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  • Writer's pictureGabriella

Ask A Designer | Why Does the Yellow Paint Look Horrible? The Science behind colour selection.

Choosing the right paint colour can be a daunting task. It's not just about picking the colour you love; it's also about how it will look in your home. So when a dear friend of mine reached out over her botched office paint job, I knew I needed to help. She did the research, visited the paint store, hummed and hawed over yellow paint chip options, polled her Instagram following, and finally landed on this gorgeous shade of yellow. But as soon as she painted the first coat it looked completely different! WHY!!!???

yellow painting wall with teak shelves and decor items

In this blog post, we'll dive into the why's behind this failed paint experiment through the art and science of paint colour selection, and in particular the colour yellow.

1. The Impact of Lighting:

The first thing to understand about yellow, especially rich yellows, is that these colours contain a lot of Yellow Ochre pigment. And Yellow Ochre pigment has a fun trick up its sleeve --- it metamerizes, which is a fancy word that means that the pigment interacts drastically with different types of lighting which causes the colour to change drastically based on the quantity and type of light source.

Bright artificial lighting vs natural lighting is going to make the exact same paint chip look different. It is so affected by light, that the same colour on 2 adjoining walls can look completely different because of the way the light hits that wall.

In my friend's situation, the room faces southwest and gets a lot of natural daylight, and she records videos using soft box lights which push out a lot of direct bright light at a localized point. Recipe for disaster for a colour that is so finicky with type and quantity of light.

2. The Role of Surroundings:

The environment around your wall can also significantly impact how a paint colour looks. In a store, the surrounding colours and décor may complement and enhance the yellow paint you chose. However, in your home, the existing furnishings, flooring, and decor can clash or compete with this new colour, altering how it looks.

This is another layer to my friend's botched yellow wall. While the yellow may have looked great on its own, in the office, the orange undertones of the teak shelving interact with the yellow and heighten the orange undertones of the yellow. And, all the gold accents in the decor, shelving components, and artwork add more visual yellow and no contrast to the space.

3. The Influence (or lack thereof) of Paint Samples:

Lastly, remember that a tiny paint swatch in a store is not representative of how the colour will look on your entire wall. These samples are often too small to convey the full impact of the colour. So, while the yellow selected in the store may have been beautiful, it doesn't translate properly to the wall on a larger scale.


blue and white area rug

The only way to get this office back on track was to completely repaint the wall. In some situations, styling a room can alter the way a paint colour looks and bring the whole space together. But with this hue of yellow, and the accessories that already existed, there was no way to make the yellow work --- it would have needed so much rich blue and purples in large quantities specifically flanking that wall to subdue the colour.

So I picked some alternate colour options for her to choose from, taking her decor and accessories into consideration. When picking paint colours, always look towards grounding pieces like area rugs, artwork, and decor pieces to help inform you on colours that can be pulled to bring a room together.

stripped selection of colours from blush to soft pink so burgundy to green blue

The blush pinks and soft burgundies are pulled from her smaller decor pieces and the beige cream could serve as a neutral backdrop for the gold, wood, and accessories to pop off. The green-blue is a coordinating colour to the area rug. She chose Stratton Blue and it looks pretty nifty.

office wall painted stratton blue with teak shelves and decor

Key Tips For Picking Colours:

  1. Most paint stores have a light box at the paint chip counter (I know Benjamin Moore does). Take a look at your paint chip under the lightbox and toggle the light source from bright white to natural light to see if the colour changes.

  2. Understand that yellows and greens (because they contain yellow pigment) are colours that will always change the most under lighting conditions

  3. Never make a paint selection in-store only. Always check in your own space with a LARGE colour sample --- either tape a bunch of paint chips together to create a giant paint chip, or create a paint sample board.

  4. Never test paint directly on the wall -- colour interacts with colour, so the colour underneath shows through and gives a wrong reading. Also, multiple samples painted next to one another confuse your eye.

  5. Consider your surroundings and decor items when picking paint. Not only to help guide the colour selection, but how will those colours interact with the wall colour -- good or bad?

Picking a paint colour is one of those paralyzing tasks. Paint is such a simple design piece, but can feel so heavy when making the decision because painting is such a large undertaking. So the next time you are on the hunt for a paint colour, don't get trapped picking a colour that looks great in store but not in YOUR personal space. Consider lighting, the colour undertones, and what that colour will be interacting with before making any final decisions. And to make the process easier, follow the 5 tips above!

Happy painting! 🎨🖌️

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