How Lighting Affects Paint Color

calander Jan 31 , 2023 user-icon Nash Painting

Choosing paint colors is fun, right? There’s so much potential, room for new ideas, drastic transformations, and updates. But it’s also tricky because there are, well, so many options… Even if you think you want to paint a wall white, you’re suddenly faced with 10 million varieties, plus sheens, from warm and yellowish to crisp and bright.

It’s a lot.

That’s why so many homeowners are tapping into professional color and design consultations, getting expert help as they navigate both the art and the science of color selection. In fact, as a professional Nashville painting company, we’ve leaned on local expertise too. Take a look here for helpful info shared by our friends at Karen Goodlow Designs: How Do I Choose the Right Paint Colors for My Home or Business?

If you really want to tackle it yourself, we have a couple tips. Specifically, we’re going to focus on an illuminating topic: how lighting in your home affects your paint colors.

Pro tip! Use paint color samples, not color swatches

Before we get too nerdy with paint, here’s a really practical suggestion: don’t choose colors by a paint swatch alone. That’d be like picking a new car by looking at a photo in a magazine. You need to get in it, see how it feels, how it drives, and make sure it has legroom (for you more practical readers). The same applies to paint. You can’t look at a tiny square under artificial light and know if you want to commit to filling your living room with that particular color.

Get some sample cans and paint big, ugly streaks on your wall. See how they treat you through the differing light in your home and make sure you love it. If you REALLY can’t handle the samples, order large designer color sheets (jumbo swatches) that can be taped up in place.

Okay, time to get nerdy.

Types of lighting to consider before painting

Let’s break it down into two main categories: natural and artificial.

Natural lighting and paint color

Obviously light increases and decreases throughout the day, from sunrise to sunset. But did you know that the direction from which that light comes has a tangible impact on how your paint looks and is perceived?

If your windows face the north, it generally warms your wall color, while light from the south tends to be more intense. In practical terms, that means that northern light will dim your paint a bit, and southern light can make colors less vivid.

If light comes in from the west, it often has a soft, warm effect late in the evening as all those sunset colors pour in, and a little dark in the morning since the sun is rising on the opposite side of your home. Flip the equation for eastern light, with vibrant mornings that add intensity to your wall colors balanced by what looks like softer tones in the evening.

So yes, your interior paint will literally change and evolve throughout the day. Just one more reason why actual color samples are so helpful!

How artificial lighting impacts your paint colors

Fluorescent is the worst type of lighting for interior paint color integrity. Harsh and synthetic, it tends to suck the color out of a room, bathing it in a cooling grayish blue. If you’re picking colors for an office environment, you can plan accordingly by choosing a palette that is less impacted.

Traditional incandescent bulbs have a much softer light, even the higher-efficiency LED versions. The thing to note here is that they’ll make your brights even brighter, so be careful if you really want that wild accent wall. Even if your color isn’t wild, just factor in the impact and brightening effect that lightbulbs will have. Your reds will be redder and oranges will be orangier.

If your space doesn’t get a lot of natural light for one reason or another, and you want to find a light source that won’t warp your more vibrant color palette, you can always opt for vintage “Edison bulbs” that give off a softer light.

Understanding color temperature

This is where things get really interesting.

Different types of light have a temperature rating in Kelvin units (K), clearly defining how warm or hot the color of that particular light is. It’s a little counterintuitive though because cooler light has a higher Kelvin rating, and warmer light is lower.

Think of it this way: those fluorescent lights we mentioned above are harsh and bright, right? But they’re also known for creating a bluish tint to everything. That’s because they have a higher Kelvin rating. Conversely, a soft, vintage Edison bulb gives off a warm yellowish glow, but that’s cooler on the Kelvin scale.

Interesting, right? It all ties back to the color spectrum, but that’s a bigger conversation.

The takeaway here is that you need to be aware of your type of lighting and how it will warm or cool the room, and how that K rating will make your walls either brighter and more vibrant or muted and cool. Intense light can kill color. Keep in mind too that not only the bulbs you choose have an impact, but also the light distribution and type of fixtures. Dispersing light more evenly across multiple fixtures has less of an immediate effect than concentrated spotlights that cause intensity in some areas but a more shadowy, darker look in others.

Keep your color undertones in mind

Undertones are the building blocks of your paint color, and they become more apparent in different levels and types of light. In other words, the light in your room will literally draw the base color (undertone) out of your wall, visually speaking. Cool light will make undertones appear blue or gray, for example, while warm light will bring out the yellows, reds, and oranges.

Again, this is why true color samples are so important. If you just rely on a swatch, you won’t know how your lighting impacts the color until it's too late. You might have a blue room on your hands all of a sudden, looking nothing like the color you fell in love with at the paint store.

What’s the takeaway?

Never underestimate the power of light! It can impact your paint’s color in drastic ways. If you really want to pick your palette yourself, rely heavily on color samples actually applied to your walls and live with them for a few days at least. If you’re stumped and all of this feels a bit technical and overwhelming, ask your painting company to partner you with a professional color consultant.

If you have more questions about interior painting here in Nashville, contact us at Nash Painting! We’d love to help you make the very most of your next project.