How Light and Finish Affects Colour

How Light and Finish Affects Colour



Choosing finishes in the perfect colour and sheen level for walls and trim can often prove confusing and difficult to customers. It's our job - and yours - to make the decision much simpler by explaining the technical aspects of both in a way that reassures them about their choices. The more confident they feel, the more they'll love their finished spaces and will be more likely to pass on recommendations to colleagues, friends and family.

The way light and sheen level affects a space are key considerations when deciding on a colour but can be overlooked by homemakers when specifying, so here's a quick guide to help you offer the right advice.

How light affects colour

Colour can change quite dramatically under different lighting. This is because what we see as colour is the result of different wavelengths of light reflecting back off a surface. And when the light hitting a surface changes, what is reflected back changes too.

Getting the colour right is vitally important to our customers so always recommend trying a tester on the walls so they can see it in different light conditions before they commit.

All colours look their best in good natural daylight but the light will change throughout the day and the room will also be affected by the direction of light (north/south). It's important your clients take into consideration the time of day that their space will be used most and the orientation when choosing a colour.

If a room is south facing it is likely to receive plenty of bright warm light and has the potential to be extremely bright at times. If however, it is north facing, the light is more consistent but visually 'cooler'. The same colour in two such rooms, which face different directions but are otherwise similar, will look different.

In south facing rooms, all colours work well but cooler shades and hints such as grey, blue, green and violet help to balance the intensity of sunlight. North facing rooms with cooler natural light, however, benefit from warmer colours and hints including brown, pink, gold and yellow.

Of course, it's not just natural light conditions that will have an effect on colour, it will look different in artificial light too. Many customers may not realise their colour will look different in artificial light, and that the type of bulb will have a dramatic effect on the colour too.

There is a wide range of artificial lighting available: tungsten, halogen, fluorescent and many varieties of LED; each will impact how colour appears.

New generation warm LED and Halogen are the best types of domestic light for all colours but watch out for low energy compact fluorescent bulbs, which cast a cool violet/pink light and can make subtle neutrals and tints look washed out. The brief explanation of the different types of bulb below may help you and you customer with both colour and lighting choices:

Tungsten and vintage-style filament bulbs

This is a warm yellow light, which washes colours with a yellow glow of candlelight. It intensifies warm colours like yellow, orange and red but makes blues appear to be tinged green. It also tends to muddy violets and subtle neutrals, especially the cooler shades such as grey, which appear earthy and often indistinguishable from each other. For an area used mostly in this lighting choosing warm colours and hints or rich dark colours for the best results.


This is one of the most colour-friendly artificial light sources and although it is slightly warmer than natural daylight, it optimises the look of all colours, even subtle hints.


Low energy compact fluorescent bulbs cast a cool, watery light that can rob some colours of their vibrancy. Cool colours like grey, blue, green and violet tend to work better than warm colours which appear dulled and subtle hints can become indistinguishable but strong shades of both are least affected.


LEDs are available in a large number of different types and colours. While white LEDs are close to natural daylight, the effect on colour can be cold and unwelcoming, but the latest generation of warm LED lighting is very sympathetic to all colours and rivals Halogen for bringing the full spectrum to life in interior spaces.

Advice for customers on light and colour

Subtle colours will be affected by artificial light the most, so always recommend testers. Advise customers to view a colour in all light conditions and not to make the colour choice until they are happy with it at the time of day that the room is most likely to be used. If there is going to be a complete change in the lighting, be aware that it may impact on how the colour looks.

How finish (sheen level) affects colour

The main impact of a finish on colour is the effect of product sheen. Sheen can have a big impact on how a colour appears, particularly in terms of depth.

A colour in a gloss finish can look significantly darker than that same colour in a flat matt finish because light is bounced from one surface and absorbed by another. The amount of change in appearance will vary with the individual colour chosen with deeper shades being affected most.

Advice for customers on finish and colour

Most Dulux Trade colours can be mixed in any finish. The 250ml samples are the best way to test a colour in situ before painting the wall, but it should be remembered that these are a matt finish. If the final product is to be a silk, eggshell or gloss, then the finished product may appear very slightly darker. If this could be a problem, consider testing two similar shades: one lighter and one darker to get a feel for the impact it may have. Sheen levels can also have an effect on the way the surface they are painted on appears. Low sheen finishes like Flat Matt and Matt absorb light and so hide imperfections that would be more visible on a surface with a mid-sheen level like Soft Sheen or Silk. Gloss finishes reflect the more light and so the surfaces they are painted on to have to be prepared very well or imperfections will be amplified.

The Dulux Trade Professional Colour Guide has a finish guide in the centre, alongside colour range to help you recommend and make the right choice. This is a simple way to show clients the impact of sheen on a colour.

Talking about light and finish with customers

The technical side of colour comes with a lot of jargon, so the best way to talk about light and finish with customers is to keep it simple. Dulux Creative Director Marianne Shillingford, advises:

'Although we don't always consider why, most of us are aware of how light and colour are connected. Show physical examples where possible, or talk about previous jobs where the change of colour during the day and under artificial light has had an impact.'

The Dulux Trade Professional Colour Guide and tester pots are available at Dulux Trade Decorator Centres and Dulux Trade stockists.

For more Dulux Trade colour tools, read 4 Tools for Colour Confidence

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