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 ultra violet, radio, microwaves and x-rays. What differentiates light from the others is that it is the only one that can be detected by the human eye.

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 back all of the rays of light will appear white; an object that absorbs all of the rays, black.

All of the millions of other colors are produced by a combination of light rays being 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 position of the sun in the sky, the location of the building and where the space is located within the building. Understanding these factors can help you to anticipate how natural light will affect a color.

Light that enters a room from the north casts a cool, bluish tint on the objects is washes over. Using clear hues rather than ones that are muted or greyed. Northern light is indirect and can make colors appear darker and less saturated so you may want to compensate by considering a paint color that is a bit lighter or slightly more intense. (Illustrations: I would show three sets of AP swatches in popular colors. Colors that work best with northern light are light value, bright and clean. Colors best for rooms with southern exposure are medium value, toned, muted or greyed colors. 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 and remains quite consistent throughout the day. This is why the colors of your paint and fabrics in a room with a northern exposure will remain the same color throughout the day than the same paint and fabrics used in a room with an east, west or southern exposure.

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

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 moving to intense and orange or reddish in late afternoon. Using colors that are warmer and less muted will help the color to work even when the sun is not streaming in.

The Effects of Artificial Light

Artificial light supplements natural light so it is important for you to know how a space will be lit when selecting colors. The type of artificial lighting in a space 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 light band that is close to daylight. Incandescent lighting produces a yellowish light.

When thinking about how your lighting and colors will 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 warm light that can enhance reds, oranges and yellows; Cool fluorescent light works best with blues, violets and greens.

The value and intensity of a color 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 true 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 sample of the actual color and material that is at least a 12” x 12” in the space where you plan to use it and look at it in the actual lighting conditions of the space during different times of the day. Always look at the sample in the same plane it will be applied. For example, view wall paint vertically not flat on the floor or table; view rug or carpeting color flat on the floor. By doing this you can see how the color is affected by the light and make the perfect color choice.

Read Time: 4 min
  • 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

  • Ann Hollo says:


    • Kate Smith says:

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

  • >