A Light Colour will Never come to Life in a Dark Room

One of my readers asked which pale colour I would recommend, when selecting a colour for a dark room.
Whenever I get asked this question, I always give the same answer:
"A light colour will never come to life in a dark room but a rich, deep colour can make a dim, somber space feel warm and luminous – even though it receives no natural light." Donald Kaufman

 

Painting a dark room in pale colours simply accentuates the shadows in a space. Therefore, pale colours [or whites] can really only be enjoyed with a lot of natural light, as in the images shown here [and above]:

Ever notice how modern homes are mostly white, light filled spaces with floor to ceiling windows?

Because white works with that much light.

This white room (below) has very little natural light which makes it look gray and dull. (Okay I know the floor is concrete but it was the only example I could find)
Picture the same space painted a rich, warm, colour. In a dark space you need to have the lights on anyways and it is lighting that brings out the richness and luminosity of colour.

This is why powder rooms (and media rooms) are usually painted a rich, deep, colour.
They generally don’t have windows so you would always turn the light on when you walked in anyway.

This room [below] has artificial and natural light but a lot of the space reads gray because of all the shadows where it’s darker, although it’s a beautiful room.

Above images from flickr

Years ago, I lived in an apartment that only had windows at the front. I painted the back wall a pale taupe as I wanted to see how it ‘changed with the light’. I could not tell the difference between the ‘apartment beige’ that was already on the walls and the new pale taupe colour I had painted on one wall. That was when I experienced first hand that pale colours do nothing to enhance a dark space.

The soft golden light in this room seems to come from the walls rather than shine through the windows. With the rich deep palette (shown above) this room has acquired an amber glow that seems almost palpable—a visitor brushing against one of the walls half expects a dusting of cinnamon to fall on his shoulder. Donald Kaufman

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me for on-line or in-person consultations.

Related Posts:
Effect of Natural Light Exposures on Colour
Happiness is . . . Light (not a paler colour)
White is a Snob
Colour in Hallways
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48 Responses to A Light Colour will Never come to Life in a Dark Room

  1. Things That Inspire says:

    What a fascinating post! I have a dark room in my own home that has a screened porch off it, and I was wondering whether painting it a light color would lighten it up. It has a beautiful green in it now – Benjamin Moore Harbour Town – that really looks very pretty and rich in the room. After reading this post, I realize that the answer is probably more lamps rather than a change in wall color. Thank you for this wonderful post!

  2. Anonymous says:

    People were well aware of this before the advent of the electric light. Those who had the means used bright colors on their walls because other colors wouldn't "read" in the darkness.

  3. Colour Me Happy says:

    Dear Anonynous,
    What you are saying is exactly right, see my related post (Effect of Natural Light Exposures on Colour) for which colour you should choose that will provide it's own light source!
    Maria

  4. Design Junkie says:

    Paint and colour can do so much to change a space, but sometimes, you just have to embrace its limitation. In an old apartment, one bedroom was very dark because it's one window was blocked by a huge tree. When I moved in, it was beige, and just looked dingy. Painted a deep mushroom, it became a wonderful, restfull cocoon that actually appeared larger. That was my introduction to the idea that lighter and brighter just won't change an inherently dark space…embracing the drama and warmth of dark colors will.

  5. Brillante Home Decor says:

    Great advise, as usual. Rich, dark colours can create a magic atmosphere where artificial light is needed.

  6. DesignTies says:

    When you came to my place you pointed out this important lesson to me – I had used a pale yellow in hopes that it would brighten up my kitchen, but it just came off as bland. The colour you helped us choose is going to look so much better and warmer!

    Great post – and a great lesson in colour!!

    Also… absolutely beautiful rooms showcased… LOVE the first one with the orange stools!

    Victoria

  7. Renae says:

    Maria….thanks so much for teaching us all such wonderful things! I am a person who loves loves loves color and you just answered a huge question about my master bedroom. It is a large room in an almost chocolate with white trim, I was thinking of going to an icy blue or gray. I will stick with what I have and add more light!

