If you’ve ever visited the paint and color aisle at a major home improvement store, you know exactly how overwhelming the number of available choices can be. When subtle differences in pigmentation make for thousands of options that all amount to “blue,” how do you decide which is the right paint color for your living room?

Even with take-home paint samples, color swatches, and online color visualizer tools, choosing the right interior paint color can be a challenge for any homeowner. Coordinating the paint with furniture, the purpose of the room, and personal color preferences can be hard enough, but there is another factor that should not be overlooked: light.

Natural light, artificial light, and the shadows they create can change the look and feel of a room. For example, if you wanted a room with soothing cool tones, you may want to trade out your incandescent or halogen bulbs (which shed warm-toned, yellowish light) for florescent or LEDs (which have a pale blue cast), or the perfect shade of serene grey-blue could end up looking slightly green with the lights on.

And after all that work picking it out and painting!

To avoid dilemmas like this, consider how light influences color as well as some tips for choosing the right paint color before you select a paint.

Four Ways Lighting Can Impact Your Paint Choices

room with blue walls and ample natural light

Time of day

Throughout the day, sunlight can have different effects on the look of the paint. Morning sunlight casts a yellow light on the walls; around noon, the light becomes more of a mellow, blue color; and in the evening, the light is redder and warmer.

Sun exposure

The location of the painted room can also impact how it looks. North-facing rooms get indirect sunlight, which can look blue or gray—this makes for a cooler space. All day long, south-facing rooms tend to receive warm, natural light with a pale orange hue. In the morning, east-facing rooms get warm sunlight as well, but it is more of a yellow color. West-facing rooms get warm sunlight in the afternoon that is almost red in color.

Artificial lighting

Each type of lightbulb is unique and can alter how the paint appears. Fluorescent and LED lights cast a bluish color on the walls while incandescent and halogen bulbs produce a warm, yellowish light.

Type of paint

Paints come in a variety of finishes that interact with lighting to create different looks within rooms, including:

  • Matte: little to no sheen
  • Eggshell: subtle sheen, light that of an eggshell
  • Satin: pearl-like, medium shine
  • Gloss: distinct shine; hard finish

Glossier finishes reflect light and attract the eye, whereas more matte (also known as “flat”) paint absorbs light for a smoother, consistent look. If your walls have a lot of imperfections, choose a flatter finish, as high-gloss paint will call attention to nicks and blemishes.

Tips for a Harmonious Space

homeowner painting sample color on walls

Test the lighting conditions

A small swatch of paint can only tell a person so much. Homeowners should paint a sizable sample patch of wall space with two coats to truly determine how the color will look in the actual room throughout the day. It is also beneficial to test the paint under natural light, general lighting, and accent lighting, as well as bulb variations.

Note: Ample light opens up a room. Painting a small room with plentiful natural lighting a shade of white will make the room feel bigger, but using white in a room with little to no natural light will make the space seem even smaller.

Test the whole space

Light casts shadows, so the same color can look lighter or darker on different walls within the same space. Test the color by painting sample patches on multiple walls of the room, including spaces across from windows and in dark corners—you may be surprised by how the paint color changes.

Choose a correlating paint color

We often choose a paint color for the feeling it promotes: blues are calming; red inspires passion and energy; and yellow can make you feel cheerful. On the whole, cool colors (green, blue, and violet) tend to promote peace, while warm colors (red, orange, yellow) promote energy.

Light can either enhance or diminish the feel of a particular color. Cool tones will look cooler in north-facing rooms with fluorescent lights. Yellow walls will really pop in east-facing rooms with halogen lights, and warm-tone neutrals will feel even warmer with incandescent lights in south- or west-facing rooms.

By the same token, warm-tone paint and cool-tone lighting (or vice versa) will work against each other, so the mood you were trying to establish with a certain color may not feel exactly right under contrasting lights.

In Conclusion

Taking lighting into account when making paint choices can be illuminating. The way paint appears to a homeowner on a paint chip or in a store can be radically different from how it looks once it’s on the wall and under specific lighting conditions. To get the most pleasing color, don’t forget to consider the room’s lighting.

Did you find this article helpful? Check out these articles for more information on lighting and interior paint options: