard zebra stripes!”


4. Take it up to 40 
Because balayage highlights are processed in the open air, George uses 40-volume developer. His go-to balayage highlight formula? Matrix Light Master + 40-volume Matrix Cream Developer



5. Think Dannon—and Not the Greek Kind
The texture of the lightener should be like yogurt—regular, not Greek. If the lightener is too thick, says George, it will be too hard to spread and will inhibit your fine detail work. Too thin, and it won’t adhere to the hair. 


6. Avoid Balay-Blobs
If you use too much product, you run the risk of an uneven application. To avoid “balay-blobs,” there should only be a tiny bit of product—hardly any—on the brush. Start the application on the midshaft.  Feather it upward to blend. As you work downward, create a v-shape by running the brush along the sides of the section and gradually applying it a bit heavier at the ends.  Apply only to the surface—the strand should not be saturated.


7. The Price of Art
Balayage takes practice to perfect, and you’re charging for your artistry and your expertise.  “So I charge the same amount,” says George, “whether I’m putting in 12 foils or 25.”


8. Remember What the Client Sees
The three places the client sees are around the face, on the ends in front and along the part.  “She doesn’t care about the back,” declares George. “So if you’re in a hurry, focus most of your time and effort on these areas. The rest doesn’t matter. And, in the face-frame sections, you can place the highlights closer to the roots.”


9. Big Red
When balayaging a redhead, don’t overdo it. The predominant color should still be red.  Otherwise, the red will look great for the first one or two services, then suddenly it’s blonde! 



10. A Little Goes A Long Way
“I generally highlight every 3 months,” says George. “In between, I do root touchups and gray coverage if necessary. My clients don’t get bands with these techniques and the hair stays healthy.”


11. Make the Shift
If you’re shifting a foil highlight client to balayage, first even out some of the color with a demi-permanent, then do the balayage highlights. And what’s the best way to shift a foil “addict” to balayage highlights? “Show her a photo of a Victoria’s Secret model,” suggests George. “No girl in the world will say, ‘No I don’t want to look like that!’”


12. Brassy Hair = Bad
If you’re encountering brassiness on dark hair, the answer may be to do fewer highlights. You don’t need as many—the lighter pieces will automatically look cooler next to the dark base.  Also, be sure to lift the hair enough to break through the underlying warmth, but not too much or the hair will look streaky.


13. Heavy Lifting
How do you use balayage if your Level 3 client wants to be a super light Level 9? “First, don’t promise that you can do it all in one appointment,” says George. “Start with foils and lightener to start breaking through that dark pigment. Then, over time, you can shift her into balayage highlights.”


14. Be Social
Clients are studying sites like Pinterest and Instagram closely. “Put your work on social media!” advises George. “Every day, I get three to five new people who saw my work on Instagram. I work in New York, in Dubai. The first time I went to Dubai, I didn’t know anyone, but I was booked solid with a waiting list. They all found me through Instagram!”


15. Be the Sally or Chris of Color
“Pick one or two color techniques and do them really, really well,” says George. “Chris McMillan does two haircuts. Sally Hershberger does one. But they do them really well and they’re known for them and they charge $600 to $800 a cut.”


16. Fast But Not Careless
It’s great to be fast, but be careful not to become “mechanical.” Look at the hair as you’re working. Make judgments about every piece. When you get to sections you’ve already highlighted, be deliberate about matching and blending the new color with the existing color.  Never just work “by the numbers.”