The myths and mistakes in choosing interior paint colours

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I am always surprised at how folklore advice can become so commonplace that we can all become guilty of accepting things as fact without ever really questioning the true validity of the shared declaration. Instead, we often just accept and adopt the new information as fact and share it forward.

In bygone days there were “wives-tales” like, “Don’t go swimming for at least an hour after eating or you’ll drown”…, or present day fables like, “dark roast coffee has more caffeine than medium roast”, or “women are the weaker sex”, (haha, just had to throw that one in).

Another area where I am always amazed at fables gone fact, is in the area of interior design and more specifically – in interior paint color selection.

If I had a nickel for every time I have heard; “light colors make a room seem bigger”, I would have a really, REALLY huge pile of nickels.

In my career and experience as both an interior designer and 3 dimensional artist, I have found this statement so misleading as to be more false than true. While it is true that light colors play a role, light colors, in and of themselves do NOT necessarily make a room feel larger. Actually, well placed color within a room can make it seem larger than a room that is finished in a single pale or bright shade.

Clearly we can all agree that as a rule, light colors “bounce” or reflect more light than do dark tones, so obviously a room painted in all light tones will seem brighter than a room painted darker. This is a byproduct of the fact that we humans have relatively few rods in our eyes (around 120 million). Rods are light receptor cells located in the back of our eye and are responsible for collecting light, hence it is this mechanism that decides how well, or how poorly we can see in dim or dark conditions. By comparison, our feline friends have six to eight time MORE rods than we do. This suits them well for nighttime “mousing”. Personally, I am fine with this as I much prefer to spend my evening sipping a glass of wine or cognac by candlelight than chasing mice.

But, back to the matter at hand. Rooms painted in lighter tones. Simplistically speaking we might assume that a room painted in lighter tones will always seem larger than a room painted in darker tones. However, that assumption has flaws. The first is that “illuminance” is not the only factor our brains contemplate when interpreting 3-dimensional spaces.

The level of “light” is considered and measured based on a number of factors. These are described simply as follows:

“The “brightness” of light can mean different things: for example, the amount of light coming from a light source is luminous flux (lumens), the amount of light falling on a surface is illuminance (lux), and the amount of light reflected off a surface is luminance (cd/m2).” – (Read more…) 

But as I mentioned, this illuminance, or the brightness of a room, is not the only factor our complex system of vision takes into account when calculating the size and shape of a space.

The first consideration to understand is that In actuality, if a brightness level is too high it can actually mar our ability to see planes and surfaces and we become unable to perceive actual depth and space at all. We can actually make a space seem “flatter” and therefore smaller if we overdo the “brightness and light” factors.

The second fact to consider is that because we live in a 3 dimensional world, our brains have developed complex processes for interpreting various aspects of visual data. In this case I am referring to “perspective”. Deciphering “perspective” is what allows us to see and move through the X, Y and Z planes that surround us. For the purposes of my explanation, I will be focusing primarily on how we perceive the third, or the “Z” plane that I will refer to as “depth”.

Brightness alone does not give our eye any information relating to depth or shape. To perceive these things our brain searches for additional information. Most notably, it seeks variations in tonal depth. As all artists know, to make an object appear further away, darken it slightly, to bring it to the foreground – lighten it.

This is called “shading”. Shading and shadows are vital information that allow our brains to perceive the shape of an object or space. We can assume height, width, depth, curves, slopes, and multitudes of minute variations within a space through the billions of calculations our brains do every moment as it interprets the information received from the eye.

So back to my topic about the myth that light colors make a room seem larger.

Stating that a room is made to feel larger by painting it in bright colors is too simplistic. In my experience, a truer statement would be, careful use of light and shaded, or “darker” tones can make a space seem larger. I promise you, I can take two identical rooms, paint one in a single light tone and in the other I can introduce color and shading, and I can make the second room seem larger than the first.

I can achieve this by considering BOTH, illuminance AND perspective. To make your space feel larger, don’t feel you have to hang yourself on the “beige and white” altar. Instead, follow the few steps below and you can once again be confident to introduce color into your world without fear of making your home or apartment feel small!

  • First choose a palette of colors that you enjoy. Neutrals like white/beige/grey/brown/black allow for great flexibility in accents, but don’t feel constrained., if fall tones make you feel comforted, or blues and yellows make you smile with memories of tropical vacations, don’t run from them. They can play a role in your space without bringing the walls in around you!
  • With a notepad and post-it-notes in hand take time to walk around your space. Stand in each corner and look around. Take notice of your walls and windows, bulkheads, beams, posts, openings and MOST importantly; how does light hit each wall? (If there is an open staircase or multi levels, stand in those elevations and look at your space from those angles as well). Take note of walls that are bathed in natural light from windows. Equally note walls that don’t receive any natural light.
  • Using post-it-notes, put a note saying “lightest” on the walls that receive the most natural light”, notes that say “medium” on the walls that are lit only part of the day, or receive reflected light levels from other sources, and notes saying “darkest” on those walls that remain mostly in shadow. Note, remember shadow results from 3 dimensional interpretation. Example, if you have a tray (or inset) ceiling., the large flat horizontal planes will be “light” or “medium”, while the vertical planes will likely be “medium” or “dark”. Mark all walls and planes in your space accordingly.

Now the fun part. Choosing paint.

First mistake. Please DON’T work with only one color. But If you insist, because you have “issues” and there is only one color in this entire universe that you like, then please have it tinted in lighter and darker versions. Ask your paint store to do this for you – if you need 4 gallons of paint to complete your room, have two gallons mixed in your primary color, one gallon in a ½ tint lighter, and one gallon in a ½ tint darker. Trust me, using tints properly can have a profound affect in making your room appear both brighter and larger.

For the rest of you who are brave enough to use color variations, choose your favorite color “palette”. By that I mean, falls tones, pastel tones, spring tones, or “winter”. Then choose your absolute favorite “depth” of color. Yes, if you just love deep dark denim blue, or a rich mahogany or chardonnay red, or the gentleman’s club evergreens, then know you can include at least one of these in your palette without absolutely no fear that you will shrink or darken your space!

Once you have chosen that “foundation color” you will need to select an array of complimentary colors in the palette you have identified (fall, spring etc). Choosing this complimentary array is also key to how you can use color and still keep your space feeling spacious. To learn how to choose and how to use the colors or shades you have chosen and how to apply them to the “light”, “medium” and “dark” walls you have identified in your space, please come back for my next blog where I will go into step by step detail.

COME BACK NEXT TIME FOR “HOW TO CHOOSE AND HOW TO USE YOUR FAVORITE PAINT COLORS!”

About the Author

Senior Manager Operations, Edmonton

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