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How to Choose Colour for a North Facing Room

By 09/24/2010January 27th, 201743 Comments

I received a brilliant question this week from one of my on-line clients. Before he hired me to help him with furniture layout and colour selection in Palo Alto California, he asked this question:

Interior Design by Glen Gissler

“I’ve enjoyed reading some of your articles, and came across your website by doing a google search to confirm my suspicion that you can’t get away with white in a north facing, single windowed room (with an overhanging balcony above). Beyond avoiding white though, I’m somewhat at a loss as to the best colour to choose and I feel like I’m getting some conflicting info from Donald Kaufman’s book Color and Light.

As you referenced ‘A light colour will never come to life in a dark room’ which makes sense to me yet, in the chapter titled Central Park on page 196, he talks about the need to eliminate the dark paneling that was soaking up all the available light (it only had north facing windows), proceeds to paint everything in beige and then praises the beige for allowing the light to penetrate the space. . .Confused!”

One thing I have learned in my years of design is that we’re always looking for the ‘rules’ that pin colour down to where we can understand it and master it finally, right?  Hooray? Is this the answer? Unfortunately, the answer is still no.

When I received this question it made me realize that a post explaining how dark colours generally work better in dark rooms is still not the answer in so many different scenarios. Plus how dark is dark? Red, navy blue, rust? Or does a light to medium tone still qualify as a darker colour. The answer is yes.

Donald Kaufman No. 29 via Things that Inspire

My client was in a townhouse (like me) with a balcony overhead (like mine) and north facing. If you are in a room with northern exposure and you have large windows, a room can still be quite bright (even without direct sunlight).

So that is why a room with heavy panelling would indeed suck the colour out of a space and would therefore look a lot brighter painted out. Ahem, for the record, notice that I did not suggest this painting out of wood—Kaufman himself did in this case 🙂

Color by Donald Kaufman Photo by Simon Upton

My clients room had been painted white (with one dark and long accent wall) and when I suggested a lamp or two at the other side of the living room that could be on the whole time he was home to make it feel like a window was there, he noted that with the white room, having a lamp on just looked sad instead of inviting. A great point. The last three images in this post are rooms that clearly have a lot of light and so the pale colours work really well and even appear ethereal.

White by Donald Kaufman

So to thoroughly answer the question of colour in a north facing room here it is; if you have a north facing room with a small, insignificant window then yes, paint it a rich, dark colour; however if you still have brightness in the room, keeping the colour even a light beige or grey will still add way more warmth and personality to the room over white.

Over to you, what colour is your north facing room?

If you would like your home to fill you with happiness every time you walk in, contact me for on-line or in-person decorating and colour.

Related posts:

Happiness is. . . A Happy Wife
Why Does Comfortable have to be Ugly?
The Enchanting World of Atmosphere
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  • pve design says:

    I was told that the best light for painting is "Northern Light" – so I would want it bright white with perhaps a tint of blue – I would call it my "Art cave!"

  • Lazy Gardens says:

    All my rooms are pale pastels*, all bedrooms are lavender (Behr Amethyst Cream) with paler blue ceilings.

    It doesn't look like the same color in all the rooms because of ambient lighting, which is not a problem. I like the way the colors change as the sun moves.

    * except bathrooms which needed a taupe-white because of the *&^%$*^%$% tile they have. And laundry because I had enough paint left over from the bathrooms to do it and who cares about laundry rooms?

  • Kathy says:

    My north facing family room with small windows is painted Dried Parsley by BM. It's not too dark, and we do get morning light from the east, plus it's open to the kitchen which has more windows. The color seems to work for us.

  • Anonymous says:

    My north-facing living room with picture windows is painted Myan Gold by BM. The house is a Craftsman bungalow, 1920, has wide moldings painted a clean white. The wood floors are a medium honey-tone (ash or beech, I think) and we have richly patterned area rugs and lots of vivid Impressionist art on the walls.

    When we bought the house this room was a dark taupe with green undertones…rather sophisticated but way too gloomy for our Seattle-area, mostly overcast days.

  • My last north room was the family room (tiny) in my old house with 2 north windows. It was jamesboro gold, ben moore, and it came to life in there. Loved it!

