Light and Color

Color perception changes throughout the day. Here’s what you need to know.

Is that wall beige, tan or yellow? It could be any of the three depending on the time of day. As the intensity and angle of the sun shift, the wavelengths reflected from the surrounding objects shift along with the wavelengths themselves. The only way to be absolutely sure what a color will look like under different lighting conditions is to observe it firsthand.

Human beings are “diurnal” as our eyes have evolved to see better during the day than at night. Our brains spend a lot of time during any given day sorting light waves, assessing “chromatic bias” to determine what color we’re really observing. We even do this better than a camera does.

“Every natural light source has a chromatic bias, and the brain is surprisingly good at removing this bias to determine color. One of the reasons our brains find sunsets so thrilling is that we can see the color biases changing.”
Bevil Conway, Wellesley College Neuroscientist

Morning and evening have an orange bias, while midday light under clear sky has a blue bias. As the angle and quality of light changes, the brain adjusts for these shifts automatically by subtracting the prevailing bias – orange or blue in natural light – to maintain accurate color perception.

During transition periods when the timing of the light changes is the quickest, from dawn to early morning and from dusk to dark, the brain has the greatest challenge. When assessing the color in a room, it is best to avoid these times when the brain’s perception of color is constantly changing and in flux. Colors appear truest in the middle of the day under indirect natural sunlight.

The sun’s angle and direction, as well as the amount and quality of artificial light, can have dramatic impact on color perception. Northern-facing rooms tend to skew blue during the day, and western-facing windows are most affected by the orange shift at sunset. Everything in a room affects color perception – furniture, carpet, drapes, bookshelves – which is why a blank wall in an empty room can look entirely different when the same room is furnished. What we perceive as “colors” are really surfaces reflecting and absorbing various wavelengths of light.

Like natural light, artificial light has its own color biases. Incandescent bulbs have a warm orange shift. Fluorescent bulbs provide a cool blue light. LED light is whiter and more neutral but can also be programmed for different wavelengths and intensities, making it an increasingly popular indoor lighting option.

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