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Conquer the Paint Aisle: Use Science to Choose Your Colors

Select colors for your home interior that complement different situations.

Key points

  • Studies by neuroscientists have found that the colors in an environment can affect people in various ways.
  • Research shows that warm colors can make people hungry.
  • Seeing the color green has been linked to enhanced creative thinking.

It’s coming to the end of painting season in many parts of the world—that’s the time of year when you can keep the windows open as you replace the not-quite-right colors on your walls with new ones.

But what colors should you choose for those walls?

Lots of people are overwhelmed by the many, many options available to them once they get to the paint aisle of the local home improvement store. The sea of paint chips that stare back from the paint displays can be overwhelming. Some people decide to just paint their walls white because choosing anything else seems too difficult, but then they face perhaps the most trying choice of all: Which white?

How colors affect us

Science can help people distressed by all those paint chip choices. Neuroscientists have conducted lots of studies related to the implications of seeing particular colors on surfaces and their findings can be readily applied in homes and elsewhere. Researchers have determined, for example, that:

  • Lighter colors make walls seem a little further away than they actually are while darker colors create the impression that they’re slightly closer—so if you’re painting a room that would be a little more pleasant if it seemed to be a different size, choose accordingly.
  • Warm colors on walls make a space seem physically warmer and cool colors make it seem to have a cooler air temperature. Using a warm color on a sun porch that’s drenched in lots of tropical sun is probably not a good idea; try a cooler shade instead.
  • People seen in front of warm walls are thought to be friendlier. In some situations, sending that sort of positive signal can be desirable, and important.
  • Looking at warm colors can make us feel hungry, which can be a good or bad thing. If you’re always trying to get kids to eat, a breakfast nook painted a warm color may be in order.
  • We’re drawn to warm colors; so adding them to the far wall of a long hallway can make it more likely that we'll travel toward the end of that corridor.
  • To make it more probable that people will feel relaxed in a space, make sure it features colors that are not very saturated but relatively light; colors like pale sage greens or subtle dusty blues/oranges are soothing to look at. To rev people up, say in an exercise area or a laundry room (not many of us want to spend extra time with laundry), feature colors that are saturated but not too light, like Kelly greens or sapphire blues.
  • Seeing the color green has been linked to enhanced creative thinking, so it’s probably a good choice for a painting studio, writer’s nook, or home office.
  • Looking at the color red has been tied to degraded analytical performance; so it’s a good idea to keep it out of home offices, study areas, etc.
  • We get a burst of strength from seeing the color red, so it’s probably the best color for a wall you’ll look at while weightlifting or doing something similar.
  • Across the planet, people’s favorite colors are shades of blue; so if you’re selecting colors for someone else or plan to sell your home soon, select them. We also link the color blue to trustworthiness and dependability and competence, so it can be a good color for the wall that’s behind you during Zoom sessions. The least liked colors worldwide are yellow and yellow-greens, so be wary of using those hues in the same situations.

Use science to select surface colors that make it more likely that the situations you envision for your home—whether that’s upbeat family dinners, artistic achievements, or something else entirely—take place.

More from Sally Augustin Ph.D.
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