How Darkness and Lightness in Color Affect Your Mood

The value or brightness of a color measures the relative darkness or lightness of a particular hue. To add darkness or shade to a color, artists incorporate dark shades like black or dark gray. Artists use white in order to add lightness or luminescence to colors where they want to soften the intensity.

Dark and light colors create distinct atmospheres. Neither choice is all positive nor all negative, but the darkness and lightness of colors will impact people’s moods in different ways. Depending on your needs, a dark or light colored environment may suit you better than the other.

Psychological Effects of Darkness

Psychological Effects of Darkness

Darkness in color has both positive and negative associations, which are due to our cultural context, age, personal preference, and environment.

  • Darkness in color is related to greater haptic sensation – Certain scientific studies have found that people relate darkness in color to an increase in the sense of touch, pressure, and temperature. This may be because darker colors appear to have more depth and texture.
  • Dark colors reflect power and sophistication – We associate dark colors like black and navy with powerful professions like judges and the military.
  • Darkness in color is related to mourning or sadness – In the West, we associate dark colors like black, gray, and navy with mourning or sorrow.
  • Dark color project stability – Dark colors like navy blue and forest green surround us in nature. Like an old forest, these colors project strength and security.
  • Dark colors can have a negative impact on mood – Darkness, in general, can cause melancholy over time. This is true in climates that get less sun in the winter months. Dark colors can also impact mood negatively for some people.
  • Dark colors can increase attention – Many associate dark colors with studiousness. Some scientific studies have found that people perform better and pay attention more closely when they are surrounded by dark colors.
  • Dark colors make rooms appear smaller – Dark colors absorb light, so they can make a room feel more enclosed. Some people prefer this effect because it can make a large room look cozier.

Psychological Effects of Lightness

Light colors like white and pastels have overall positive connotations, yet these are also dependent on cultural context and preference.

  • Lightness in color is associated with happiness – Scientific studies have found that people exposed to light or bright shades of colors in their environment report higher levels of happiness.
  • Light colors impact performance – Most people view light colors as more relaxed and carefree than dark colors. Some studies have shown that people are able to perform more creatively in light colored contexts.
  • Lightness in color makes a room appear larger – Light colors are more reflective. This allows light to bounce around the room, which makes the room look larger.
  • Light colors positively impact energy levels – Light green and yellow colors have been shown to increase feelings of alertness and greater energy.
  • Light colors are associated with health – In the West, we associate light colors with spring and new beginnings. This is why marketers utilize light colors in packaging surrounding health food and wellness products.
  • Light colors attract more attention – Light colors contain more white, so they are more reflective. This makes them more noticeable and eye-catching.

History of Measuring Color Lightness vs Darkness

The development of color theory has been an important endeavor of scientific and philosophical studies from ancient times. While scientists and philosophers developed the color wheel by the 17th century, they did not have a system for quantifying the darkness or lightness of particular hues. Color theorists began experimenting with the idea of using a color solid system to represent the range of all colors including lightness and darkness. Several scientists proposed color models, but none were as influential or lasting as the model created by Alfred Munsell.

In the early 20th century, Munsell developed the most successful color solid model that color practitioners still use today. The Munsell color system is a 3-D color model that represents colors based on their hue, chroma, and value. The value, or darkness or lightness of a color, is represented on a vertical scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents black, and 10 represents white. As colors move up the scale, they become lighter in value.

How Can You Determine the Darkness or Lightness of Color?

Scientists have complicated tools such as color meters to measure the lightness or darkness of a color, but this is not practical for home use. Instead, it is best to rely on the LRV number the paint company assigns to a color or your own perception of the color to consider its value.

Light Reflectance Value

The Light Reflectance Value (LRV) is a number that indicates the amount of light that a particular color reflects. The numbers range from 0 to 100, with numbers closer to 0 indicating low reflectance and numbers closer to 100 indicating high reflectance. While this is not a perfect measure of lightness and darkness, this number is practical because it is a quick reference point. This number will help you make more informed choices about how light or dark a color is in relation to other colors.

For example, Stained Glass (CSP-685) and Bella Blue (720) are similar blue colors from Benjamin Moore. Bella Blue has an LRV score of 17.5 compared to Stained Glass which is 13.15. Bella Blue reflects more light than Stained Glass, so it will appear lighter.

Visual Perception and Preference

Visual perception and preference also help in determining the lightness or darkness of a particular hue. In color theory terms, one color may be darker than another but still reflect more warmth or brightness to you. For example, Benjamin Moore’s Deep Poinsettia (2091-30) has an LRV of 13.44 compared to Hamilton Blue’s (HC-191) LRV of 18.25. Deep Poinsettia is “darker” but may appear more vibrant based on your perception and preferences.

Tips to Help You Choose a Light or Dark Color

Choose a Light or Dark Color

There are an endless array of gorgeous light and dark colors, and there are many factors that determine which shade of color you choose. Here are some ideas that will help you determine if a light or dark color is better for your space.

Purpose of the Room

Consider how you or your family will use the room. Think about using lighter colors if you are using the room for active or creative endeavors. Dark colors create a look of sophistication that works well for formal or adult entertaining areas.

Size and Layout of the Room

Darkness and lightness of color impact how we perceive the size of a room. Use a light color if you have a small room and want to promote the illusion of space. Larger rooms may benefit from dark colors to make them appear more intimate.

Natural and Artificial Light Sources in the Room

Dark colors appear darker with less illumination. Rooms with less natural and artificial lighting will appear brighter if you use lighter colors. Light colors wash out next to large windows or under strong lights, but dark colors will help define the space in strong lighting.

Surrounding Colors

The context of color is an important component in how we perceive the lightness or darkness of a color. Consider your overall color scheme as well as flooring and soft furnishings when you are choosing a particular color. Light colors with light floors and surrounding colors create a cohesive look. For a bolder look, pair contrasting light and dark tones together.

Personal Preferences and Style

Colors do affect mood, but they impact people in different ways based on many factors including their preferences, cultural context, and geographic location. Some people feel safe and comfortable surrounded by dark colors, while they make others feel depressed. Light colors stimulate energy, but some colors, like white or light gray, appear cold and sterile to different people.

Dark and light colors also project different styles. We associate dark colors with more traditional and classic styles. Light colors reflect modern and contemporary styles. Browse through interior design pictures to help you evaluate what styles you like as well as the colors that resonate with you.


Consider the mood you want to create in your space. Light colors help to generate feelings of happiness and optimism. Dark colors can create a sophisticated and formal atmosphere that generates calmness and feelings of security. Yet, we also associate darkness in color with sorrow and depression, so it is important to understand your particular associations or feelings before you choose a color.

Don’t shy away from dark colors if you like them. Consider painting just a focal wall a dark color if you love the color but worry that too much of it will dampen your mood.