Cheer Up That Dark and Dreary Room

by Donna on April 14, 2012

Paint Colors to the Rescue for a Room That’s Too Dark

Do you have a room in your home that’s a decorating challenge because it doesn’t have a window? Or, the window it does have is very small? Perhaps the shade from trees outside block natural light from the room? That murky room needn’t be a ‘nightmare’. Picking the right wall paint color can change the way the room feels — even help with how the room functions.

Questions to Ask

To help pick a paint color for that obstinate room – a color that’ll make the room feel right for you – here are some things to ask:

  1. What are your objectives for the room?
    • How do you want the room to feel? Light and bright? Cozy? Soothing?
    • Are you comfortable with bright, warm energizing colors like yellow, orange, red?
    • Would a cool, relaxing color make you feel more at home?
    • How will the room be used? Will it be a guest room? A home library? An art and crafts room?
  2. Just how dark is the room?
    • Just how cut off the room is from natural daylight will make a difference in picking a wall color. Color needs light. The more daylight that dark room gets, the lighter and less intense the color can be for the light to bring out the color.
    • Consider whether the room is functional without using artificial light. If artificial light is needed during all use of the room, make sure the chosen color looks good under that lighting. (Make sure you like the color under artificial light anyway, for night-time use.)

Making a Dark Room Feel Lighter and Brighter

Let’s start with the objective of making the room seem lighter and brighter. First, we’ll look at the lightness of color vs the brightness of color.
Light room color vs bright room color using two foyers as examples
The room on the left is painted white. White paint colors are light colors. The room on the right is painted yellow. Yellow paint colors are bright colors. (Fully saturated yellow colors are the brightest colors on the color wheel.)

(Designer of the foyer on the left: Mary Evelyn McKee; image from MyHomeIdeas; photo: Tria Giovan. Designers of the room on the right: Lee Bierly and Christopher Drake; image from House Beautiful. The yellow paint color: Benjamin Moore Showtime 293.)

Dark and Dreary needs Bright, not Light

Moving to that dark room, if there is an extremely low degree of light, then a white paint color will not be able to reflect enough light into the room to make it feel bright. In addition, a pale color won’t work since there’s not enough light to bring out the color. Color needs light.

To make that dark space feel full of light it’ll take a bright color. Colors in the yellow range work because they feel sunny. To quote paint color expert Donald Kaufman: “We instinctively imagine a space is full of light when we are surrounded by yellow,”…”we’ve come to read yellow as sunshine.” Kaufman continues: “Warm colors appear to be sources of light.”

Golden Yellow Paint Colors

Here’s a selection of golden yellow paint colors that just might cheer up that gloomy room:
Golden yellow paint color shown in paint cans

Top row: Behr paint, Sunny Summer S-G-380; Benjamin Moore, Sun Porch 2023-30; Dunn Edwards (and California Paints), DE5341 Tuscan Sun.
Bottom row: Pratt & Lambert, Spectrum Yellow 14-12; Sherwin-Williams, Cheerful SW 6903; Valspar, Sunset Glow 3009-2.

A Warm Glow

To quote Kaufman again: “Yellow isn’t the only hue that seems to send out its own light. All warmer colors evoke this sensation.” “A dark coral,” he says, “can make a room with scant illumination appear to glow.” (A great way to put it.) Famed interior designer Mario Buatta, quoted in Elle Decor, agrees with the above: “…never paint a dark room a light color. It doesn’t work. If a room doesn’t get a lot of light, don’t do apricot—do dark orange.” So, there you have it from experienced sources. Make that dark room glow with warmth using saturated corals and oranges.

Three rooms below use deep corals and oranges to brighten spaces. (The rooms shown have various amounts of light as I wasn’t able to find room images very dimly lit; but we can get the idea from these pictures.):
Sardinia inspired dining room in vibrant orange on terracotta walls

The Sardinia inspired dining room, by designer Ken Blasingame, has walls of vibrant orange terracotta. (Image source: D Home magazine. Photo: Almee Herring.)

A foyer with deep orange colored walls
Library with bright coral wall color

(Jay Jeffers, Jeffers Design Group, is the designer of the above two rooms with walls of orange and coral.)

Designer Tom Fleming, as quoted in House Beautiful, would prefer to stay away from using yellow to “imitate the sun”. His choice: red; for instance Benjamin Moore Million Dollar Red 2003-10. Here’s a foyer appearing to be painted a similar, but rustier, red:
Foyer area painted deep rusty red

(Designer: Marcy Masterson. From Traditional Home.)

On the Greenish Side of Yellow

Greenish leaning or lime-yellows are great colors for achieving a sense of brightness. Colors in this range provide greater neutrality than coral, orange, red, or yellow. These colors are softer and work best with at least a glimmer of natural light. Possible choices: Benjamin Moore, Yellow Finch 2024-40; Sherwin-Williams, Funky Yellow SW 6913; Dunn Edwards, Shaded Sun DE5471; Pratt & Lambert, Glimmer of Lime 16-8.

This room example does get light, so it can use a darker wall color, but it approaches the feel I’m trying to convey:
Studio with chic yellow-green painted walls

(The room’s designer: Christopher Knight; the photographer: Miguel Flores-Vianna; the source: Elle Decor.)

