Many people have had the experience of carefully selecting the best paint colors for a room in their home, only to be disappointed with this color once it has been painted on the wall. This common phenomenon is inevitably the result of at least one of the numerous visual distortion factors that affect the human eye and alter our perception of colors throughout the paint selection process. Among the 11 Distortion Factors, the one that often has the most dramatic effect on your ability to successfully pick paint colors for a room is the Light Source Factor. Therefore, understanding how different sources of light behave in your home’s interior spaces is an important secret to picking your best paint colors.
The first point here is that the colors we see are actually just the result of light bouncing off of a surface and entering our retinas. When we see a piece of paper that looks yellow, what we are actually seeing is yellow light bouncing off of that piece of paper. That could be because the light source itself is yellow or because the piece of paper is yellow.
Also, light of a certain color tends to pull paint colors toward that end of the spectrum. We need not even worry about the actual color of objects, we should only be concerned about what color an object appears to be as a result of the light that is shining on it. We use various types of lighting to illuminate our homes and businesses, and each one has different effects on the colors around us.
Natural Day Light or Sunlight
Natural light, or the day light of the sun, is the purest light source (nearest to white) that most people ever see. It shines (somewhat equally) across the entire visible spectrum of light from violet to red (think of a prism). [see left]
The predominant color visible in sunlight goes from the high red end in the early morning, to the lower blue end of the spectrum at midday, and back toward reddish-orange in the evening.
The fluctuating effects of day light will cause a paint color to tend to look warmest around dawn and dusk, and appear its coolest and lightest when the sun is at its peak in the sky.
These effects of day light can be further accentuated if the sunlight is obscured by atmospheric conditions. Moisture in the sky in the evening and early morning, brought on by various weather systems, can cause an even redder hue as the sunlight is filtered more by the atmosphere.
Fluorescent Light Bulbs
The wavelengths in the fluorescent light spectrum, unlike those in sunlight which cover the whole visible spectrum equally, spike very sharply between 490nm and 590nm. This means that almost all the glow from a fluorescent light bulb is green; there is very little light from the rest of the visible spectrum [see left].
This is a major factor in the paint color selection process. Colors will look very different in paint stores (typically lit by fluorescent light bulb) than they do at home. They have a greener tint, in addition to being lighter, in the store.
The traditional fluorescent light bulb has become much less common in new homes, even in kitchens and bathrooms. However, fluorescent light is quickly regaining popularity in the form of the Compact Fluorescent Light bulb (CFLs).
Incandescent Light Bulbs
Incandescent lighting, the light produced by the standard, traditional light bulb, is still the most common type of light found in most rooms of a house.
Incandescent bulbs shine more evenly across a larger portion of the visible spectrum of light than fluorescent bulbs, but they still have a considerable increase in output toward the high end of the spectrum, actually reaching their highest point within the visible spectrum at 750nm, the very edge [see left].
However, light bulbs vary in their performance. GE’s Reveal bulb has a much less even distribution of light across its spectrum causing it to be noticeably redder than their Soft White bulbs [see above left].
Halogen Light Bulbs
Halogen bulbs are most commonly used in floodlights, recessed (or can-) lights, spotlights, track-lights, pendant lights, bar-lights, etc.
Halogen’s peak light concentrations are at wavelengths of about 650nm, giving it a reddish hue just like incandescent light [see left].
650nm is not as far into the red end of the spectrum as the standard incandescent bulb, but the reddening effect is often more pronounced.
This is due to the fact that the halogen light bulb releases much less light throughout the rest of the spectrum, concentrating much more of its energy at this peak wavelength.
Xenon Light Bulbs
Xenon lights are relatively rare in the home. They are available for some spotlight and track-light applications; but they are becoming increasingly popular as bar-lights, intended for use under kitchen cabinets to illuminate countertops.
Xenon light bulbs have a peak wavelength around 450nm putting them deep into the blue (almost violet) range [see left].
Like incandescent lights, Xenon bulbs emit light along a broader range of the visible spectrum.
They have less of a spike at any particular wavelength, and are typically less bright, than fluorescent lights. This means they tend to distort the colors around them less.
By the way, do you want to learn more about how light sources affect your paint colors?
If so, check out this article: Perceptual Distortions from Light Sources in Paint Colors
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