Consider How Lighting Affects Color

Men laying new hardwood flooring

by Rebecca Ewing, interior designer, Rebecca Ewing Color & Design

An architect I studied under in college in the mid-1970s had designed a glorious space—cathedral ceilings, stark white walls, and ruby red carpet. It was stunningly beautiful. But every sunny afternoon, as light flooded the room, the walls turned pink.


It wasn’t at all what he planned.

Colors reflect on each other and alter the way we “read” a room. A gold-and-red leafy tapestry fabric I specified once blended into orange under incandescent light. A small blue-and-yellow checked wallpaper turned green when viewed from across the room. And taupe walls in a living room had a plum cast in the morning and appeared golden at night. In another house, gray walls became slate green in daylight hours.

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Lighting makes such a huge difference in color selection. I selected a vintage Japanese obi under incandescent lamps, thinking the embroidery was a warm medium brown against a light olive background. When I looked again the next morning, as sunlight poured in the windows, those flowers were marigold. It was beautiful, but not at all as it appeared the evening before.

The phenomenon of metamarism most often occurs when colors that appear to match under one light source no longer match when viewed under another light source.

You’re probably more familiar with this in clothing – when you leave home thinking that your tights and your skirt match, and once in the office, they clash.  Or you look down to discover one blue sock and one black one, and the shirt that looked teal online is actually green.

To avoid color surprises:

  • Swatch before you paint, and look at the swatch on every wall over several days. My favorite way to do this is to use a light-weight board that can be moved from wall to wall.
  • Look at fabrics, wallcoverings, art and rugs up close and from across the room.
  • Look at every color in the room under the light in which it will be installed.
  • If you must select colors near dusk or after dark, use something akin to an Ott light or Xenon, both of which emit reasonably clear, clean white light.

Get more color tips from Rebecca Ewing on our blog:

5 Truths About Color in the Work Environment

How To Avoid Choosing the Wrong Paint


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