Painting the Town as Intended: Proper lighting can maintain colors

By Jeff Gavin | Dec 11, 2023
Color and light—they are inherently connected. The wrong lighting can shift a room’s color, desaturate or sometimes completely change it. 




Color and light—they are inherently connected. The wrong lighting can shift a room’s color, desaturate or sometimes completely change it. When the finished look of a space is not what was intended, the blame game begins. A little knowledge of light’s effect on color can go a long way in maintaining the intention of color choices for walls and furnishings.

What is in a can of paint is only the first step toward achieving the perfect wall color. Lighting plays a big part in color alignment. Is this something an interior designer should be addressing? Possibly. The lighting designer—definitely. The electrical contractor—advisably.

Greg Martin serves as creative director for Kichler Lighting, Solon, Ohio. The 85-year-old company supplies indoor and outdoor lighting products to retailers, showrooms, landscape and electrical distributors. With distribution centers across the United States, Kichler’s Dallas experience center offers lighting education and training. Residential lighting is a primary focus for the company.

“Picking paint color for a room or space isn’t easy,” Martin said. “We make sure the client understands how light is going to affect color, including the temperature of the light, the intensity, the placement of that light, how it is directed, all those things. If we are discussing fixture selection, how is light diffused from that fixture? Is it direct light? Reflected light? If using a dimmer, how does intensifying the light or dimming it affect the color in the space, the feel?”

Martin believes discussions of color should happen as light design is considered.

“We do discuss Kelvin,” Martin shared. “A 2,700K light bulb achieves a warm effect. The higher you go (e.g., 3,000, 4,000 or even 5,000K) will cool the light and affect paint color. You do not want to paint and then realize the color is not reading how you want it. LED bulbs are advancing with the ability to adjust their color temperature, which is becoming a more popular feature in lighting. The consumer can change the color temperature of an integrated fixture to suit a look or a task.”

Choosing colors to affect

Peggy Van Allen is president of the Color Marketing Group, Alexandria, Va. The international association for color design professionals works to create accurate and relevant color and trend forecasts. She is also the founder of Colorfuel, Cary, Ill., which offers services including color trend forecasting, color strategies and palette development and overall color education.

Allen explained that how a color plays depends on room size, flooring color and its reflectiveness, furniture and, of course, artificial and natural lighting.

“Certain colors can shift depending on the light that’s shining on them,” Allen said. “It is called metamerism. Paint manufacturers are very aware of this phenomenon. They are very careful, especially when they are formulating the paint, but also when they’re creating the color chips that the customers might use to choose color. 

“We call colors susceptible to metamerism color ‘shifters.’ Some colors do shift and there is no way around it. Influencers include bulb choices, created shadows and the time of day beginning with cooler morning light to warmer light into the afternoon,” she said.

Behr Paint Co., Santa Ana, Calif., is a major manufacturer of paints, stains and primers for residential and commercial customers. Its Color Services provides consultation and tools for customers to explore colors, including digital color rendering of designs, physical color books with swatches and color boards that bring together a collection of colors. Light’s effect plays a role.

“As a colorist, the biggest challenge is helping people coordinate color and understand that lighting is really going to make a difference in how that color appears,” said Erika Woelfel, vice president of Color and Creative Services for Behr. “We also look at trends, what’s happening in home decor to see where color movements may be going.”

Woelfel shared that current trends in paint colors have leaned toward warmer colors. 

“The last couple of years, people were spending so much time at home as we’ve come through the pandemic,” she said. “They wanted to create these cozy, comfortable feelings. That translated into warmer colors. That has also tied into this emphasis in wellness.”

That trend is firmly represented in the company’s latest color palette, called the BioNature Collection. The color categories communicate the biophilic theme: Restorative Whites, Refreshing Botanics, Soothing Skies, Coastal Melody and Connected Earth give users a direction of what they might achieve with paint color.