    Lovely pictures of the rooms…

    Blessings…

  8. DesignTies says:

    Interesting post, Maria :-)

    I never thought about how shadows can effect colour. Looking at the pictures you posted as examples, you can really see how painting a dark space a light colour actually counteracts the whole "make it light" plan.

    As you know, I'm planning to paint our dining room white. It has a big bow window that faces south and gets a lot of light all day long. After reading this post, I'm confident that white in the DR will work really well :-)

    Kelly @ DesignTies

  9. Meade Design Group says:

    I just did a colour consultation for the hallways of my own condo building and I choose a warm colour for the walls [kangaroo AF145 Benjamin Moore] – the hallways are dark in parts and bright with halogen light in other parts, so I tested the colour in both lights and works rather nice against the new carpet. Well just to make the story short my strata hated the colour – they want an offwhite I tried to explain them what you just wrote in this very informative entry but they don't seem to get it. So, I guess I am going to send this entry via email to my STRATA (lol).

  10. DesignTies says:

    Maria – thanks for stopping by and sharing in my wee bit of success! I think you'll be famous long before I will… if I ever will! And you're right… it's all about the before and after. People love it!
    Hope you're well…
    Victoria

  11. Awesome Sara says:

    ya know everyone tells you always use light colors bc it will makes things birghter and this post just proves the opposite. i love it! i'm going to quote from this post the next time people say go for the lighter color. thanks maria!!!

  12. when pigs fly says:

    I am a Libra and I get to balance the hard way! I could live in an all white house and yet I have always been drawn to red, deep greens, deep blues. What I really need is 2 houses so I could move back and forth! In rooms that lack great light and views, I agree with you. It's best to create internal magic. In rooms with good lighting, white looks best. And that that's the way my house is. I never new WHY it worked, now thanks to you, I do.

  13. j u s t i m a g i n e says:

    awesome post !!!

  14. Pam Kersting says:

    Maria– You are so smart! I have learned so much from you! I've got white walls, big floor to ceiling windows and a modern house. Now I don't feel soooo badly about not having color on my walls. Although, you have inspired me to get the courage to paint my bedroom!

  15. Imogen Lamport says:

    Wow Maria – this is really great information – I'd always thought you'd paint a dark room light – but I can now see how a darker, richer colour may work better in the space.

  16. Brett Walther says:

    What a fantastic design lesson – I love these little gems that you share! Isn't it funny how certain "design rules" (e.g., paint a dark room white) seem to get established on TV design shows (usually by hosts who have very little design cred at all), and all of a sudden are treated as established fact… Thanks for setting the record straight!

  17. hello gorgeous says:

    I agree with you completely and only wish it hadn't taken me 100 paint samples to figure it out.

    My living room is like that and I kept trying to paint it yellow and every shade of white and nothing worked. I finally painted it brown and I love it!

    (If I had only found your blog sooner… :-)

  18. Lauren says:

    Such great information, You always seem to sum up what the rest of us sort of subconsciously grasped & didn't know the reasons why. xoxo

  19. Under a Green Roof says:

    that first room makes me want to faint it's so amazing!

  20. Joyce says:

    I sooo…. have the "white" bug lately!! I love it, but my love would paint me white if I start repainting everything again. lol…

  21. Amanda says:

    This was a very interesting post. I am a reader of decorlogy.blogspot.com and saw that you were listed together on the Washington Post. So, I thought I'd check you out. Glad I did!!

  22. Marjorie says:

    Hmm. Our whole house is dark because it is an older home surrounded by woods. We love the trees and couldn't imagine taking any out, but it is dark. I am redoing my kitchen and am trying to decide on a paint shade. I tried painting some test areas with a light blue – ok, but I wonder if I should try something with more depth. I tried this a few years ago in the dining room and have been suffering with the results ever since! What would you suggest? (More lighting is not in the budget, but I may try repainting the brown cabinetry an ivory or cream.)

