The Psychology of Color & Light


Written by Rebecca Cutter | Painting by Rick Austin


Repeat after me: Paint chips are not reality. Color — on a piece of paper the size of a ticket stub — can wreak havoc when applied to a 16 x 20 foot space. Pay attention to the name. If you pick, for your bedroom, “Freakin’ Sunshine,” you won’t need an alarm clock. By six a.m. enough light will bounce off the walls to wake the dead.

Avoid “Psychotic Valentine,” unless you’re ready to do the horizontal tango, because red gets your blood pumping like nothing else in the spectrum. Red can even cause unnecessary drama, when a family agrees to purchase a sofa: When you say “red” you might actually picture scarlet, your partner imagines crimson, your daughter envisions garnet, while your son conjures fire-engine, and your mother-in-law goes immediately to cranberry. No one is wrong, but when the sofa arrives, tears will be shed. On the upside, you will have what is known as a “teachable moment.”

Blue has been called a “fugitive.” It fades sooner than any other color. When your child says he or she wants blue curtains, don’t pass up the opportunity to broaden their world. Ask, “Peacock? Indigo? Tiffany? Sky?”

Have a small room? Think jewel tones (topaz, emerald, jade). They possess an inner glow, and smart lighting choices make them shimmer … like the gems they are.

Painting is the easiest way to exorcise a space. Bad breakup? Throw a painting party/wine-tasting. (Make sure to have a designated painter to watch over things. Otherwise the room will become an enormous rainbow flag.) Is there a color you’ve wanted for years, but your “ex” vetoed? Buy twice as much of that.

Some colors are difficult to control once they’re set loose. They shift when light lands on them. Red appears to run toward you. Blue runs away. Even so, sometimes it all comes together: At the end of a challenging day, you drag yourself through the door to discover that — because you painted the foyer a calming bamboo-green — you don’t really need that vodka tonic after all.

Under the influence of light, a color can lose or gain intensity; as light strikes a surface, it might be absorbed or it might bounce. Want lots of sparkle? Add mirrors that send light zooming around like a ping-pong ball. Avoid heavy drapes and dark walls that suck up light like a sponge. Flooring, fabrics and furniture — even the placement of furniture — all impact the way light behaves once it enters. However, the most vital factor is the entry-point itself. Is it direct? Indirect? Is it filtered through a shade tree? Is it blocked by exterior or interior architectural elements?

Daylight and moonlight are free. Skylights infuse a room with an uplifting, expansive feeling. Other sources of light are borrowed. Candlelight invites conversation. Ambient lighting humanizes a space. (Otherwise it would look like a store display.) Decorative illumination adds interest and texture. A bare wall – with nothing but a bold color and the correct lighting – transforms into a giant canvas. The interplay of light attracts us; in an entrance, layered sources telegraph, “Welcome.”

Like color, light affects our state of mind. Too little, and we can’t get up and greet the day. Too much, and we can’t fall asleep. We truly have to know ourselves and our habits, in order to find the right ratio of shadow to ray. We need to pay attention to how we respond to varying degrees of light as we move about our space, throughout the day … throughout the seasons.

Once you’ve chosen your light sources (both natural and artificial) don’t assume your work is done. Each time you rearrange furniture or completely change the function of a space, you will need to ask: “What happens here? When? Otherwise, even though your favorite reading chair now looks better in the corner, you’ll have to learn Braille.

Couples frequently battle over aesthetics vs. function. We’re used to fluorescent bulbs for task lighting in kitchens, but there’s a reason they aren’t in bedrooms. They’re bad for sex. Most women associate fluorescence with fitting rooms or pelvic exams and would never use it in any area of the home, where nudity occurred on a regular basis. For that, they prefer ambient light. If possible, candles, which magically blur imperfections. However, most men find ambient light inadequate to see what they’re doing. They argue accuracy is far more important than creating a mood. There’s only one way to find out: Next time, toss the candles and wrap up in a string of LEDs.

Light and color require balance. Without light there would be no color. Without color our homes would be unbearably bland. It is only because of light encountering an object that we are able to see it. And when we do see that wall or chair or art, it should make us smile. Or, better yet, take our breath away.

Rebecca Cutter, a former psychotherapist, is a renovation junkie. Her writing has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times and The Oregonian. She fell in love with Portland, while on a book tour for, When Opposites Attract. Her focus now includes screenwriting, a memoir and … rescuing another house.

Rick Austin lives in Garden Home where he paints, acts as butler to the chocolate labrador princess LexiLuLu and participates in an ancient martial art form involving craft beer, Fender Telecasters and wooden handled garden tools.