Color will change under different light sources. The color temperature of a room is influenced by the direction the room is facing.


Tricky colors

“Light is intensity, it’s temperature,” Woelfel said. “Lighting absolutely changes color. It will look different under different light sources. Midday light is the coolest, but the temperature of the room is influenced by where the room is facing. If it [has] north-facing windows, it is going to be a cooler light that is coming through and so the paint colors may be impacted. Even daytime to evening light is going to look quite different against the paint color you choose.”

Woelfel added that whites can be tricky because they have distinct undertones in them. 

“Those undertones could include yellows or blues,” she said. “They can have pinks, browns or grays. If there is too much of an undertone, that can play a role. Consider a white car. You can see the white change during the day based on the properties mixed to make that white paint color. That is what the light is doing. Whites or neutrals, however, are easier to control and balance.”

Woelfel, Allen and Martin agree the use of large paint swatches or paint samples applied liberally to a wall surface is most helpful to see how a color will react to the light of the day, lamp and fixture types and overall lighting design that incorporates different color temperature, lumens, light dispersion and shadows. You may be able to offset color discrepancies with lighting inside the room.

Whites, neutrals and saturation

“I think the challenge in both whites and neutrals is educating people about the fact that every color is made up of other colors,” Allen said. “Gray, for instance, is a neutral, and a neutral is simply the neutralized version of another color. If you take a color and completely desaturate it, it becomes gray. Brown is also a neutral, but it is a neutral of either an orange or a yellow or sometimes a very warm green. So, there’s always that base color underneath. Those nuances are important to explain to customers. Light will play a role in handling undertones.”

Scientists and designers use light boxes as they develop colors to work through the right tone and color performance. Using such boxes for confirmed colors helps offer clues on how that color will react to different lamp color temperatures and lumens.

“[A light box is] a great tool, but it’s still only a starting point,” Allen said. “When you are in a space, other things in the room can either block the light or reflect color. If you put a white couch in a room with red walls and red carpet, the couch is going to look pink.”

“A space will have all sorts of light,” Martin added. “After the light box, we move into a space being designed to see it under natural light, artificial light. We see how that affects paint color, other finishes, and to what degree.”

The room where it happens

Martin emphasized that decisions with color and light must start with the intent for the space.

“Different rooms have different uses,” he said. “Rooms can also have multiple uses. Blending of light is one strategy to help balance the light and maintain a feel. Know that cooler light is going to wake you up, make you more active. It is going to allow you to focus more, too. Warmer light, say at 2,700K, will be much more soothing and relaxing. If mixing the light, you may have overhead lighting that is a cooler temperature, and then some task lighting in the room or some table lamps that are warmer lighting that you will use more in the evening. The ability to curate the light in that space to the task at hand is something we talk about with a customer.”

Such curation helps with creating a soothing feel in a hospital space, energy in a retail or restaurant space or focus in an office.

“Color can definitely create a feel when supported by the right lighting,” Martin added. “When we’re designing lighting and have a shade for a luminaire, we make sure the internal color or whatever is reflecting the light in the fixture is neutral white light so as not to shift the color temperature.”

While bringing the feel of the outdoors indoors is one current color trend, there is a surprising opposite trend, too.

“We’ve seen a lot of very light pastel colors and the white kitchens, but we’re seeing something counter, really dark blacks or really deep dark colors for walls,” Allen said. “Those can be tougher to light, but this light and dark dichotomy does evoke very strong moods and I think can go side by side.”

How color affects us is also becoming better known by the public.

“It’s helpful to understand lighting’s effect on color when you’re a contractor,” Martin said. “Paint color, lighting, decor, room size and layout are all connected. This is just one more opportunity to bring parties together in the design phase: the interior designer, the paint vendor, the electrical contractor. That is the way to balance color and light and see a vision realized.”

istock / pozitivo / Suchada Tansirimas

About The Author

GAVIN, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction and urban planning industries. He can be reached at [email protected].





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