  23. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Marjorie,
    I would definitely paint your cabinets a shade of white (read my best trim colours post and/or white kitchen cabinets post for some ideas on colours to use)
    For me to give you an idea of a colour to use in your kitchen I would need to see a picture of it as well as perhaps your living room (so that we can think about creating flow) not every darker/richer colour works in a dark space, (I would stay away from gray looking colours) what colour did you paint your dining room?
    Maria

  24. Marjorie says:

    Maria, I will look at your post on trim for ideas on the cabinets. I have no experience painting cabinetry but my 1977 cabinets are in dire shape! I will also zap you a quick email with a pix of the kitchen/dining room. In short, the living room is in an ivory and I call the dining room 'salmon from h**l'. Any guidance you could provide would be heaven sent! Thanks!

  25. Anonymous says:

    So what to do with a north facing study that reflects green from the trees in the summer? Also, the room is pretty dark. I love the light fresh look of Swedish/Belgian with lots of texture. I have dark wood floors and want to use a seagrass rug. I have no builtins in the room.

  26. Cristin says:

    Great post! Light changes everything doesn't it?

    Thanks to for commenting on my blog post about front doors. I paired the paint samples with the each door (not matched via a computer). I am sure I was a shade off for most, but it was a fun exercise.

    Looking forward to following your lovely blog in 2010!

    cristin

  27. lookinforchange says:

    Hi!I've been fascinated by your blog ever since I came across it in search of paint inspiration. I have an L shaped living/dining room. The entrance door is at the point were the 2 arms meet. Upon entering the dining area is on right and straight
    ahead is the TV console/sitting area plus a balcony. This area is awash with light but the dining area isn't. My floor (which cant be changed) is a deep burgundy with intermittent grey tiles.
    Can you please help me choose a color palette that flows and links the two. Which color would you call a deep rich color?
    I wish there were color consultants with as wonderful a sense of color/balance/beauty … as you have, in Singpaore – sigh!!
    I have currently painted the whole area in white(frosted dawn from dulux) with one accent wall in the living area grey (slate grey) and one accent wall in the dining area orange.
    My furntiure is mostly oak color. I've brought over couch and rug from my old home, but am financially ready to invest in those too.
    Could you please help me choose the right paint colors??
    I've photos loaded on to my PC to send to you the moment you ask for them… I've access to ICI, Dulux and Nippon paints in Singapore.
    Awaiting a reply with bated breath
    Lakshmy

  28. lookinforchange says:

    Hi!I've been fascinated by your blog ever since I came across it in search of paint inspiration. I have an L shaped living/dining room. The entrance door is at the point were the 2 arms meet. Upon entering the dining area is on right and straight
    ahead is the TV console/sitting area plus a balcony. This area is awash with light but the dining area isn't. My floor (which cant be changed) is a deep burgundy with intermittent grey tiles.
    Can you please help me choose a color palette that flows and links the two. Which color would you call a deep rich color?
    I wish there were color consultants with as wonderful a sense of color/balance/beauty … as you have, in Singpaore – sigh!!
    I have currently painted the whole area in white(frosted dawn from dulux) with one accent wall in the living area grey (slate grey) and one accent wall in the dining area orange.
    My furntiure is mostly oak color. I've brought over couch and rug from my old home, but am financially ready to invest in those too.
    Could you please help me choose the right paint colors??
    I've photos loaded on to my PC to send to you the moment you ask for them… I've access to ICI, Dulux and Nippon paints in Singapore.
    Awaiting a reply with bated breath
    Lakshmy

  29. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Lakshmy
    I would love to help you with your colours, please email me for my on-line consultation rates. info@mariakillam.com

  30. Jürgen says:

    I completely agree with you!
    I have always maintained this same, yet everyone insists on saying the opposite.
    Congratulations for your blog. It's very, very interesting.

  31. heather jenkinson says:

    Yes! I could not agree more – that was so well said. *Taking notes…*

    The notion that small, dark spaces need a bright colour to wake them up is a dated one; embrace the darkness of a space, don’t fight its inherent qualities.

  32. OL' PAINTING says:

    A really great post!

    My previous place was quite dark did not get much sun. I painted it white in attempt to make it lights – but it looked very cold and shadowy.

    When I repainted it in light shade of gold – it became cosy and felled with light, as if we had a sun here all day.

