Breaking the Rules: Brighten Up Without Relying on White

White is often held up as a cure-all for brightening dark spaces. After all, white paint brightens and lightens other paint colors, so why shouldn’t it have the same effect on a dimly lit room? For starters, it’s light that determines how we experience color.

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Breaking the Rules: Brighten Up Without Relying on White

Article Written By: Jess McBride, Houzz

Anyone who has ever brought home a fabric or paint swatch that looked perfect in the showroom and dull at home has seen this phenomenon in action. Even the sparkliest white will often look gray in a dingy basement. Therefore, choosing colors that emanate warmth is often a better way to brighten up a space than relying on white paint. Here are 10 solutions for coloring spaces with limited natural light.


1. Just add cream. A step or two removed from white chromatically is buttercream, an ivory tinged with yellow. This is the kind of color that can radiate warmth in virtually any lighting conditions, whereas blues and cool tones will look steely. What’s more, the color pairs well with brighter, orange-toned woods, as seen in this Detroit bathroom.

Spacious Master Bathroom
Photo by Angelini and Associates Architects - Browse traditional bathroom ideas

2. Capture the sun. One of the very best brighteners for those bold enough to take the plunge is a sunny full-spectrum yellow, which mimics the effect of sunlight as much as any paint color can. It’s a more saturated take on the buttercream option.

2001 showcase
Photo by Witt Construction - Discover traditional bathroom design inspiration

3. Go brighter, not whiter. Even a deeper, more mustard hue like that of the wallpaper in this living room designed by Scott Sanders will brighten a space more than a similarly saturated cooler shade, especially when paired with other brights like the aqua rug and furnishings. To get a better sense of the principle at work, notice the left side of the photo, which is farther from the window and nearly cast in shadow, yet still radiates with the warmth of a sunset.

Kips Bay Showhouse
Photo by Scott Sanders LLC - More eclectic living room ideas

4. Perk it up with pink. Another warm color that’s said to be flattering to all skin tones is pale blush. Like cream, it works well with wood tones, especially deep browns. Pale pinks instantly cozy up rooms large and small, making them ideal for giving a dim room a glow.

5. When in doubt, go bold. A hue that would seem wild or garish in full light might feel mature and measured in a room that doesn’t get a lot of sun. Even a small amount of lamplight will amplify the color’s magnitude. The bright green and orange tiles in this Dallas bathroom work so well because they balance the sterility of the white fixtures and keep them from looking dingy.

6. Commit to gray. If you really want a white space but are afraid it will look dingy without natural light, consider fully committing to gray. Painting these custom built-in bookshelves in this New York City den white would’ve been the expected and safe choice. Instead, designer Anjali Pollack went with a warm gray to create a cozy, intimate space.

7. Venture to the dark side. Speaking of cozy, another option is to choose a color that makes no apologies for its dark depths. Some say a darker color makes walls feel as if they’re closing in, but if your room is small anyway, a color choice will only go so far in enlarging it. Instead, try embracing the cave-like confines of a diminutive powder room with a rich hue like brown or even black. The light cast of this designer wallpaper provides a warm glow even if it doesn’t visually enlarge the room.

Gold Coast Residence
Photo by Robyn Shapiro Design - Search contemporary bathroom design ideas

8. Take an avant-garde approach. When giving decorating advice to a broad audience, it’s tempting to offer up solutions that will appeal to the majority, but this graffitied powder room is unabashedly not that. In another example of embracing a dark space for what it is, this custom wall treatment, created by a Los Angeles street artist, benefits from the lack of natural light, which creates an appealing grittiness that’s every bit as important to the aesthetic as the paint color.

9. Take a lesson from the kids. Children and teens who haven’t yet embraced adult design norms are great teachers for those of us looking to infuse our spaces with thoughtful color. They show us how multiple brights can team up to create cheery rooms regardless of how many windows and skylights we have. Monochromatic white palettes work beautifully in rooms blessed with abundant natural light, but in rooms like this, with only two windows that are partially covered, color is king (or queen).

10. Look for warm undertones. White-walled loyalists aren’t likely to change their tastes just because this ideabook suggests a second path, nor should they. Selecting a warmer white and warmer light bulbs will be your key to creating a room that glows rather than glares at night. During the day, when the curtains are opened and sun filters through, the yellow, amber or red undertones of your chosen white will soften the room.

If you liked this article, be sure to check out more below!

8 Ways to Brighten a Dim Room
Try This Teal Color in Your Home
Here's Why You Should Go for Beige in a World Gone Gray


Breaking the Rules: Brighten Up Without Relying on White - Photo Gallery

  • Kristy Petherbridge
Comments 2
  • Jonathan Strom
    Jonathan Strom

    my son has a graffiti room which at first I did not like but then really grew to appreciate it. Love that graffiti bathroom- I feel like it’s true that a bathroom is a great place to take a… risk ;)

  • Diego Ortega
    Diego Ortega

    LOVE . LOVE . LOVE. APT2B your articles are the best! Keep them coming please!

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