How Light Affects Colour Schemes

Why does the same colour look great in one room, and forbidding in another? Find out how to choose the right colours for every room.

By Sarah Warwick


If the paint looks good in the tin, why does it end up making your room look small and gloomy? How we see colour depends on the light - and this in turn is dependent on many factors including the orientation of the room, the size of the space, the furniture you use and so on. Discover how to size up your space so you never get stuck with the wrong colour again.

Step One: Note Which Way Your Room Faces

This is an often-neglected element of decorating, but it really is vital to know because the quality of the light is different according to whether the room faces north, south, east or west. A different quality of light could mean, for example, that a neutral that looks stylish in your hall looks grey and dingy in your living room.

North-facing rooms have cold light, and it's more limited. However, it will be a steady light that doesn't alter much, so your colour won't look vastly different as the day goes on.

South-facing rooms have plentiful, warmer light, and allow you to use colours that feel warm or cool.

East-facing rooms will receive sunlight in the mornings, so the light is going to appear warmer then cooler as the day proceeds.

West-facing rooms will receive sunlight in the afternoons, so as with east-facing rooms the light will change - here from cooler to warmer.

Step Two: Pick Colours That Work With The Room's Orientation

Colour can create the mood you want in your room - energetic, relaxing, formal, for example - but you will need to work with the room's orientation in picking the right tone of colour.

North-facing rooms need light colours if you're going to make the most of the natural light available. Choose those with a warm note to them: pale yellow or pink and neutrals or whites with a creamy base rather than a grey one will make the light in the room feel warmer.

Alternatively, you can accept that you're going to have to rely on artificial light in a north-facing room, and use a deeper colour that has its own qualities such as a rich red or purple, both of which will generate warmth and intimacy.

South-facing rooms are easy in that you can pick colours that feel naturally warm (reds, oranges, yellows), or those that are naturally cooler (green, blue, violet) because of the light.

Be aware, though, that with the sunshine pouring in colours might look dazzling, so you might want to lay off the pure whites, as well as considering the effect of brightening up already warm shades. Here, you can create an energetic mood with less bold colourways.

East-facing rooms need to take into account the effect of the morning sun. In a bedroom, you may not want to choose a colour that comes too vividly to life at sunrise if you don't have black-out blinds if this isn't your preferred time to wake up!

In a kitchen-diner, though, you might want to take advantage of the combination of the morning light and a warm colour that will energise the space at the start of the day.

West-facing rooms that are largely used in the afternoon can be decorated in neutrals that are grey or cream-based or even pink-tinged to create a spacious feel. Alternatively, go for cool colours that will work well in the warm light as the day goes on. Paint a large section of lining paper with your proposed colour and hang it on the wall to test its effect before you commit.



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