Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Warming and Cooling With Color

Use color to make your life more pleasant.

It’s the warmest part of the summer in the Northern Hemisphere and the coolest part of the winter south of the equator. People across the planet are looking for ways to temper the temperatures they’re experiencing—and keeping the hot and cold in check without running up monstrous energy bills or damaging the earth are a high priority.

Now, ignore where you are at the moment, and mentally put yourself in a cool forest glen and then in a desert inferno. Cool colors, like blues and greens predominate in that forest and warm colors like reds and oranges in that desert. Even the more neutral colors, like grays, take on a more bluish/greenish tint in that glen, while they have a more yellowish glow in the inferno.

Science has shown that there are real links between the colors that we see—and that we imagine in our mind’s eye—and how warm or cool we think a space is. In many sorts of “borderline” situations (when we’re on the verge of feeling too hot or too cold), the ability of colors to change the apparent temperature of a space we’re in can be enough to make us feel comfortable, without added air conditioning or heat.

Researchers have confirmed what people who named families of colors inferred long ago—that being in a space where cool colors predominate, for example, are used on the walls—makes us feel cooler and that being in a space where warm colors prevail has the opposite effect.

People who live in a climate where summer temperatures are particularly brutal can temper the sun’s effects with cool colors, particularly in entryways to buildings where relief from outside temperatures is particularly relished. The same goes for colors on the walls of sunrooms where temperatures often seem to approach those on the surface of the sun itself. If you’d like to warm up a space, or live in a place that for too much of the year seems to have a too-cold climate, use warm colors on walls, etc., instead.

Light can also be warm or cold—the packaging your light bulbs came in will tell you the temperature of the ones you currently own. Being in warm light makes us feel warmer, just like looking at warm colors does, and sitting in cool light tricks us into feeling a little cooler. A bonus—warm surface colors look fresher and cleaner when seen in warm light while cool surface colors perk up cooler colors.

It’s probably too late to repaint for this season—paint fumes can make a space unpleasant when windows are closed to lock in the air conditioning or the heat. Summer or winter will come again, however, and to make your life a little more pleasant, you can change the colors on the walls of the spaces where you spend time when it’s possible to comfortably open up the windows again. There’s also no need to throw away your current light bulbs and waste their remaining usefulness; when the time comes to restock, you can purchase ones that help you warm or cool, as desired.

Color, on surfaces or in light, can make your life better in many, many ways. By slightly adjusting the temperature of the place you’re in, it can really improve your day.

More from Sally Augustin Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today