    How about choosing color in your home when you live in the woods or with lots of shade? The house we're in now has this problem, and it has been be a real challenge. Can you do a post about shade? 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Can you show more pictures of this? I don't really get it.

  • Anonymous says:

    I just found your website randomly … love it!! I too used to be a colour consultant for Benjamin Moore here in the Fraser Valley for a couple years – fun job! You're making me miss it! 🙂

  • Beth @ Beyond White says:

    Our north and west kitchen is AF335 Safari. While most of the west wall is a window and sliding glass door, even with varied, good lighting the room needed to be warmed up since we're on a wooded lake lot with lots of shade.

  • Anonymous says:

    My north facing den has an overhanging roof – it was painted white but it always looked gray. And I agree with your client that lights on during the day look a little sad.

    So, I painted the den SW Hopsack and I'm thrilled with the results!

    • Jessica Minch says:

      I too have a room (well, kitchen & living room to be exact) that are north facing with small windows, porch overhang, and very little light. I’ve tried so many shades of whites, yellows, blues, and greens and nothing looks good. White looks sad and institutional and all other colors go gray and dingy. I lean towards neutrals (safe colors) but they just don’t work well. I’m tempted to try your Hopsack color on my kitchen walls…. Did you by any chance find a color that compliments it well? I would like to paint my cupboards a light but rich cream color with white trim. Just curious if you found light colors that work in dimly lit spaces?

      All I want is a home with happy, peaceful colors full of life and I feel like the lack of light is fighting me the whole way.

      Aright I’m gonna go pout in the corner like a little kid now 😉

  • My north facing rooms are:
    Atmosphere Blue by Restoration Hardware
    Delphinium by Laura Ashley for Valspar
    Apple 4 by Laura Ashley for Valspar
    Beige (no pink undertone) 🙂

  • Mary says:

    I have a north facing guest bedroom. It is painted Quiet Moments by BM. I have the same color in other rooms and it does look darker in the guest bedroom. But I love it.
    I think north facing rooms look dramatic and cozy in darker colors. The darker the better.
    Maria, have you ever recommended a client paint a room black? I love our windowless, black bathroom.

  • Dovecote Decor says:

    Please tell me if I'm repeating the same nagging problem. I see this point. I am very irritated when I walk into a dark space where my eyes dilate from a large window, providing light to a dark space. If I can't see, but my eyes are killing me, I can only hope I'm burning calories with all the squinting crunches my eyeballs are performing. It makes me grind my teeth, when light doesn't work.

  • Nicole says:

    My north-facing bedroom is painted Hay by Farrow & Ball- a very 'dirty' yellow. The color feels so warm and cosy in the room and, actually, seems a lot brighter on the wall than it looks on the paint sample. The funny thing is that I love it in this room but tried to use it another bedroom that faces south-east and the color seemed dull and a bit dark.

  • Christie says:

    My last house had a North facing living room. The windows looked out on to huge evergreen trees. I painted it a yummy yellow from Restoration Hardware. I think it's called buttercream. A few weeks in the spring the sunlight would change and the walls would have a green tint. I think this was caused by the trees. Weird.

    When talking about light…. can all problems be fixed or improved with lighting ? It's confusing to know if you are talking about light from a lamp or window or the color of walls helps bounce the light around….

  • adesso colour design says:

    Hi Maria!
    Things have been hectic lately and so I have missed your posts. We have to catch up soon, my dear!!!

    Light and colour is a faaaavorite topic of mine. This is a note also to PVE Design about artists painting in North light. The reason for this is that light from different directions has different colour. North light changes the least in colour throughout the day, so an artist can come back to a painting over and over again and the colours won't look completely different every time, allowing them more consistency and less frustration in their work. So interesting, isn't it??!!!

    ; ) jacqueline xo

  • Beth @ Beyond White says:

    So many of us with yellows. 🙂 Sometimes it's not just adding light, but changing temperature (Kelvin) of bulbs. I sometimes send clients to a lighting showroom that has a "light lab" so they can view their color chips under whiter/more yellow lights and literally adjust wall color. Of course covers/shades have impact too, and natural light.

