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How Interior Lighting Affects Your Choice of Décor Colors

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Working as a professional interior designer for many decades, I've been involved in design-and-build residential building projects.

Interior lighting has a profound effect on whatever colours you choose for your interior décor, including your floor finish, walls, ceilings, and the colours of some of your furniture and soft furnishings. If you are a professional interior designer or a lighting designer, you can identify with the fact that there are differences in variables of colour schemes illuminated by different lighting elements.

Things appear different when you switch some lights on, because your lighting absorbs some colours while it can transmit or reflect others. Excessive or too little interior lighting can distort or even destroy the intended ambience of any interior space.

Because the wrong kind of interior lighting can ruin a room's interior design theme, it is imperative to note that a carefully conceived and chosen colour plan can be ruined by a lone light, a group of glaring lights, or dim lights that don’t cast sufficient lighting.

Colour Palettes Change With Different Indoor Lighting

Colour is visually static, but it can still change in certain circumstances. So, depending on the light type and source, interior spaces will have completely different colour palettes when viewed under different types of lighting. The different types of illuminates are:

  • Natural daylight
  • Incandescent lighting
  • LED lighting
  • Halogen lighting
  • Warm fluorescent lights
  • Cool fluorescent lights

Effects of natural daytime light on colours

Daytime light’s effect depends on where the rooms in the house face. If you live in the Southern hemisphere, rooms that receive direct sunlight from the south benefit from the maximum amount of lovely warm tinted sunlight. This makes warm interior colour schemes appear sharp, intense, cheery and lively, while cool colours appear crisp, and fresh.

In north- or east-facing spaces, rooms can be tinged with a darker blue light, appearing gloomy and melancholy.

Effects of incandescent lights

Rich, bold, and intense colour schemes that look pleasing and attractive in the daytime will appear somewhat dulled by the incandescent interior lights you put on at night. Incandescent lighting has a reddish/orange/yellow undertone that adds a warm, golden glow that is considered cosy and tranquil and is often associated with the comfort and intimacy associated with candlelight.

Incandescent light gives a brownish undertone in rooms with cool colours like green, blue, and violet, making them look somewhat dull and gloomy.

LED lights and indoor colours

LED lights are the new alternative to fluorescent lighting and produce a cleaner, whiter light that is close to daylight. They don’t affect interior colours as much as tungsten lights do, but they don’t have that much of a homely glow. If you are looking for a warm and cosy ambience and want to use these lights, choose colours that deliver that warmth. Use gold or gold-lined lamp shades to tone down the white glow and give a warm light glow instead.

Halogen lights' effect on colours

Halogen lighting emits white light, which is the most accurate light source to view colour under. It has the closest approximation to natural light and offers an excellent colour rendition. They are best used as accent lighting, because whiter light gives all colours a sharper, clearer, and crisper definition.

Fluorescent lights

There are two types of fluorescent lighting: warm and cool fluorescent lights. If the wrong type is used in rooms decorated in certain colours, they will be visually altered. Cool fluorescent has a blue tint, reduces shadow effects, and flattens texture, making cool hues like silver, green, and blue appear even cooler. When used with a room full of warm hues, fluorescent lighting has the tendency to make them look murky.

Warm fluorescent lighting has a warmer tint and is dimmer than cool fluorescent lights.

How Light Affects Colours

In the studios, artificial lighting can be used to simulate moods and impressions by beaming lighting on painted backdrops to create an atmosphere that will intensify the viewer's emotional feelings and responses. A set may be washed in grey cold tones to convey a depressed and gloomy atmosphere.

These same principles of colour and light are equally effective when applied in interior design. In the home, colour can be made more vibrant by using tinted lights, which will denote a cheerful, bright, and happy scene.

Illumination and lighting levels affect the tonal values of hues. With low levels of illumination, there is a tendency of the lighting to neutralise colours. But with higher levels of light diffusion, the colours become more intensified.

Incandescent lighting emphasises colours such as yellows and reds, thus accentuating the reds, oranges, tans, and yellows, but dulling the blues, burgundies, and violet tones. On the other hand, fluorescent lights possess a different spectral energy distribution, and this results in emphasising the blues and greens but dulling the reds and orange.

Because of these differences, an interior should, if possible, select colour samples in the rooms or spaces wherein they are to be used. If this is not feasible, then the next best thing is for the designer to at least choose and collect his colour schemes under an identical lighting source to the clients, using approximately the same light illumination level.

Further reading:

Is Lighting Design an Integral Part of Interior Design?

What Décor Colours Reflect Light the Best?

When light beams hit a wall’s surface, some of its energy is reflected while some of it is absorbed. So the colour a person observes indicates the wavelength of light reflected. The lighter a colour is, the more reflective it will be, meaning that when the colour white is being reflected, all wavelengths are being reflected and none absorbed, making white the most reflective colour.

While pastel and off-white décor colours reflect more light than deeper tones, darker colours obviously reflect less and absorb more light. Because the colour of an object depends on the light cast upon it, it is best to view your colour choice for paint or furniture, in sunlight or white light.

What Interior Colours Reflect Light the Least?

If your interior décor consists of dark colours like black, navy blue, deep green, etc., they will reflect less light. The rule is that the darker the colour, the less light it reflects. So, all colours close to black will reflect almost none of the visible lights, but rather will absorb most of your interior lighting.

Just as black objects absorb heat and all wavelengths of light while reflecting none, so do white and pastel colours reflect all wavelengths of light and absorb the least heat.