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

One more thing, before you think you have to go this dark (above) to get your dark room to look right, that’s not true. It’s the white of this screen this is not going to work in a dark space, you do not need to go to the extreme of dark and dramatic (although that’s fine too), just stay away from plain white walls.

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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  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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!

  10. Hollie @ I'm Busy Procrastinating

    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:


  11. You are definitely right. A light color will never come to life in a dark room. The last photo is the best example of it. White-colored furniture in a room with dark wall paint is not the best combination if you want to achieve a lighter room. Those pieces of advice are truly appreciated.

  12. Hi. My daughter has a very small bedroom with little natural lit. She has a ceiling fan with a small light. She so wants a soft grey paint shade in her room (no pink or blue undertones) but no matter how close we think we are getting all the greys look brownish or tan in when we turn on the light. In the day, without the light, the colors are indistinguishale from each other (although my dauter swers she can see pink or blue in some). How can I pick a soft gray shade and make it work? Would wall track lighting instead of the ceiling light help? Thanks so much.

    • If you are working this hard to choose a grey, the room is not finished yet. Keep decorating and then choose the colour. If a colour bothers you in certain lights, it just means it doesn’t relate to anything in the room.
      If you just want a basic light grey, go with BM Classic Grey. Maria

  13. I knew this rule of yours and went and did it anyways….painted a small windowless bathroom grey owl. Needless to say it looks blah! It’s getting repainted this week…LISTEN to Maria people! And me especially!

  14. I had an *aha* moment when I read this post a few years ago (I think this was the first post I ever read and what drew me so much to your blog), and I’ve referred many people to this. Our living room gets very little light-we watch tv and it stays pretty dark in the room. I could never figure out why I kept repainting w/light colors and was SO unhappy…until we repainted it burnt orange. Now I see color all the time. Our basement, which is split down the middle, two really long rooms the length of the house, we went against the grain and did 1/2 the basement in a dark purple and the other 1/2 in dark gray and it turned out gorgeous. It really makes a difference. Even my parents-who choose paint colors by finding the lightest color on the strip and cutting it in half, and *still* moan about how “colorful” it is had to admit we chose right.

  15. It is so nice to understand WHY certain tones work in light and others in dark – and not fumble with words when going on instinct. Thank you for making me better see the light (no pun intended). 🙂

  16. Hello Maria,

    what an eye opening post! You have talked about rooms. What about corridors? They typically tend to be in the middle of the house and not have much light. Would you apply the same principle or is it too narrow a space?
    Thank you,

    • Yes they would, however I would still keep hallways in either a fresh colour or a paler neutral. Greyed hallways feel dark unless the lights are on. This is not about automatically going to a dark, dramatic colour, it’s just saying that art gallery white isn’t going to cut it. Hope that helps, Maria