Demystifying weird paint names, decoding the secret language of decorators, and unlocking the power of great visual contrast in your home colour schemes.
Read time: 5 minutes
We all heard about complementary and contrasting colours when we studied the colour wheel at school. And we‘ve all seen makeover shows talking about the power of colour to affect our moods. But did you know that the colours you choose for your home and the interplay between them can also help or hinder your eyesight and even your cognition? It can even save you money.
As I came to repaint our living room recently as part of my little experiment, I started doing some research into colour and contrast. Basically, good visual contrast within a space makes navigation much easier. Most of us rely on vision to receive the majority of the information we use to make sense of our surroundings and decide how to make our way around a space. People with good vision will enter a room and generally do this instantly, but people with some level of sight loss (the RNIB currently estimates there are more than two million people living with sight loss in the UK today) may take longer to make this assessment, and contrast and lighting are vital to help people do this. As with most of the things I talk about, it also makes life a little easier for pretty much everyone too – why not give your brain a little break from one or two of the millions of things it is already worrying about? And with the leading cause of sight loss being age-related macular degeneration, this is something that becomes a bigger issue as we get older.
This all makes complete sense and sounds lovely, but what does it mean in practice for you and I giving our homes a fresh lick of paint? I had come across all sorts of building standards and jargon regarding this, but it had all been getting quite confusing about what it means in my own home (should I paint my house black and white??) and not at all exciting (who wants a completely black and white house or one decorated the same as everyone else’s?).
I had heard it was all about Light Reflective Values (LRV). But what is LRV exactly?
So last week I rang the Dulux trade line to find out more and to chat to a human being. Big thank you to Tariq who answered my call and nerded out with me. My understanding was that you need to choose your paints carefully based on the points of difference between their LRVs to get the best contrast. I thought if I asked for a nice easy list of paint colours, arranged in order of their LRVs, then I could simply choose the best or worst ones and easily choose ones that had a big difference between them.
According to Tariq, however, sadly no such guide exists all in one place, but many thanks to Tariq for taking the time to break down exactly how paint codes work so I could work it out myself paint by paint instead. It turns out these paint codes are the secret language of decorators and interior designers who have long been in the know about these sorts of things. The layperson like you and I may accidentally do it too by testing bits on the walls and feeling like it brightens or darkens it, but there really is science behind this, not just ‘a feel’.
So here comes the science bit:
There are a number of different dimensions to colour and how our eyes perceive it. Notation schemes such as the Dulux Trade Colour Palette help us to identify these aspects using three elements.
Hue is the colour family – red, yellow etc.
Chroma is the intensity of the colour (often known as the strength or depth).
Light Reflectance is the percentage of light reflected from a surface. It is a 100-point scale where 0 is black and 100 is white (although in reality, even brilliant white paint only goes up to around 90% reflectance).
The three factors together are what give a colour its unique ‘character’.
Using Dulux’s colour of the year 2018 (Heart Wood to you and I) as an example, the code for this paint is:
10YR 28 / 072
10YR is the colour family (this is a certain mix of yellow and red). The middle number 28 is the LRV (so it reflects 28% of the light back) and 072 is the chroma (the higher this number is the more intense it is – it can go up into 900s).
All this information about paint codes and LRV is freely available and well understood in the trade market, but is not very well explained or publicised for the domestic retail market. The thinking seems to be that we prefer our paint to have vague, somewhat meaningless and often downright bizarre names like SilverLawn, Pendulum or Marianna’s Aria.
You see, in many educational or healthcare settings there is actually a legal requirement for a very specific 30-point difference in LRV between different elements e.g. walls, floor, doors, grab rails, ceilings, skirtings, to ensure a helpful level of contrast, so decorators have to know this. This is because light reflectance is deemed more important than hue in visual contrast because many visually impaired people find it difficult to distinguish between surfaces of a different hue.
As far as I am aware, paint and colour does not only exist in public buildings though, right? So why can’t we put this more specific information to good use in our homes too, where arguably we spend more of our time and which perhaps have a bigger impact on our comfort?
Understanding the notation schemes can help you put together a rocking colour scheme that you love, but one which also makes the most of the light you have, reduces glare, or helps create useful contrast and definition between elements in your room. Think about light switches, doors, skirtings and door handles etc. and anything you use to identify how you find your way around.
Going back to Heart Wood again: knowing its code (10YR 28 / 072) tells us that this paint does not have a high light reflectance value. This is fine, but now you understand it may not make the best use of the light in your room, if that’s what you need, but nor will it cause glare. What is really important to know is that to create good contrast you would need to pair it with something of 58 LRV or above.
Once you are armed with this information, you can go wild with your colour schemes! Dulux even have an augmented reality app and visualiser to help you.
Still a bit confused? Never fear! I am bringing this info out of the dark (0 LRV) and into the light (100 LRV) with my very own simplified guide, to help you make colour schemes that work for you without having to call Tariq. Hope you find it handy. Let me know what you think or if you have any other happy or horror paint stories!
NB. It is important to note that too much reflectance can result in glare however which isn’t good for some visual impairments. Don’t forget the paint finish (matt or gloss etc.) also affects this too. Highly patterned decoration can also cause visual stress and confusion for many people. Chuck into the equation that some people are colour blind or respond to colours differently (for example people with dementia, dyslexia or autism) and you begin to see how important it is to do your research into colour and the interplay between the ones you choose before grabbing your roller. There is no one-size-fits-all in all of this, but hopefully arming you with this information will make your choices more informed.
Also, complete side note, but just something I found interesting while researching all of this, not only does a paint with a higher reflectance create more light, it can also reduce energy needs. Seems obvious really but not something I had ever thought of, so perhaps you hadn’t either, so I thought I’d mention it. You can read more about this here and all the research the clever people at Dulux have been doing into this: https://www.duluxtradepaintexpert.co.uk/web/pdf/brochures/T14021.pdf
Finally, I have not been paid by Dulux to write this! Different brands have different notation systems so always worth asking how to recognise the LRV within it.
Disclaimer over 🙂