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Dovecote Decor,
    What you are describing is exactly what drives me crazy about spaces with big windows and really dark rooms (restaurants are when you see this the most) the contrasting glare between dark and light really bothers me and I can't sit facing the windows in that case.

    Mary, I have recommended black for a bathroom, I'd love to see yours!

    Hi Christie,
    The number one fix for a dark room (in my opinion) is lamps even over recessed lighting because they offer the most atmosphere in my opinion. Colour is second because a white room in a dark one just looks gray.
    Hope this helps,

  • Annie, bossy color says:

    How timely!! I'm painting my north-facing living room for the mpfth time 🙂 The white and cream I tried just left the room looking blah. (I can't remember the exact white, but the cream was 50/50 Ben Moore's Windham Cream and Timid White – very pretty). So we're trying an EYE SEARING yellow now – same color as the drapes – and we'll see what happens.

    We experiment in our OWN houses, right, Maria?! Thanks for the great post!

    • Chris says:

      Just about to decorate a north facing living room. Did your yellow work or not?
      I have painted a north facing hallway yellow but it is too yellow, was going to go back to white but that doesn’t seem the answer either??

      • Maria Killam says:

        Yes it did. If you are having trouble with yellow it’s probably not muddy enough, yellow especially needs to almost look beige on the chip before it looks like the right yellow on the walls.

  • Annie, bossy color says:

    Sorry – the cream itself was very pretty, but it left the room looking blah. 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    I am always completely confused by your advise–and your pictures in your posts never support the points you are making-

  • Anonymous says:

    I would love to see pictures too. I am beginning to think there is no hope for our family room.

    We have a dark north facing family room because of a covered patio. Our house was built in 1988 when it was very popular to clad an entire room in oak. Unfortunately it is a very yellow oak with lots of polyeurethane making it shiny. The walls also have picture frame moulding. One of the previous owners placed wall paper inside the top half of the mouldings and then the wallpaper was painted a sage green.

    We can't figure out how to lighten the room, we are stuck. I can't imagine a dark color would help this situation. If you have any photos in your files on something like this and how it was changed, I would be so grateful to see them!


  • Beth Burns says:

    My take is that in general, if one really looks without preconceived notions, white mostly looks grayish or dingy on walls. And if it's bright enough to really look white, it's too bright – not visually ergonomic. That's admittedly my IACC bias talking, but standing there looking at "white" walls with umpteen clients, they see it too when asked to not "think white" as an idea but really look at various points on their walls.

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Anonymous,
    The first photo shows painted out wainscotting which was the point, the rest are photos using Donald Kaufman's paint or one's he's done but I see now that I should have used some better images to illustrate this point.

    Also there are no 'rules' that work for every situation, ANY colour other than the palest shade is better in a north facing room.

    Sorry for the confusion.


  • Rachel says:

    For a north facing family room/ kitchen How do you think Navajo white would look?

    • Maria Killam says:

      Dingy and grayish.

      • Lynn says:

        I just painted an interior, windowless, dark and dismal dining room and connecting entry hall to my townhouse condo BM Linen White because, of the 20+ foam boards of sample BM off-white paint colors I placed up to the wall, the Linen White was one of the very few that seemed to reflect alot of light, stayed bright, fresh and pretty-looking, and didn’t turn a shadowy dingy color. I am very, very happy with how it turned out! I no longer feel like I’m going through a cave when I walk through the dining room.

  • rachel says:

    Hi thank you for your advice. My walls are dark red which I love, but we opened the wall betwween the kitchen and family room and I thought maybe a change to something Calmer, being I have 5 young kids. I have white kitchen cabinets, black granite light hardwoods and curtains I love they are ikat bold print with red, yellow blue and green in them. I was also thinking of the color collectors item af-45. I would love to know what you think. Rachel

  • rachel says:

    The color sorry is AF-four5 my four key is not working!

