How Light Affects Color by Brian Santos
The secret? It’s all about the lighting. Here are some thought to help you get it right.
People have to understand that the color of an object won’t look the same 24 hours a day. The way we “see” color primarily depends on two things:
1. The light that an object absorbs
a. Black absorbs all colors
b. White absorbs none
c. Blue absorbs red
2. How light sources work
a. Natural light changes throughout the day and is affected by a room’s location
b. Artificial light changes with the type of bulb you use
Here’s how to figure out how lighting will affect your paint color choices:
How Sunlight Affects Colors
As the amount and angle of the sun changes, so will your room colors. Natural light should always be considered when choosing color for a space.
• North-facing rooms: Light in these rooms is cool and bluish. Bolder
colors show up better than muted colors; lighter colors will look subdued.
• South-facing rooms: Lots of high-in-the-sky light brings out the best in
cool and warm colors. Dark colors will look brighter; lighter colors will
• East-facing rooms: East light is warm and yellowy before noon, then
turns bluer later in the day. These are great rooms for reds, oranges and
• West-facing rooms: Evening light in these rooms is beautiful and warm,
while scant morning light can produce shadows and make colors look dull.
How Light Bulbs Affect Color
The type of bulb that is used in a room can alter the colors that are seen
reflecting from a surface.
• Incandescents: The warm, yellow-amber light of these bulbs will make reds, oranges, and yellows more vivid, while muting blues and greens.
• Fluorescents: This flat and cool light enriches blues and greens.
• Halogens: These white lights resemble natural light and make all colors look more vivid. Using halogens would make the shift from daylight to artificial light less jarring.
• Compact Fluorescent Lights: CFLs can produce either a warm white, neutral, or bluish-white light.
• Light-Emitting Diodes: You can buy warmer or cooler LEDs, and even “smart” LED bulbs whose color you can control wirelessly. With this technology they could literally select the color of the sky in a picture at sunset and make the light bulb emit that same color.
Tips for Living with Color
Try some individual test boards of the colors you're considering, and then move them around the room during the day. Apply at least two coats on boards. Look at only three colors at a time.
1. Evaluate samples against the carpet/flooring during different daylight conditions.
2. Have all lighting sources, window treatments and furnishings in or selected before selecting colors. You can get a color approximation by placing a bulb you’ll be using in a floor or desk lamp.
3. Remember that natural and artificial light will work together during certain times of day, especially in summer when dusk lasts a long time. Turn on artificial lights even during daylight to see what the colors will look like.
4. Paint sheen also affects color. Glossy finishes will reflect light and change the way the color looks, whereas flat finishes are less reflective and allow colors to look truer under bright light.
5. Light-colored walls can reflect the colors of bold carpets/flooring: A bright blue rug, for instance, can cast a bluish tone on a white wall.