Light Affects Colors

To understand how different types of light affect color, you have to know a little about what light is, how it works, and its relationship to color.

Light is one of the many waves found on the electromagnetic spectrum. Other waves on the spectrum include ultraviolet, radio, microwaves, and x-rays. What differentiates light from the others is that it is the only one that the human eye can detect.

All of the colors we see are a byproduct of spectrum light, as it is reflected off or absorbed into an object. An object that reflects all of the light rays will appear white, which absorbs all of the light beams, black.

Millions of other colors are a combination of light rays absorbed and reflected. Grass, for example, absorbs all colors except the ones that make up its color of green.

The Effects of Natural Light

Natural light can vary greatly depending on the weather, the season, the time of day, the sun's position in the sky, the location of the building, and where a room is within the building. Understanding these factors can help you to anticipate how natural light will affect colors.

The light entering a room from the north casts a cool, bluish tint on the walls. Northern light is indirect and can make colors appear darker and less saturated. You may want to compensate by considering a paint color that is a bit lighter or slightly more intense. Lighter values and clean, clear hues rather than muted or greyed ones often work best in rooms with northern exposure.

The colors best for rooms with southern exposure are medium value, toned, muted, or greyed colors. Paint colors for rooms with either eastern or western exposures are warmer and less muted than those for southern exposure.

The color of northern light is the most diffused light. It remains relatively consistent throughout the day, which is why the colors of your paint and fabrics in a room with a northern exposure will look the same color throughout the day. When the same paint and materials are in a room with an east, west, or southern exposure, their appearance will change from morning to evening.

Rooms with southern exposure benefit from beautiful warm light, but it can be too intense or glaring. To solve this problem, use colors that are muted with a bit of grey to absorb some of the light making the room feels more comfortable.

The light that comes from an eastern or western exposure is also warm. It cast a yellow to orange-yellow or red-orange tint that will change throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. Light is softer and yellowish in the morning, shifting to intense and orange or reddish in the late afternoon. Using warmer and less muted colors will help paint work even when the sun is not streaming in.

The Effects of Artificial Light

Artificial light supplements natural light, so you need to know how the room's lighting when selecting colors. The type of artificial lighting in an area influences how a color looks. Some of the most common sources are fluorescent and incandescent light bulbs, halogen bulbs, and LED lighting.

Halogen lighting is nearly white and the closest to natural light on a clear day around noon. Fluorescent lighting is more bluish, although now some fluorescent bulbs produce a light band close to daylight. Incandescent lighting has a yellowish light.

When thinking about how your lighting and colors work together, consider that warm, yellowish light can intensify warm colors and mute cooler hues, while cool bluish light does the opposite. For example, incandescent lighting cast a warm glow that can enhance reds, oranges, and yellows; Cool fluorescent light works best with blues, violets, and greens.

The value and intensity of colors are affected by the amount of light, too. In lower light, colors appear darker and less intense. As you increase the amount of light, the value lightens, and the intensity increases until you reach its actual color. Just keep in mind that too much light can make a color appear less saturated or washed out.

While you can understand how light affects color, choosing colors that will work in a particular lighting situation is still not an exact science. The best way to find the right color is to view a large sample of the paint color or material in the space where you plan to use it and look at it in the actual lighting conditions of the room during different times of the day.

Always look at the sample in the same plane as you plan to apply it. For example, view wall paint vertically, not flat on the floor or table; view rug or carpeting color flat on the floor. You can see how the color is affected by the light hitting it at the right angle and make the perfect color choice.

Read Time: 4 min
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  • Alan kc says:

    When light reduced, the color will change from saturation to it’s complementary color. Eg Yellow will change to Orange, Red, before becoming it’s complementary color Voilet. The intensity reduced accordingly.

    • Kate Smith says:

      Interesting point, Alan. Thanks for sharing.

  • kimmy Kervel says:

    thanks for sharing this is informative and useful for me and also for my upcoming project as well so i hope you to add some more in future also

  • kimmy kervel says:

    i am really glad to know about artificial led lighting and this is really helpful for me and also for my upcoming project. hope you add some more in future also

  • Aora says:

    To whoever is reading this:
    How would you describe to a person who can only see black and white, what color looks like

    • Chris P says:

      Apply it to other senses. It’s like the smell accompanied to taste. It might smell great but then tastes lightly different. And like food can bring up memories, colour can evoke emotional responce.

  • Ann Hollo says:


    • Kate Smith says:

      I enjoyed your comment, Ann. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about color.

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