Tips for Choosing Paint: How Light Affects Color


Tips for Choosing Paint: How Light Affects Color

Should the orientation of a room--north, south, east, or west--relate to the colors used to decorate? To answer these questions, we need to talk about color temperature, an important characteristic of visible light.

Measuring Color Temperature

Color temperature is basically the “hue” of light, and is measured in Kelvin degrees. This measurement process is illustrated via a black piece of metal that heats up until it glows, also known as a black-body radiator. At first, the black-body radiator emits a dull red light, but with the increase in heat, this light gradually turns yellow, then white, and finally blue. So, in the inverse, a cooler light has a higher Kelvin value.

Candle light has a temperature  of about 1900 K and is quite orange; tungsten lamps have a yellow-white glow and a temperature of about 3,200 K. Fluorescent and energy-efficient bulbs tend to have a mild greenish tinge (4500 K), while the sun at midday has a white light (5500 K);  the darker  it gets, the cooler (i.e. blueish)  the light color becomes.

Paint Colors for the North, South, East, and West

Daylight’s temperature varies dramatically depending on the weather, the season, the time of day, and the location on Earth. For example, if you're moving to Eugene, Oregon, a warmer paint tone can counter the rainy weather.

In general, though…


Rooms facing north receive a limited amount of cold, bluish light; this means that all shades of blue will be intensified.

If you want to maximize light, go for pale neutrals with a yellow or red undertone and try to avoid colors with a gray base. Grays will make the room appear dull and gloomy. You can also go the opposite way  and decorate the room with deep shades of purples, reds or dark blues to create a dramatic, intimate mood.

Northern light stays pretty constant during the day, so the colors you choose won’t change too much.


Rooms facing south receive large amounts of warm light. These rooms are the easiest to decorate because southern light meshes well with both cool and warm colors, plus it doesn’t change much during the day–like northern light.

Keep in mind that light coming from the south makes colors appear very bright, so you can achieve an energetic mood even with muted colors.


Rooms facing east receive plenty of light in the morning as the sun rises across the sky. However, the amount of light decreases as the day proceeds into the afternoon. 

Eastern light appears bluish and as solar noon passes it appears even cooler, so it’s best to use cool colors like greens and blues, and off-whites with a blue or green undertone.

If your bedroom faces east, keep in mind that the color you choose will appear very bright in the morning and duller in the evening; unless you have black-out blinds or shutters, sunrise might make the room too bright, especially in summer. The opposite applies to kitchen and dining areas facing east, where a bright color can create a vibrant, energizing mood for the start of the day.


Rooms facing West receive sunlight in the afternoon, so here the light will change from cooler in the morning to warmer in the afternoon. You can maximize light using neutrals with either cool or warm undertones. Gray undertones will work well too, although they will look cooler in the morning and warmer in the afternoon.

Remember that light also changes with the seasons, not just because there’s less available light in winter, but also because the quality of the light changes and becomes cooler, causing the look of some interiors to alter dramatically.

In particular, west-facing rooms will be very bright and filled with light during the summer, but during the winter they’ll receive very little light since the sun sets so early. The same is true for east-facing rooms, which will receive more light during summer mornings then during the winter

The Influence of Artificial Light

This is another important point to remember: The qualities of any artificial light in the room. In general, fluorescent bulbs and energy-efficient bulbs tend to give off a greenish tint, although some types of fluorescent lights have been improved in the last decades and are now designed to convey a more pleasing warmth. Halogen and L.E.D. lights generally emit the brightest and whitest light, which can be harsh in excess, especially when paired with bold walls.

How Should You Choose a Paint Color for a Room?

First of all, when you’re selecting a room’s new color, never choose based on the color you see on the tin! The context of the tone on a store shelf is entirely different, and the printed representation may not even be correct. 

Get a few paint cards from various suppliers and look at them in the actual room that you’re going to paint, both in daylight and at night with artificial light. This is not enough information for your final decision, though. They’re still small and may not reflect like the actual paint product.

Once you’ve picked your favorite colors, buy small sample pots of paints and paint them on a board. You want the size to be sufficient, at least 8 x 12 inches. Some suppliers even sell A4 handy cards that come pre-painted in their color range.

Move the boards around the room and see how the colors look during the day. Once again, it’s important to do this both in daylight and under artificial lighting. Check also how the colors look with the floor and furniture present in the room.

A Few More Paint Considerations

Before you decide on a color, consider the amount of the shade. If you paint all of the walls in a room in the same color, the color will be intensified. A blue color will look bluer, a red redder, and so on.

If you decide to paint a feature wall in a different hue check carefully to see how the two colors work together. Also, consider the tones of any adjoining rooms that can be seen through open doors. A different color scheme’s intrusion can change the overall effect.

Finally, decide what finish you prefer. Keep in mind that gloss finishes reflect light and make colors look brighter, while matt finishes reflect less light and make the colors appear more muted. If you like shine but adding it to entire walls is a bit too much for your bright room, consider adding the tone to the decor instead. A table finished with epoxy resin for wood is a solid choice.

Last but not least: your existing paint color will affect the appearance of the color you choose, especially if you’re lightening the room. So, unless your walls are already white, first paint them with a white primer.

Those are the basics for choosing paint colors based on the light that enters your home. These rules and guidelines will steer you toward beautiful choices, but the ultimate marker of a good color choice in your own eyes. Pick a shade that makes you feel great.

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