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A cotton ball is placed under each painted section to ensure that no strands touch or displace color. (Image: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/ DC Refined)

Think Blonde Thoughts: Everything you need to know about balayage

Sitting in a stylist's chair discussing my hair has always evoked similar feelings for me as going to the dentist for a routine cleaning after you've missed the last appointment -- I'm terrified. I've had long locks my entire life, but I always know that when I go to a salon for any kind of an appointment, they are going to want to chop.

But after meeting with Nadine Matar of PR at Partners for my "pre-appointment consultation" (more on that later) I knew I could relax in the chair. Nadine was recently voted "A Blonde's Best Friend" by Washingtonian Magazine and named one of DC Magazine's "Best Trend Colorists" so my curiosity was piqued -- I wanted to test her out and see what she could really do! So off I went to see Wonder Woman Nadine (whose regulars are affectionately known as Naybots) and find out what she would do to my hair if given full control over my look.

My initial consultation-- which was more than two months before the actual appointment -- lasted about 20 minutes as Nadine asked me question after question about past hair experiences, what I did and did not want out of the appointment, how long I'd been blonde, if I'd seen any photos of hair I liked, how long I wait in between colorings and what my lifestyle is like and how that relates to how much time I have for hair maintenance. Essentially, we determined that my busy lifestyle does not leave a lot of free time to be spent at the salon (thus the way overgrown roots I often sport), but that I still desired a fashion-forward look. Nadine started using words like "melt" and "balayage" and "six-hour appointment" and I started to feel that slight sense of dentist-dread creep back in. But as she explained that melt simply referred to creating a more seamless transition between my base color and the highlights to avoid harsh lines and that balayage was essentially hand-painted highlights that allowed her to have more control over how light the shade gets, I reminded myself that I was committed to this thing, and that I was letting her have free rein.

"Consultation is key," said Nadine. "I consult with all of my clients before each cut/color no matter how long they've been clients, because I want them to have a full roadmap of what we'll be doing. Also, the appointment was going to take six hours and that is important to be prepared for."

I left PR at Partners that day so excited for August 17 -- the day I'd get my new look -- and proceeded to annoy everyone in my life counting down the days until my hideous roots would be gone and I'd emerge from my cocoon a beautiful blonde butterfly.

Honestly, I was so focused on the coloring process that I didn't even have time to think about what she'd want to do to the length of my hair. But we weren't 10 minutes into the actual appointment when Nadine said "So let's talk cut." I of course launched into my spiel about how we should definitely give it a trim and I'd be ok with cutting it a bit to make it healthy again, but that I like my long hair. Instead, we chopped off eight inches!

"I knew immediately that I wanted to give Laura a striking haircut," said Nadine. "We decided a textured lob [long bob] would be perfect for her busy lifestyle -- it's low maintenance, fashion forward, but versatile in styling options. It grows out really softly, and can be styled wavy or straight, so it looks good no matter what you do."

I am pretty sure I had a look of sheer horror (actually, I know I did by looking at this photo gallery!) on my face for the first hour as I watched the pile of my discarded hair grow larger until it rivaled my fluffy little dog in size.

Next, Nadine and her assistant Mia Saunders began the melting process to embrace my natural color, create a lot of shadows and add dimension to my color. That was one of the things I was most excited about -- having a color that wasn't a solid shade from root to tip. After pulling the melt down incrementally, it was time for the first wash of the day before moving on to balayage. This was definitely the most intricate and time consuming part of the process, as Nadine focused on adding bright pieces around my face to balance out the shadowing created with the melt. Since balayage highlights are not typically done in foil, the stylist can be very precise about where the shade goes and how light it will be.

"Balayage is truly great for all hair colors, but particularly for anyone with naturally darker hair who goes blonde and wants to keep their hair really low maintenance," said Nadine. "It's a great intro to coloring without having to go through the time consuming and pricey process of upkeep."

The last hour or so of the six-hour appointment was spent putting the final touches on, and I wasn't allowed to look in the mirror until the big reveal; I was itching in anticipation! After the last trims were made and my hair was blown out, I was spun around in the chair to face the mirror and had my "ta-da moment." I was flabbergasted at what a change had been made; as I told Nadine, I have never liked a haircut right away and this was a huge change for me, but it was instantaneous love!

Nadine left me with a few reminders to help keep the hair as healthy and fresh as it was that day -- aka things I was doing completely wrong before!

  1. No sleeping with hair in a bun-- it causes pulling at your roots
  2. No flipping your hair upside down when blowdrying -- it only encourages frizz
  3. No drugstore shampoo -- "Think of products as the insurance for your hair," said Nadine. "If you are going to invest in something, you want to protect it from the start."
  4. And most importantly, never ever straighten your hair until it is completely, bone dry -- again, this can cause hair breakage leaving you with dull, brittle strands

For more detailed information about the hair process, click through our photo gallery above and watch our melting/balayage tutorial with Nadine.

Editor's Note: Nadine is not currently accepting new clients, but PR at Partners as a salon is known for excellence in trendy coloring techniques such as balayage and melting. If you are looking to make an appointment for customized coloring, we recommend asking for Winston Thompson, Michael Uriarte, Marybeth Wood, Terri Fe or Stacy Cardona.