How To Choose the Perfect Paint Color? Look at The Light

updated May 4, 2019
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(Image credit: Nasozi Kakembo)

Paint color and light go hand in hand, and are a complex couple. Your paint color will look different depending on the light that it’s exposed to. The tricky part is this: light is never consistent and how it shines depends entirely on time and context. Learn the different light variables, and how color responds, and you are well on your way to becoming a paint master of the universe.

Consider these factors each time you head to the hardware store to pick up your paint chips, and when testing sample paints at home:

(Image credit: Rebecca Bond)

ROOM DIRECTION: One of the first factors to consider is whether the room you are painting is exposed to sunlight from the north, south, east, and west.

  • North: The light of north-facing rooms is less direct throughout the day, and consistently cooler. If you want to warm it up, compensate by painting the room warmer colors. Or, you might want to also just go with it, paint it a dark, cozy shade, and make it a library or den. Whites, on the other hand, tend to turn dingy and dull.
  • South: Conversely, southern-facing rooms get more light throughout the day, and are the sunniest place in the home. Colors are intensified in these rooms so, if you don’t want the room feel too energetic, offset those warm rays by going with softer, cooler hues.
  • East: East facing rooms get most light in the morning, and it’s more yellow. If you plan on using that room later in the day or evening, choose a warmer palette to offset the lack of natural light.
  • West: As the sun sets, west-facing rooms benefit from its rays. While on the dull side in the morning, the same room will have a warm glow in the evening. If you work the night shift and sleep in a bedroom with west windows, think about toning down the light with cooler paint colors. Warmer tones might be overwhelming that time of day.

Tip: Before you do anything, check on what direction your room faces, so you can keep all these factors in mind when choosing paint. Check Google Earth if you aren’t sure.

(Image credit: Bethany Seawright)

TIME OF DAY: As sun moves across the sky each day, it changes dramatically in intensity and direction. Longer shadows in the late afternoon or evening can affect the color perception. Colors will look differently as a result.

  • Morning: Early light has a mixture of warm colors and give paint a luminous glow.
  • Afternoon: At noon, light is decidedly bluer. At the peak of sunlight, color can get washed out.
  • Evening: As the sun approaches the horizon again near sundown, the light becomes warmer.

Tip: Evaluate your paint swatches at different times of day to make sure you see just how the color will change over time. Also, move the paint swatches around to different areas in the room, or paint multiple swatches on different sections of the walls.

(Image credit: Bethany Nauert)

TYPE OF LIGHTBULB: Different artificial light will all have a different relationship with your walls and ceilings. Since a lot of stores (especially big ones like Home Depot) mostly use fluorescent bulbs (unlike regular homes) the discrepancy is often pronounced, and therefore disappointing. That’s why, when you get paint home, it often looks completely different than it did in the store. The good news is that the type of light bulbs available in stores has changed a lot over the years, so you have more options to control their effects on the room in question. Here’s are some general differences.

  • Incandescent: Warmer light that enhances red, yellows, and oranges. Downplays cooler colors.
  • Fluorescents: Cooler light that enhances blues and greens, and diminishes warmer hues.
  • LEDs: More flexible than the other bulbs and looks good with most paint colors.
  • CFLs: Depends on the bulb, so check the Kelvin rating. The lower the number, the warmer the bulb. Full spectrum bulbs mimic daylight.
  • Halogen: Also closely resembles daylight, and makes colors stand out more.

Tip: Turn on various lights — even if it’s still light out — to see how they affect color. If you are in the middle of a renovation, try to have the lights installed before the painting happens.