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How to Pick a Paint Color: The Lighting Perspective

How to Pick a Paint Color: The Lighting Perspective

Posted by Chris Johnson on Jan 18th 2016


Choosing a paint color can bring out the indecisiveness in anyone. My mother is famous for this – paint samples will stay on the wall for at least six months before a decision is made.

There are a lot of great resources out there on this; How to Quit Procrastinating on Color Choice on is short, sweet, and helpful for a start. Donna Frasca's Color Expert blog is also enlightening.

I want to talk about the lighting considerations that come into play with picking paint colors. We will start with a new vocabulary word for all you Scrabble competitors. Metamerism. Heard of it? If not, you're certainly familiar with its meaning. Ever noticed how a paint color you carefully chose at the store looks completely different in your living room? Or how two seemingly black socks you put on in the morning turned into one black and one decidedly navy blue sock at the office? The effect of metamerism occurs when colors appear to change under different light conditions.

Metamerism can be used to your advantage - it's certainly interesting to have a room with a dynamic paint color that changes from sunrise to sunset, from wall to wall, and from room to room. However, it is important to be knowledgeable about how it works, so you don't end up with a fast food red hue when you were aiming for a sophisticated shade of brick.

Know How Light Exposure (North, East, South, West) Affects Colors

If the room you want to paint is north-facing, light streaming in from the windows will be indirect with a cooler/bluish tinge to it. The metameristic effect causes dark paint hues to appear darker and light paint hues to appear a little more subdued. Great options for north-facing rooms are warm, pale pinks and corals, yellow, beige, and cream – they tend to intensify the sunshine and brighten the room.

Remember that northern exposure tends to add blue to a color.

If your room has an eastern exposure, the light entering will be warm and yellow, brightest before noon. Pale colors typically look beautiful in these rooms. If you want to enhance the light, choose warm pinks, yellow, or whites; if you'd like to subdue it, go with a cool blue or green.

Remember that eastern exposure tends to add green to a color.

If your room is south-facing, the light entering will be warm and orange-yellow and can be intense at mid-day. Warm, earthy hues work well in southern exposure rooms. Dark colors tend to appear brighter. Many color experts recommend avoiding white in southern exposure rooms because it can leave the room feeling washed out.

Remember that southern exposure tends to add yellow-white to a color and can have a wash out effect.

If your room has a western exposure, light from the windows will be warm and orange-red, with the brightest light after noon.

Remember that western exposure adds warmth and an orange tinge to a color.

Know How Light Bulb Selection Affect Colors

Incandescent light bulbs

These intensify and enhance warm colors like reds/yellows. They mute and dull cool colors like blues/greens. You can use this to your advantage! Painted a room with red/yellow/orange that isn't quite the pop of color you were looking for? Intensify it with incandescent lighting. "Soft white" fluorescent light bulbs mimic the warmth that incandescent bulbs bring to the table, but can also slightly fade colors.

Standard fluorescent light bulbs

In general, these will intensify and enhance cool colors like blues/greens. They mute and dull warmer colors like reds/yellows. (Easy to remember – opposite of incandescent).

Halogen light bulbs

Halogen will tend to most closely emulate natural light and do not have as much of a metamerismic effect. They provide white, bright light.

Know How Paint Gloss Affects Colors

The higher the gloss level in your paint, the more light will reflect and bounce off its surface. Therefore, higher gloss paints versus matte paints will enrich the color.

Know the Top Metameristic Colors

Some colors are more susceptible to the effect of metamerism; namely, lavender, taupe, gray, gray-blue, and gray-green. Choose wisely!

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