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Natural Light and Paint Color – What You Need To Know

Color Bud, Lynne Whiteside, left this comment on a previous post:

“Please point me in the direction of affects of natural light on wall color. North, South, East, and West all have their own reflective color and I need more information. Thanks a million.”

Here’s my answer to Lynne:

The popular cut-n-paste on the web goes something like this:

  • North = Blue
  • South = Yellow
  • East = Green
  • West = Orange

Seen this interpretation or some rendition of it repeated many times on many paint and color websites – just in general across the web, and even a few books if I remember right. Doesn’t mean it’s correct information though.

We can to an extent predict certain color affects and color characteristics based on fenestration – but only to an extent.  I have been known to speak to directional light in somewhat the same manner, i.e. north light spills in, it doesn’t beam directly in and because of that fact its dim qualities can read bluish. But that’s not the whole story.

We have to remember properties of inherent light will affect surface colors and produce effects sometimes foreseen, sometimes not. However, surface colors can not affect the properties of inherent light.  Unless there are extenuating circumstances like über strong or day-glo-esque wall colors adding robust reflection to the atmosphere.  (insert small pause to think about that one)

Masquerading Suns

When it comes to wall color as you’ve inquired, our objective is not necessarily to assign the cardinal and intermediate directions a mask of hue. And then attempt some kind of unnatural mental color mixing gymnastics. An example of mental color mixing might go something like this: If north light is blue and I use a yellow wall color, the room will look green. It simply does not work that way.

Because, hypothetically, we’re taking an additive color quality, blue light, and saying it will defy the laws of physics and *mix* together with a subtractive surface color, yellow paint, and literally out of thin air reveal itself as green. That’s ridiculous. Or, another example: In order to alter perceived blueness of north light, use the complement of blue which would be an orange paint color to counter it.

Natural Light and Paint Color

What does work is paying attention, focusing, and finding the right wall color to partner with the quality and quantity of light you have to work with.  Here is what’s key.  It’s about a color’s nuance syncing up with the beams, the wavelengths of light in the space. When the nuance and light make a good pairing, they can dance on forever. Even as the sun’s position in the sky changes throughout the day, and the quantity and quality of said inherent light also changes, they will find a way to gracefully waltz through every hour, every minute, every second of every day.

Color and light are exclusive partners.  And often as designers we screw up that relationship by trying to force a wall color on a room because of a rug or some other “inspiration” piece or pulling a color from a favorite pair of sweat pants, or someone’s hair color, or some other thing.

If primary focus was placed on fitting the room with color instead of how well the sweat pants fit, I have to wonder what would happen.

17 thoughts on “Natural Light and Paint Color – What You Need To Know”

  1. I love how you called it mental colour mixing gymnastics. So true! I would love to hear more about what you mean on the last sentence. I certainly focus a lot of my expertise on pulling a room together with colour. I see way too many rooms where that has clearly NOT been the focus, therefore the colour doesn’t work at all, in my opinion, is not doing it’s job.

  2. Hi Lori,

    I engage in mental color mixing but certainly not gymnastics. Can’t do a back flip, but I can walk the balance beam. When dealing with light I don’t mix light and surface color to achieve a desired hue, but I do use it to warm it up or cool it down. Can you please elaborate more on North light “spilling in” or direct me to a source. Thanks!

  3. Hi Lori,
    Donald Kauffman, Taffy Dahl and Christine Pittel, in “Color and Light Luminous Atmospheres for Painted Rooms” say: “Light not only colors a room, a room can also color the light. Red paint on a wall actually tints the atmosphere red. A full spectrum of complementary colors re-creates the white light found in nature.”
    Would you disagree with this?

  4. EB, north exposure is not direct rays of sunlight. Very different from south light beaming into your kitchen almost all day long, or the morning sun bursting through your east facing bedroom windows at the break of day.

    North light isn’t necessarily reflecting or bouncing off of something else to get inside the space, it’s just that when your windows face north you don’t have actual, direct beams of light entering fenestration.

    North light is the most balanced from a spectral distribution perspective, it has a nice, even collection of all the wavelengths though it tends to be heavier in the blue range. Because it’s a balanced bundle of wavelengths and also because it is not a direct beaming, or spot-light effect of natural light, north facing rooms are ideal for any kind of artistic work environment.

  5. “Light not only colors a room, a room can also color the light. Red paint on a wall actually tints the atmosphere red. A full spectrum of complementary colors re-creates the white light found in nature.”

