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Why Colors Always Fool You When Decorating

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You may already know that the color of paint you see in a paint store or on a sample card at home can seem different when you put it on your walls. But do you know why—or how to prevent it? There are many tricks that colors can play on you—not just when choosing paint but also in selecting flooring, drapery, tiles, countertops and even furniture. That’s because you often shouldn’t believe what your eyes are telling you!

Your perception of color can be influenced by factors including the amount and “temperature” of light in the room…the amount of surface area that is covered by the color…other nearby colors…the texture of the surface ­beneath the color…and more.

Many people end up spending hundreds of dollars extra to repaint—or they just keep colors that they never really intended and don’t really love. To prevent that, here are five things you need to know to keep color-perception problems from undermining your home’s interior design…

The brightness and tone of the lighting profoundly affect the way you see colors. Your home’s lighting likely is very different from the lighting used by the store where you shop for paint, flooring, tiles, drapery, etc. Most stores have little or no natural light and are lit by fluorescent bulbs…while most rooms in homes get at least some sunlight and are lit by incandescent, LED or compact fluorescent bulbs that have a different “color temperature” than retailers’ bulbs.

What to do: Whatever design element you are shopping for, whether paint, flooring, tiles, fabrics or other elements, ask to take home a sample of what you have selected plus samples of any colors that are very similar to this color, including those that are slightly lighter or darker. Because of lighting differences, there’s a very good chance that one of your “close” color samples will actually end up being your favorite, once you view everything at home. Also ask at the store whether there is a “light box” that you can use to view colors under lighting conditions that are closer to those of your home. Many paint stores and even some home centers now have these devices.

The size of a color sample greatly influences how you see that color. Those little paint store color cards and other small samples are tremendously deceptive—colors look different when they are covering a wall, door, ­countertop, fireplace trim or any other large surface from when they are contained in a little square. This is not just because an intense color can seem appealing in small doses but overwhelming when it’s all around us, though that can be true—it’s also because small areas of a color appear darker to the eye than do large areas of the very same color.

What to do: If you’re choosing paint, don’t settle for small printed color-­sample cards—you want actual samples of the paint. If the paint store won’t provide samples of the paint for free, it’s worth paying for small cans of paint, especially if this paint is a color you intend to use prominently in your home. Then, at an art-supply store or online, buy artist foam core boards that are at least 20″ x 30″—get one board for each paint sample—and cover the entire surface of each board with a paint color you are considering. That 20″-x-30″ size is large enough to perceive the color as it will look in your home. And the surface of foam board is similar enough to that of drywall that it accurately re-creates how the paint will look on a wall. The boards cost $3 to $6 each.

If you are choosing drapery, flooring, a countertop or tile, obtain enough of the sample material so that you can view an area measuring 20″ x 30″ or larger at home.

A color that works well in one part of a room might not work well in another part of the same room. ­Examples: The color that seems perfect on the wall directly across from a window might not look right at all in a shadowy corner of the room. The color that you love under artificial lighting at night might seem off when the same room is bathed in sunlight in the morning. Or the color that’s perfect in the middle of a wall might not work well where the room meets an adjacent room that’s painted a different color.

What to do: Don’t place the artist foam core boards or other large color samples in just one location in the room you’re decorating. If the color will be used throughout the room, move these samples around to confirm that the color appeals throughout. Also, view them at different times of day.

Helpful: If a color you love does not work well in the darkest parts of a room and/or at night, you might not have to choose a different color. Instead, consider adding lighting to the shadowy area…or experiment with lightbulbs that have different color temperatures. (The color temperature of a bulb should be listed on its packaging in ­“degrees Kelvin.” A bulb below 3,000 will have a warm yellow or orange tone…between 3,000 and 4,500, a neutral white tone…and above 4,500, a crisper blue-white tone.)

The sheen of a paint, flooring, tile, fabric, etc., affects how you will perceive its color. The very same color of paint, for example, will appear brighter if you opt for a gloss or semigloss finish rather than a less shiny eggshell or satin finish…and it will seem much brighter than the same color with a flat or matte finish. Shiny finishes reflect more light back to the eye, creating the illusion that the colors themselves are brighter.

What to do: Decide which paint sheen or type of flooring, tile or fabric is appropriate for a room before you select its color. Be sure any color sample has the same sheen that you selected.

The texture of a surface will affect your perception of the surface’s ­color. The same paint will appear darker when applied to a textured wall or textured wood paneling than it would on a smooth surface. The tiny bumps and ridges of the textured surface cast shadows that make the surface color appear darker to the eye, even if each individual shadow is so small that you can hardly see it. The same is true with textured tiles and fabrics.

What to do: If a color will be applied to a textured surface but you can sample it only on a flat surface, such as a piece of foam board, select a color that is one shade lighter than the color you prefer on the flat surface.

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Source: Ron Reed, an interior designer based in Dallas who has served as program coordinator for interior design programs at Texas State University and University of North Texas. He is currently at El Centro College, Dallas. He is author of Color + Design: Transforming Interior Space. Date: April 15, 2018
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