The Psychology Of Colour: Considering Light

By understanding how colour is perceived in the brain, we learn about how to take light into consideration when making colour choices for our home.

When designing the interiors of your space, one of the big decisions you will have to make is what colours to embrace. While a select few may opt for the whole rainbow, the majority of us lean towards a rather neutral palette. Colour is one of the key decisions in interior design because even minor differences in shade can completely change the atmosphere of a room, which is even made evident by the way the English language uses colours to describe emotions and bodily states: we can be “feeling off colour”, “in the pink”, be in a “black mood”, “see red” or “go as white as a sheet”. This lesson is Part I of a 2 part series on the psychology of colour.

The Psychology Of Colour

In humans, our strongest sense is our sight, which is why colour is so important for us. Each of our eyes contains about 106 million light-sensitive receptor cells. The white light we see is made up of different wavelengths and each wavelength is a different colour from violet (shortest wavelength) to red (longest wavelength). Each colour is received and recognized in a different part of the brain. The colours in light are described in science as sensations and can affect our health, hormones and our mood. How our eye perceives a colour depends largely on the light that reveals it as well as the surrounding environment in which it finds itself.

Beyond perception, the way that each of us interprets colour is highly personal and is influenced by the mental associations that we hold about a given colour based on our memories and experiences. According to scientific studies, colour preference starts early in life with studies showing that children prefer red, orange and yellow by the age of 5. We have generally established which colours we prefer by the time we hit puberty.

Lesson 1

The Effect Of Daylight on Colour

In this section, I mainly focus on the colour of the paint on the walls, but of course, the same principles apply to the colour of furniture pieces or accessories. Because I know how deeply personal colour is, my aim is to help you understand how colours work and the factors that influence how you perceive them.

Get To Know Your Space

Always start by getting to know your room! This may mean living in a space for a while or simply spending an entire day there. Make sure that you get a good idea of how the light enters the room. Sunlight is the biggest influence on how the colour in your room is perceived. In fact, we only understand colour from the amount of light it absorbs or bounces back. Dark colours absorb more light, whereas light colours bounce the light back around the room. Even within the same colour of paint, there are warmer and cooler tones. A beige paint, for example, can have a blue or green (cooler) or an orange (warmer) tint. This will be enhanced by the type of daylight that enters into the room and to a lesser degree by the bulbs that you use in your artificial light sources.

    via Lovisa Barkman
    Via Lovisa Barkman

Geographic Direction

  • A room that faces northeast will have a tendency to have cold light, which will enhance cooler tones of colour. East and north-facing rooms get less sunlight and will be darker and colder, south and west-facing rooms get more sunlight. How a certain colour is perceived varies depending on whether the room faces North, South, East or West. That means that you can paint one room a certain colour and another the exact same colour, but if they are facing in different directions, the colour will look completely different.

  • The geographical direction of a room also delineates the time of day that your space will receive the most light. East-facing rooms will get direct sunlight in the morning, while the sun hits a west-facing room in the afternoon and evening. This is important as the colour of daylight changes throughout the day from pink at dawn over blue at midday to purply-red in the evening. This is why it is so important to really get to know your space in all lights. A certain colour of paint might look great on the wall in the morning but look completely different in the evening. Make sure that you like both perceptions of the same colour.

  • As a rule of thumb, you may choose to counteract or equalise the temperature of the light in the room by choosing colours from the opposite spectrum: warmer colours in northeast-facing rooms, cooler colours in southwest-facing rooms. Of course, you are free to embrace the temperature of the light if that is what you are going for.

  • What this looks like can be seen in the two pictures I found via Coco Lapine of two rooms on opposite sides of the same apartment (see images below). The bedroom has a very warm light (as seen through the door of the kitchen), indicating that it is likely facing west. The kitchen, on the other hand, has a much cooler tone and probably receives most of the light in the morning as it seems to be facing south. This coolness of the light is further embraced by the bluish-grey colour on the walls of the kitchen.

  • via Coco Lapine
    Via Coco Lapine

Geographic Location

Where you live may also play a part in the colours you choose. Cooling blues might be suitable for the warmer climates of Southern Italy, or even Cornwall if you, like me, live in the UK. The same colour might bring a rather depressing gloominess in Scotland or Copenhagen. Below I've chosen two images by two design hotels that I can't wait to visit post lockdown. The first image of one of the rooms in Hotel Le Sud in Provence captures the bright light of the sunny south of France, while the second one shows a room in The Rose in Deal on the gloomy UK coast. Both images illustrate the effect of geographic location on the perception of colour.

    Hotel Le Sud
    The Rose, Deal

Beyond Your Window

Finally, take note of what is outside your window as it will likely reflect on the wall. If there is a red brick wall right across the street or green grace right below a ground floor window, this will also affect the way a certain colour is perceived.

    unknown source
    Mandy Sham


We already covered texture in our first lesson on the psychology of space, but it still deserves a special mention here. The texture of your paint will also influence the perception of colour: glossier paint reflects more light, while matt paint absorbs it.

    Mario Buatta
    Petite Passport

Notes On Painting With Colour

Here are some basics to keep in mind before you give painting a try.

  • The colour of the paint in the tin is not what the colour will look like on the wall.

  • When it comes to testing paint colour, I recommend painting a big block of colour across a corner so that you can see what the colour will look like in the light and in the shade.

  • Always apply two coats of paint, even in the testing phase. That way you can be sure that the wall does not shine through and obscure the colour.

  • Once your paint is on the wall, I spend a couple of days with it on the wall to see it in different light throughout the day.

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