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Color, Light, Action - How Lighting affects Color in Design & Décor

Updated on March 14, 2015

Have you ever found a fabric that looked great in a store, happily purchased it for your home, and then be dismayed to see the warm camel upholstery fabric turn khaki green on your living room couch? You are neither color blind nor crazy – you just had an unfortunate encounter with metamerism! Essentially lighting affects how we see colorand understanding how this works is critical to interior design and decorating.

In the above case, if you picked the upholstery fabric under incandescent lighting in the store but have fluorescent fixtures at your house, you could be in for a disappointment. Here is a visual simulation of what a fabric can look like under different types of lighting. Bear in mind that colors look different in real life than that displayed in the monitors, so what you see will only be an approximation.

In this example the fabric that was a warm camel color under incandescent lighting would actually show up looking taupe under daylight, and acquire a greenish caste when seen in cool fluorescent lighting. Throw in the complex interplay between reflected colors from furnishings, wall, window and floor coverings in a room and you’ll appreciate why it’s best to select materials under correct lighting in the actual space. To make things more complicated, the brain compensates for color differences after a few seconds, so you shouldn’t spend too long staring at the colors when evaluating them either. It may be helpful to keep in mind that colors most likely to have metameric issues are: taupe, mauve, lilac, tan, celadon, gray blues, and grays.

With the push for energy conservation, the efficacy and low cost of fluorescent light bulbs have made them the most popular replacement option for incandescent A-lamps. But as shown above, it is important to know how to work with fluorescent lighting to avoid unpleasant surprises. The availability of fluorescent light bulbs with electronic ballasts in an array of color temperatures mean you can have dimmable, flicker free lighting in a nice selection of colors – if you choose wisely!

The super efficient LED lamps are available in a wide range of colors and easily dimmable. The LED lighting system’s ability to create light shows with continuously changing colors adds to its appeal. LEDs have made great strides toward fulfilling their promise as replacement for fluorescent fixtures, but concerns about reliability and cost remain. I expect once the technology matures and production achieves economy of scale, both issues will be taken care of.

Though rarely considered, the presence of windows or skylights in a room will also affect color. When a space is exposed to daylight, the quality and quantity of light will vary depending on orientation, season, and time of day. In such cases, it’s unlikely that you’ll find a color that is perfect under all circumstances. As an interior designer, I always advise my clients to have a portable sample of the selected color, live with it for a few days, view it under different lighting conditions on all the walls, and make their decision based on when and where they want the color to look its best.

For example, cornflower yellow paint in a kitchen with western exposure can give a cheerful glow in the morning but turn into a glowing glare bomb in the afternoon. In such a situation, window shading becomes an important part of the solution. Obviously you can use window coverings to shut out all the offending light, but a more flexible approach is to filter sunlight through window treatments while using dimmers to control the lighting fixtures in the space.

Bear in mind that the second largest surface in a room is the floor, there are a couple ways to use it to modulate colors. In the case of the yellow kitchen, if you choose a dark flooring, most of the incident light is absorbed by it and the blinding glare is reduced. Secondly, as the light bounces off the kitchen floor, it infuses the space with the reflected color. For example installing a large expanse of blue slate will reflect grayish blue tones back into the room, which in turn will alter the color dynamics of the space.

In summary, color is not a constant – it is affected by the light it is seen under, be it natural or manmade. With that understanding, you can use light as a tool – either powered by the sun or the latest in lighting technology – to alter the perception of color and shape your environment accordingly!


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