Colour Conversation: Light or Dark?

I’ve started a Colour Conversation blog series with Melissa Morton Garden Design. With a background in colour science, Melissa knows her stuff about the theory of colour. She’s written a couple of posts about Hue and Saturation and Value which set out the fundamentals. This post sits alongside those and follows on from my previous piece which looked at the basics of colour psychology. 

In the context of Interiors, I’m looking at how colour makes us feel, and am starting with a look at background colour. By this I mean the base or surrounding colour for my design; the walls, the floor and the ceiling (and it’s important not to forget the ceiling; it shouldn’t just get a coat of white paint at the end!). 

Put more technically it’s the colour that surrounds the objects of interest. These background, or surround colours are important because they determine how other colours appear. When Melissa talks about background colour in gardens, she’s looking at the background colour to the foliage, flowers and garden furniture. For gardens, the background colours are the masses of trees, woody structure, the sky, grasses and other surfaces as well as fences and walls. 

I just feel fortunate that in interiors most of my background colours stay pretty much the same (give or take the odd change in lighting). Melissa’s background colours are forever changing with the seasons! 

What should your background be?

So how do you decide whether to go dark or keep it light? Should you add bold colour to the walls and what about pattern?!! Pinterest and Instagram don’t necessarily help either; there are so many beautiful images that it can be difficult to know what style suits you and your home. 

Back to basics: You

When I’m designing a room, I go right back to basics. This isn’t about finding a Pinterest image and copying that style. It’s about finding out what a client wants a space to FEEL like. Do they want it to feel warm, soft and cocoon like, or do they want something more invigorating and energising? More vibrant colours lend themselves to the latter, whereas more subtle tones work for the former. 

I also want to know what colours and tones a client is instantly drawn to. It may be “on-trend” to paint your walls dark, and whilst it can be cocooning for some, it can be energy sapping for others. This can make for quite a depressing living room experience, regardless of how Instagramable it may look! Whereas if you respond to a floaty, delicate environment, then you’re going to feel far more at home with softer tones. 

It’s the advice of Mad About The House Kate Watson-Smyth, but I agree whole-heartedly. Open your wardrobe and take a look at the colours you wear. They are likely to be the tones and combinations you respond well to. It’s often a good starting point. 

Back to basics: The Space

It may sound obvious but check out the light in your space. It will determine how colour is perceived. Don’t paint a tiny room dark? I disagree; in a small room there is less light. Paint it white and it’ll look dingy; a kind of white-pants-that-have-turned-grey-in-the-wash look. It’s not a great! Paint it in a navy blue and you have instant depth that can be enhanced and illuminated with clever lighting as required. Far more chic! 

And look outside. If you have foliage by the window, or trees in view what’s the impact on light? If it casts a green glow, or just blocks natural light in summer, then keep that in mind. Also think about the strength of the light source outside. If it’s South facing and the light is bright then the colour intensity is weakened. 

So do you go Dark or Light? Or somewhere in between? 


Here we’re talking about shades, low value colours. This is where black pigment is added to a colour (the hue) to make it darker. 

So when I’m talking about dark backgrounds think deep greys and midnight blues. Moody and cocooning, they form a fabulous backdrop against which you can layer your design. The key is recognising the almost absence of colour in your background. It’s bold but it works because it allows other colours to pop against it. Other brights, pale pastels or whites; they all work by creating contrast. Or you can layer dark on dark if you want a really dramatic look. It’s a great background for botanical styling. 


In colour science terms, a light colour is a high value colour. Often referred to as a tint, which comes from the process of lightening paints by adding white pigment. 

It is often be seen as the safe option; a light, neutral backdrop, but it certainly doesn’t have to be boring (and can  actually be quite tricky to find the right shade of white or grey!). A neutral base can create an elegant, calming tone. Layered with texture, neutral backgrounds can provide a super sophisticated look. Or you can use it as a base to offset pattern or more vibrant colours, letting colours shine where they may have got lost against a darker backdrop. The key is determining whether you want a warm or cool tone. Get that right and then you have a fabulously light backdrop upon which you can build your design.

Of course, you don’t have to go to one extreme or the other. There’s a whole spectrum in-between. Which is why colour is so much fun to play with. Ultimately, it’s all about personal preference and recognising how you respond to certain colours.