Keeping Light in Mind When Choosing Paint Colors

April 7, 2013

Have you ever picked interior or exterior paint colors only to find that the shade on your walls looks nothing like the color on the chip you fell in love with in the hardware store? If you answered yes, you’re in good company. Here’s a common scenario: You’re standing in front of a display of gorgeous paint chips, grabbing handfuls of your favorites. You’re thinking that this blue or that green would be absolutely perfect in your living room. And you’re standing under industrial-strength fluorescent lights designed specifically to illuminate cavernous big box stores.

When we put it that way, maybe it’s not so surprising that both consummate DIYers and people who hire painting pros can have trouble choosing paint colors for interior and exterior walls. The problem is that the lighting in the paint department is about as far removed from the lighting in your home as you can get, and color is dependent on light. The same red, for instance, will look different under fluorescent lights, LED lights, incandescent lights, and CFLs… and in morning sunshine, afternoon glare, twilight, and on a cloudy day.

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It’s Called Metamerism

Are you ready for a quick science lesson? Objects, like the walls of your home, affect light by reflecting or absorbing light of different wavelengths. That’s color in a nutshell. A wall that absorbs most red light and reflects most blue light look blue to us. Now take two blue walls, one that absorbs most red light and one (still blue) that reflects some red light. Under certain lighting types (those with a bluish quality), these two blue walls may look almost identical, while under other forms of lighting (those with a reddish quality), the two blues will look quite different. You may have seen metamerism in action when you’ve had two items of clothing that you would swear were both black while indoors, but once you walked outside one turned out to be navy blue.

The takeaway is that light can change how we perceive a color, so you can’t ignore light when choosing paint colors. And that’s not all! The furniture in a room can impact the light, so it’s always best to consider colors in a room with the furnishings in the room. Paint finishes can also impact color – the same shade will look different in a gloss finish and a flat finish. And on top of all that, richer, brighter colors react to light differently than pale colors.

choosing paint colors

Tips for Choosing Interior Paint Colors

  • North facing rooms tend to receive cool bluish light that can intensify the depth of blue paint.
  • You’ll have the most options in south facing rooms because the warm natural sunlight these spaces receive tends to look good in any color (and won’t change much throughout the day).
  • Rooms that face east get more natural light in the morning, but it’s a cool light that will enhance greens, blues, and cooler off-white shades. Warmer colors may not look quite right after lunchtime.
  • In west facing rooms, the quality of light is cool in the morning and grows progressively warmer as the day goes on. Neutrals will look amazing here.
  • Light changes dramatically throughout the year so if you have the time, leave your color samples on the wall for a few seasons before making your final decisions.
  • Energy efficient artificial lighting tends to give off a greenish quality of light while incandescent bulbs will give off a warmer light, so choose interior paint colors accordingly. If you’re thinking of switching to CFLs or LEDs, do it before you start picking paints.

Tips for Choosing Exterior Paint Colors

  • Southern exposure means light all day, and this light can make colors appear brighter than they do on that paint chip. Even muted colors will look energetic and cheery.
  • Light coming from the north stays fairly constant throughout the day, so the exterior paint color you choose won’t change much during from morning to night.
  • East and west facing walls will receive different qualities of light in the summer and winter, which means that what looks warm in one season may seem cooler in another.
  • To maximize the brightening effects of sunlight, avoid colors with gray undertones, which can make exterior walls seem dull. Neutrals with red or yellow undertones look best in natural light.

The Best Place to Test Is the Wall

Luckily, more paint manufacturers are offering tiny sample cans – sometimes for free and sometimes for a couple of bucks – that let you paint a test patch of your favorite colors right on interior and exterior walls. That way, you can see how a given color or palette will look in the morning, at midday, in twilight, in a given season, and under artificial lighting at night before you paint the entire wall and find out that what looked like a beautiful mint green in the hardware store makes your kitchen look like a 1950s hospital. You’ll see the color as it will really look on your walls so you can decide if you really love it as much as you thought.

At Jerry Enos Painting, a Massachusetts painting company, you always receive a free, professional paint consultation that includes help choosing paint colors for your interior and exterior spaces. We understand that choosing paint colors isn’t always easy so our goal is to work with you to make sure you’re delighted with your palette. Call us for a free estimate at 978-546-6843 today to get started.

Images in this post come from Benjamin Moore – Jerry Enos Painting uses Benjamin Moore exclusively.

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