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Don't Be in the Dark: See How Light Affects Color

by Kate Smith, Color Expert and Trends Forecaster

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 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.

Colorful Craftsman Exterior

Southern light adds to the warmth and beauty of this home's exterior. The Tahoe-Variblend shake roof from DaVinci Roofscapes interacts with and shows off a range of hues in this light.

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 comes from a northern direction can cast a cool, blue to gray tint on the objects it washes over. Northern light is indirect and can make colors appear darker and less saturated. Keep this in mind as you look at a sample of paint, roofing or other materials you are using on a home's exterior. For homes facing north you will want to make sure the color you select comes to life once it is on your home.

You will need to compensate for the lighting by choosing colors for the roof and siding that are slightly lighter than what you want the color to look like once it is on the home. For the front door or other accent colors on a home that faces north, you can achieve the look you desire with a color that is slightly more intense. Inside the home, colors that work best with northern light are light in value and clear or bright rather than grayed or muted.

One of the nice things about selecting colors for a northern exposure is that it is the most diffused light and remains quite consistent throughout the day. This is why with northern light, colors both inside and out will look basically the same throughout the day.

On the other hand, homes with a southern exposure will benefit from beautiful warm light. However, midday the light can become very intense or glaring. To solve this problem on the interior, use colors that are muted with a bit of grey to absorb some of the intense light so the room feels more comfortable.

On the exterior choose colors that won't look washed out in the strong noontime sun. It is extra important to get samples of the colors and look at them throughout the day (or better yet over several days) to make sure the colors are not too bright in the early morning or late afternoon light.

Like southern light, western exposure is also warm. It casts a yellowish orange light that changes throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. This light is softer and more yellow in the morning, moving to intense and reddish orange in late afternoon.

Colors that are warm and not too muted or grayed can work well. Brown and warm earthy colors come to life in southern light. When using blue and green, the shades that are warmer can also work well both inside and out.

Light that comes from eastern exposure is soft and can be bluish or yellowish depending on your location. It is neither as cool as northern light nor as warm as southern or western light. Light pouring into a home from the east enhances lighter colors.

Incandescent vs. Fluorescent Light

Notice how blue can appear in different lights. You might have to adjust your screen to better see the light cast onto the rectangles.

The Effects of Artificial Light

Artificial light supplements natural light, so it can be important for you to know, when selecting colors, how a space will be lit. 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 bands close to daylight. Incandescent lighting produces a yellowish light.

When thinking about how 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 casts warm light that can enhance reds, oranges and yellows; cool fluorescent light works best with blues, violets and greens.

Look at the Colors in Context

When you know how lighting affects color, it can help you to understand why a color doesn't always look exactly as you would have expected it to look. Of course, keep in mind that lighting is only one factor among many that can change how a color appears. Other factors include atmospheric impact, the texture of the surface, and the adjacent colors, to name a few.

That is why it is important to make decisions about color while looking at exactly where you plan to use a color... and at different times of day. The more you know about how other factors can change color, the better your chances of finding a color you will be pleased with for your home.