  33. StrangeHer says:

    The right paint makes all the difference in a dark space. I also live in home surrounded by tall trees. When I moved into my home last summer, the walls were a light blue/gray. It looked cold, dark and depressing. I have since painted the walls BM Monroe Bisque and it looks so light, warm and cozy now..What a difference!!

  34. Halcyon House says:

    Such a great post! Dark spaces are the most challenging rooms for which to select color. So many people have the notion that a dark color will just make it feel darker/smaller. As you noted light colors can't live in a dark space, there just isn't enough light to see the color.

    My two bedrooms are on the North side of the house and get very little light. I painted my bedroom a navy blue color and the other room a mushroom-y brown/gray. I love, love, love my bedroom. The saturated colors feel so rich.

  35. Anonymous says:

    I have a bedroom with larger windows facing east and I larger one facing south. My dilemma is how to make the room dark and cozy for daytime sleeping. I am thinking of a warm caramel with white trim and blackout liners on white window coverings.

  36. Anonymous says:

    MARIA,

    I have read your posts many times and it just struck me! You better have children to pass on all this inherant colour savviness you have or the world will be doomed to a colourless existence.
    Seriously, you must have children, so their is someone somewhere, to continue on this wonderful ability you have. Of couse, you may have to have quite a few to get on who does it as well as you. I am a writer and my 5th child loves to write.
    laugh………..smile…………
    Dee

  37. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Dee,
    You are so sweet, this comment really made me smile.
    xoxo
    Maria

  38. Maureen says:

    This is a good article. It is amazing what a difference natural verses artificial light makes in how people see a color in a room. It makes one think twice about what color light bulbs to use in a light fixture.

  39. JoAnna says:

    As a graduate student, the last 6 years of my life have been spent in 5 different rentals– each with their own boring shade of beige-ish walls and slightly mismatched beige-ish grey carpet. Having exceeded my tolerance level for beige, I finally decided to suck it up and paint the walls in my current apartment and just paint them back to "beige-ish" when I move. Since most of the apartment is very dark unless the sun is shining brightly, I was convinced that white would make it seem lighter… Long story short, THANK YOU for this WONDERFUL advice and blog!!! You have saved me from two more years of dark, boring "beige-ish" walls!

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  44. Lee Ann says:

    I lived in a dark cave, (really dark) once, and had read that yellow is its own light source. Ecstatic, I brought home paint chip after paint chip. Every one turned to depressing brown mud. Finally, out of exasperation, I brought home a Ronald McDonald yellow. It was perfect. On the wall, in that light, it was a rich sophisticated yellow. I eagerly painted the entire wall.
    Triumph. It was the neatest living space. Artwork looked great, it was inviting, etc., etc.
    It was my first lesson in Don't Use White in a Dark Space.

    Since moving to other places, have discovered that Yellow is one of the hardest colors to pick, I have discovered. A friend suggested I look for butterscotch instead — a terrific pointer.

    However, having discovered this site, and purchased the ebook, I now know the 'secret' and am having a blast picking colors. Yellow does not daunt me any more!!! LOL

    Grateful Kudos to you!

  45. Just found out about your blog, and I'm enjoying catching up on old posts. I'm also going to be subscribing going forward.

    I am actually in the midst of trying to convince The Mr. to paint my living room/kitchen navy. Right now it's greige (Benjamin Moore's Ashley Gray). My builder tried to advise me against it because the room doesn't get a lot of light, and I also have medium wood floors (Jacobean stain). I've been very happy with it, as it's a cool neutral that plays well with most any color. But now I'm tiring of the neutrality and thinking I might embrace the darkness of the room and go with a navy instead. Our white kitchen opens up to the living room, and I think the white might look really lovely near the navy (there is only a sliver of paint in the kitchen itself).

    Here's a link to some photos of my current living room color:

    http://www.imbusyprocrastinating.com/2013/01/tinkering-with-our-living-room-layout.html

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  48. rich says:

    Thanks! There is so much bad advice on the web. It's refreshing come across your thoughtful and useful insights!

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