If you’d like to see more rooms that use ‘lime-ish’ tones:Green-yellow room thumb

If the Room Is a Guest Room

Guests may not warm to intense colors like deep coral or bright orange. Consider rich, cool blue-green paint colors in that drab guestroom. Or use colors like those lime-leaning yellows. These colors can be welcoming, yet soothing. Here’s an example in greenish-yellow:
Bedroom  with walls painted a greenish-yellow color

(The room’s stylist: Buffy Hargett. The photographer: Van Chaplin. The source: Southern Living at MyHomeIdeas.)

Cool and Comfy

You may prefer cooler colors to those energetic warm tones. Rich cool colors can impart needed ‘oomph’ to darkish spaces. Deep blue-greens may work best with at least some light. You’ll feel the upbeat effect of color on the wall. These colors seem particularly suited to dens, libraries and office spaces.

In the examples that follow, wall art adds lightness or brightness:
Two views of a blue-green library, one view of each end of the space

The library, in cool tones, is that of designer Steven Gambrel’s Manhattan townhouse. Bright colors in the artwork add liveliness to the space. (Photos: William Waldron; from Elle Decor.)

A den with green beadboard walls with numerous framed artwork on the walls

Rich green beadboard wall, dotted with framed artwork, add to the character of this inviting den designed by Mimi McMakin. The room, while dim in terms of light source, gets enough light to make the deep green work. (The wall color is Sherwin-Williams Inland SW452. Image source: House Beautiful.)

Could these hues charm your guests or enhance your home office space?
Blue-green paint colors shown in paint cans

Shown: Benjamin Moore, Teal Blast 2039-40; Dunn Edwards, Sweet Garden DE5696; Sherwin-Williams, Synergy SW 6938; Valspar, Rainforest Mist 6001-108.

You can choose lighter versions of deep, rich colors for a room with more light. Stick with clear colors; avoid muted colors that will look drab in low light.

You Simply Prefer White

If you want to stick with white for the walls, there are whites that should work. Some whites are not completely white, but read like white. They have a slight color tint. I find that those with a yellow-greenish cast or that have a drop of blue-green do not look dirty and dingy, as is often the concern for white paint in low-lit rooms. Choose ‘white’ colors like Benjamin Moore Minced Onion OC-128 or Ice Mist OC-67. Use at least eggshell sheen. Then, to brighten the space, add brightly colored wall art and use bright upholstery fabric or bed coverings. Add bright colored lamps and other colorful accessories. Also, to liven the space, add an accent wall in a bright or rich hue.

As an example of using an accent wall, for one client I choose a rich green-blue (Sherwin-Williams SW6787 Fountain) for an accent in an otherwise white room with little light. The wall painted the new hue was the wall viewed upon entering and was the wall behind the head of the bed. Displayed on the bed were brightly hued accent pillows she’d made from quilts she designs. The pillows alone were not doing the job. The accent wall brought out the colors in the pillows and livened up the room.

Will the Room Will Be a Craft or Art Room?

If the only option for your desired art or craft space is that recalcitrant dimly lit room, then this may be the time to choose the whitest white you can for the wall paint. In a room where the color outcome in a finished artwork is of importance, the neutrality of white on the walls is needed. Also, some natural light is needed in this scenario. Maximize the natural light by reflecting it off the walls. Benjamin Moore Super White is a good choice. Use at least some sheen to further reflect the light. (I’ll add that the quality of light from a north facing room has always been the favorite of artists.)

If the Room Is a Home Library With Dark Wood Cabinetry

With low light, and dark wood cabinetry, which absorbs light, add bright paint color as accent. Other bright accents, like colorful artwork help the cause as you can see in this room:
Home library  with rich wood cabinetry and bright color accents

An accent wall painted a vibrant red with a brightly hued artwork liven this wood paneled home library. The rich yellow vintage armchair and ottoman, as well as the warm hued rug add brightness to the room designed by Robert Couturier. The warm accent colors harmonize with the reddish undertones of the wood. (Photo: William Abranowicz. From Elle Decor.)

In another warm wood-paneled library, notice that designer Bunny Williams has used a golden wall color:
The walls of this wood-paneled library have a warm and golden wall paint color.

The wall color of the room has a warming effect that white walls would not impart. The room glows with warmth. Reddish-toned upholstery adds to the effect.

Cheerfully yours

Every room is different in terms of the amount, directions, and quality of light, affecting the choice of wall color. The ideas above should help with planning wall color for a drab, dark, or dreary space you may have in your home.
Donna's signature
Caveat regarding paint color images: computer screen images of paint colors are only approximate. Always pick wall paint colors from the printed sample chips — and take them home for viewing in your space. And, always try out a sample of the color on your wall — against a white background.

Paint companies:
Behr. Benjamin Moore. Dunn Edwards (stores in some Western states) uses the Perfect Palette© Color System, as does California Paints (through independent dealers in some Eastern and Mid-Western states). Pratt & Lambert. Sherwin-Williams. Valspar.

Publication sources for images: D Home magazine. Elle Decor. House Beautiful. MyHomeIdeas. Traditional Home.

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