Choosing colours for interior walls 

The quality and quantity of light, as well as a surface's reflectivity, have a major affect on how we experience colour. Choosing the right wall colour based on a small colour sample is difficult because the size of the coloured surface and type of paint also influence colour perception. The interplay between different colours may also alter colour perception, sometimes dramatically. Frequently a colour chart's small colour sample does not correspond with the desired finished result. This phenomenon results from the fact that the perceived colour is always different than the actual paint sample. There exists therefore a host of basic issues that must be taken into account when selecting colours for indoor walls.

Light makes the colour 

The effects of different types of illumination sources on colours must be kept in mind when selecting suitable colours for indoor spaces. Planning an indoor colour scheme will be fairly difficult unless the location's lighting conditions are known. The quality and quantity of light essentially influence the experience of colour; indoor spaces' wall surfaces will only reflect colours whose spectrum wavelengths are contained in the illumination source used.

Choosing colours for interior walls Choosing colours for interior walls
The colour blue is at its most beautiful in natural light because the incandescent lamp's yellowish light does not reproduce blue wavelengths.

Of today's light sources, halogen light is the only one that reproduces all wavelengths naturally without being too blue like daylight. Even today most indoor light sources are incandescent lamps. The light given off by an incandescent bulb is extremely yellowish. For this reason we experience blue-tinged colours in preponderantly yellowish light as stuffy, even as dirty and dull. Blue-tinted walls may look greenish. On the other hand, yellows, yellow-oranges and reddish colours usually look good in the light given off by incandescent lamps.

Compact fluorescent lamps have proliferated in recent years as a result of their low energy consumption. Low energy consumption is naturally an economic advantage, but from the standpoint of colour rendition compact fluorescent lamps are extremely problematic. The spectral distribution of compact fluorescent lamps is uneven, leading to situations where a surface may appear as a completely strange tint that has not been observed in, for example, daylight. The spectral distribution of fluorescent lamps varies; with respect to colour rendition the best lamps are the kind that imitate daylight. Owing to the different kinds of spectral distributions in light sources it is extremely important to check the colours in question under the lighting conditions where they will be actually used.

Any natural light penetrating into the space will significantly alter the colour situation. Light originating from the outdoors is slightly bluish. A blue-tinged light tends to "cool" colours. Colours with yellowish and reddish nuances take on a slightly chillier, bluish tinge. For that reason blues, blue-greens and greens may look too bleak in rooms facing north and east. Light and shadow create interesting variations on coloured surfaces, and for that reason colour models should also be examined on illuminated as well as shadowed walls.

Gloss and paint type affect colour perception 

The glossier the surface, the more direct and vivid will be our perceptual reaction to the colour. The porosity of a painted surface has a pronounced effect on its emotional effect. If we compare glossy and matte surfaces painted with the same colours, we can clearly differentiate between darker and lighter surfaces. What causes the phenomenon is that light reflected from a smooth and dense surface meets our eyes from almost a single direction; consequently we experience the surface as deeper and darker. On a porous surface the rays are dispersed in different directions, creating the effect of a lighter surface. This phenomenon can also be exploited when planning a colour scheme.


Paint additives also affect the experience of colour. Acrylate paint colours reproduce with a slightly more bluish tinge than for example alkyd paints, in which we can detect a more yellowish nuance. The feel of the material will also vary considerably depending on the type of paint; the paint materials as well as the texture of the painted surface also influence colour perception dramatically. A heavily textured surface creates a darker impression because the rough texture casts minute shadows.

Choosing colours for interior walls

The structure of a painted surface affects colour perception: colours appear darker on roughly textured surfaces.

A colour sample does not tell the whole story about a colour's personality

Selecting a colour based on a comparison with a colour chart's small colour swatch may be a serious miscalculation. Colour charts' samples are often placed on a white paper backing, making even lighter shades appear relatively colourful. For example many of the colours of Row F of the Tikkurila Symphony colour chart are intrinsically whitish, even though they look fairly colourful on the chart. In an actual room we no longer have the white paper for comparison, instead only the border of a white ceiling somewhat conveys the wall's colour to us. Lighter colours appear even lighter in reality. A strong and pure hue on a colour chart takes on additional power and purity when applied on large surfaces.


Here yellow and orange are often stumbling blocks. When selecting a colourful yellow or orange colour for a wall, a slightly lighter shade of the preferred colour may often be the more sensible choice, and the selection of a colour shade that is a greyer and lighter-hued version of the preferred colour is usually advisable. The Tikkurila Symphony colour chart's Rows N-Y are in this respect feasible and no unexpected surprises should result.

Using colour samples to get the best results when painting walls

The interrelationships between hues must be taken into account when selecting colours. Brightly coloured surfaces in upholstery fabrics, carpets or curtains may tint reflected light in an undesirable direction and thereby affect the perception of wall surfaces. Adjoining coloured surfaces interact, sometimes dramatically. For example a neutral grey list colour combined with a green wall colour may appear slightly reddish. Neutral colours combined with strong colours have a tendency to turn in the direction of those shades' complimentary colours. Light colours appear even lighter when combined with dark colours and the other way around. For that reason it is essential that colour models be also compared in relationship to each other.

When selecting colours, samples are often examined on a horizontal table surface. However the final wall colour will be applied on a vertical surface. Because more light usually falls on horizontal surfaces than vertical surfaces, an excessively strong colour may be chosen by mistake. Colour samples should be compared on vertical surfaces to ascertain the correct degree of brightness for walls. When absolute certainty about the finished result is desired, the smartest thing to do is paint sufficiently large test areas on illuminated as well as shadowed walls before making the final decision and beginning the painting works.

Choosing colours for interior walls - tungsten

Under the light of an incandescent lamp. The effect of light on the perception of colour may vary significantly depending on the light source.

Choosing colours for interior walls - fluorescent

Under the light of a fluorescent tube

Choosing colours for interior walls - daylight

In natural daylight

Author: Marika Raike
Photos: Pekka Vainonen and Martti Järvi
(Article published in "Tikkurilan Viesti" magazine No. 2 in November 2004)