    Debra, I do disagree with specific parts of that statement. There is ample opportunity for discussion and debate in my opinion.

  6. The first color job I had the living room was painted a light green, the room had a Western exposure. No sun in the am at all. In the morning I would stop by before my retail job, early in the am. The green looked beautiful, and I was so proud. When I would go back in the evening and the sun was going down in the West & the room had lots of light the green had turned to an ‘alright’ taupe, I was amazed.

    So my mental gymnatics said that the orange light from the West, hit the green wall, and what, made a muddy hue? I know, it really is trial and error.

    Thanks for ALL the info, I will bookmark this and read over and over. I’m now having to rethink my last consultation where I suggested light blue in an Eastern exposure room. ARGGG….

  7. A reader sent another excellent example from Farrow & Ball.The problem is we expect paint companies to be at the top of the food chain when it comes to all things paint and color knowledge. And they should be. In this case it looks like they skimmed the forums and www in general and tried to piece together something respectable about natural light and geographic exposures. Unfortunately, they miss on a few points. I wonder if you can spot the errors too?

    Farrow & Ball Paint Color
    Back to the food chain issue. Paint companies are looking to interior designers as a resource. That’s wrong – they’re making a mistake by reaching down the consumer food chain to interior designers and “signature color looks” for innovation.

    Interior Designers et al are paint companies’ customers and the level of color knowledge and expertise they (paint companies) have to offer should exceed the average designer’s color knowledge base.

    Right now paint companies’ offerings for color knowledge is only as good as the designer(s) they can get to hop on board the paint train. And that should be of concern to all of us who really care about and need real color expertise.

  8. Do you have any suggestions on picking a color in a room where you have only artificial light? I have two small, south-facing bathrooms. Both have windows, yet if you didn’t turn on the light, it would be dark in there. Thanks.

    1. Hi Liz,

      An excellent color strategy for super low, low light rooms due to something obstructing the light from reaching into the space, is to use a paint color that is mixed full spectrum. Full spectrum color means a representational amout of each spectral hue is included in the formula. Most importantly, black colorant is never included in a full spectrum color formula. Of course a lighter value color, like a buttercream, is going to propagate what light you do have to work with far better than a dark navy blue.

  9. “Interior Designers et al are paint companies’ customers and the level of color knowledge and expertise they (paint companies) have to offer should exceed the average designer’s color knowledge base.”

    So True!!!

  10. Just checked out F&B site. Funny – the light section doesn’t bother me as much as the “neutral” color section. What does this even mean?

    “Cool grey tones will give you a more hard edged contemporary feel, but with a slight underlying warmth.”

  11. Well, I am particularly sensitive to the light thing so that’s what I decided to comment about.

    But glad you brought up the neutral thing — it doesn’t read well or make proper sense. It’s another example of paint companies with the wrong people in the wrong places. And this is Farrow & Ball – have to admit I expected better.

    And, yep, the Color Marketing folks and Interior Designers have been the ONLY resource paint companies had to turn to.

    I remember Frank making very subtle comments at one of the seminars I attended. He remarked about how IACC members need to be more front and center as the qualified and valuable resource that they are.

    It’s taken me years to figure out what he meant, but I think I get it now.

  12. Thanks Lori. I was thinking about one Aura color and one C2 color. I think the C2 is full spectrum, but am not sure if Aura is.

    1. C2 is a multi-pigmented brew of color – there’s a total of 16 colorants in their *rack* to shoot into base. That’s not to say 16 colorants go into every can, but they use more than other “regular” brands i.e. Valspar, etc. Aura is not full spectrum. Altho the final finish of Aura delivers a very sophisticated hand (as they say). I’m fond of Aura Matte to be exact. C2 and Aura are both top shelf choices. If the color sings in the low light, then it sings and is a good fit.

  13. This is the best post Ever…I reread it all the time. Thanks Lori, maybe you can comment on what seems like ‘challenging times’ for color consultants. I’m hoping Spring will start some momentum.

  14. Niki, unifiedspace

    What a great site you have here. I love your no nonsense and succinct approach to colour. Its great to read solid information about colour and I’ve been a fan of your podcasts for a while. Delighted to have found your new site. Be in touch, Niki

  15. Hi
    I would like to be an interior designer with an excellent grasp of colour. I am a newbie & I’ve been reading F & B to learn more – seems like the wrong thing to do. I would be grateful for reading/ book recommendations. I have also been reading the Munsell website & now I’ve found the land of colour. Thanks.

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