  • Natalie says:

    I’ve been reading this thread with great interest as I am redecorating our bedroom for the first time (who said wallpapering would be easy hmm?!)…

    Anyhoo, it’s a north-facing room and I’ve been having a bit of bother trying to find the right colours to use. It’s such a small room so a deep colour would be too overbearing and would shrink it further I fear. It does have a chimney breast which the bedhead’s up against which could be used as a feature wall…

    So opinions… Would it be too boring to go Magnolia on the walls coupled with Crown’s ‘Parfait’ on the feature wall? I’m shelving the alcoves and was thinking I could paper in between them to add interest…

  • I have a north facing living room which I had originally painted yellow. The entire room looked and felt much better when I painted it a neutral beige. My bedroom is also north facing and I painted it a blue-gray (BM Gray Wisp).

  • Susan Telfer says:

    Just reading this post now. My north facing dining room with two small windows is painted “Blue Grass” but I am thinking of switching to “Palladian Blue” to better match the wallpaper in the sideboard inset. There is a huge sloped ceiling which is still white. I was thinking of painting it the same colour as the walls (turquoise) but now think I will paint it “Standish White” like my kitchen and family room, since you say say a light beige is better than white. I learn so much from your blogs.

  • Judy Dixon says:

    It seems each time I have a question about color in the home we’re building, I find the solution from our super expert Maria!!!

  • Kathy Miller says:

    I have a north facing condo, growing plants is nearly impossible, but my living room is painted RAIN by SW, Love the depth of the slightly teal green color. It is painted in flat finish and I have ugly orange wood trim. The color compliments the wood. I have light furniture with a lot of contrast between dark grey, teal and ivory/whites. I think the biggest thing in interest in the space, with my room it is texture. Great site, thanks

  • Laura Smith says:

    I have a little secret. I use swatches from a very high end suede paint and get regular paint mixed to those swatches. I pick very dark colors for all my small spaces like bathrooms and bedrooms usually painting the ceiling too. I pick medium muddy tones for living/ dining spaces. Then use lighter colors for the brightest areas leaving white ceilings. It’s opposite of what most people paint and it works every time!

  • Mae says:

    my house is facing northwest. i didn’t get a lot of light. My window treatments is deep golden brown. i painted it with thicket color by benjamin moore. Now, my china cabinet is dark and i have a hardwood floor mahogany, redwood dining and chair tables. My furniture and draperies doesn’t stand out. Need your advice and am thinking to change it to dried parsley by BJ. Am in dilemma. Please Help

  • Janet says:

    I would appreciate your thoughts on applying Zillow’s report recommendation of painting bathrooms “light pale blue” to gain a $5440 increase in selling price when the room has a northern exposure. Thanks for all you do, Maria.

    • Maria Killam says:

      I’m so glad you asked because that is a click bait headline and nothing more. The silliest thing I ever heard. What increases the selling price for any house is if it has a look and a feel and if it has current finishes. You cannot take a tuscan bathroom and paint it blue, that will do nothing to hide the earthy tile that no one wants anymore. Hope that helps, Maria

  • Liz says:

    I have been very happy with Behr
    Pale Sunshine its a neutral yellow . I always thought it was a true butterstick yellow , so I laid a stick next to the wall and yes … It is. I have had it in several homes, and it brings warmth to gray dreary northwest days. Its very pale bright creamy yellow in bright rooms , and in low light north rooms it richens up to a deeper shade. It reminds me of the creamy pale yellow you see in Southern coastal homes and French Country Chateaux homes.
    I guess I really need happy bright colors.
    Everyones color physchology is different.
    As I get depressed in homes that are painted green or grey or blue brown or dark shades. It goes very well with almost any shade of wood as well. I currently have it with a warm cherry wood trim and flooring and it really warms up the wood .

  • Keira says:

    In the 90s-early 00s, I lived in a north facing studio apartment with a bay window in an Edwardian building in San Francisco with 8+’ ceiling and glossy black painted wood floors. I painted it a rich yellow (midway between dirty and clean), had a somewhat dirty red rug, and I had clean purple roller shades made. Not what I would choose now but it spoke to me for 7 years.

    The kitchen, which had west facing windows into a lightwell, had off white walls with olive-y green cabinets and a dirty beige floor; doesn’t sound bad but I started painting the cabs fire engine red (??) but hated the look (of course), didn’t know what to do and never finished. lol

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