Creating illusions through colour

0114colour-schemes-optical-illusionEver wished your living room was a little larger, your hallway a little wider or your if you have the opposite problem, feeling small or isolated in a large cavernous space (not really a problem in London)? There are ways to create the perception of more space without having to knock down walls, or build them. Through simply painting, using different paint treatments and playing with scale within a colour you can challenge the perception of space.

You can create the feeling of more height when your ceilings are low, length when the room feels short or width when the room feels narrow all without changing the physical dimensions.

Our eyes perceive colours and tones in such a way that it is possible to create optical illusions that apparently change the dimensions of a room.


Colour: Context and Scale.

Before we get into all the tricks I should just run through a little colour theory explaining the context of colour and their relation to one another.

Lighter or Darker?: The grey dot appears to be larger when surrounded by the lighter grey and smaller when surrounded by a darker hue. To put this an interior context think, dark walls with a white ceiling will give a sense of the walls coming towards you.



Different or the same?: Without getting to scientific, when you place two hues next to each, add light, natural or artificial, they reflect into each other and start to absorb the connecting colour. You know that problem, you brought the pale blue paint, finished painting the room, put your reddish sofa back in the room and all of sudden the colour of the walls change. The red will bounce a red colour cast around the room, so remember to keep this in mind when choosing wall colours in relation to your furnishings, it’s more than simply a matter of creating a colour palatte.

Close or distant?: This is the most common trick, lighter walls open-up and recede whilst darker walls close-in and advance, there are other options apart from the extremes of white or midnight blue. By exploring colour, it’s tones and different paint treatments or finishes you can create the same effect.


So, when your space feels….


To small? 

Cool and lighter hues and tones such as blues and green give the appearance for the walls receding.  Low contrast combinations will create a feeling of spaciousness. Pale tones will open up a space visually, even with warm colours. Painting the ceiling, walls and architectural details all in the same colour will result in a seamless look and will minimise unwanted fussiness. This also works when the ceiling is to high and want to bring it down.



Pale ColourstosmallV2

To large?

Warm hues such as browns, reds and oranges give the appearance of the walls advancing or appearing closer than they are in reality. These warmer tones will also make the room feel more cosier and intimate.

Tone (when grey is added to a hue) can be used to modify or reinforce the required illusion. Dark tones – even when you are using cool colours – will advance.Dark ColoursV2

To high?

When you paint a ceiling a darker tone than the walls, it will appear lower and cosier. If you treat the floor in a similar way, you can almost make the room seem squeezed between the ceiling and the floor. This sounds like it could be a negative action to take but it essentially will visually just close the room in.

To create a cocooning feeling paint the walls and ceiling the same colour.  Especially effective when you want to visually enlarge a connecting room.  Another trick is to bring the ceiling colour down along the wall. How far down? Well this is really up to you. It could be just 200mm south of the ceiling or as low as your picture rail should you have one. 

To Low?

Painting the walls darker than the ceiling will visually heighten walls.

Using the reflective quality of a gloss finish on ceiling will create a sense of endlessness. Gloss also bounces light around the room. If gloss is to much for you tastes, try semi-gloss. Note gloss will show all the imperfections on the wall or ceiling. Dark tones a little less so but you will notice them so I would be interested in this trick ensure your surface is near perfect otherwise it will bug you I promise. The alternative will be like your skin after a bad facial! 

Painting vertically, using striped wallpaper or wood-strip panelling on the walls will also counteract the effect of a low ceiling.


To narrow?

A long, narrow hall or entrance will feel less enclosed if you visually push out the walls vertically by decorating them with pale colours, and being light colours they will also bounce light around. Another trick could be to paint the shorter end wall a darker colour which will re-proportion and foreshorten a long narrow room.


Paint techniques and finishes.

Apart from flat colour there are also paint techniques and finishes that will help you create an optical illusion of more space.


Stripes are brilliant: wide, narrow, vertically or horizontal, they not only make a interior feel dynamic but visually they can create more height or length. This won’t be news to most, as people understand how stripes work in terms fashion, you simply apply the same trickery to interior walls. I would encourage you play around with the width.


Any large-scale pattern will draw attention, and like warm and dark colours, will result in the walls advancing. Small patterns, achieve the opposite, they’ll appear as an overall texture.pages4

So, having said all that, I’m about to contradict myself. 

All these visual trickeries apply should you WANT to make your space feel larger, wider or cosier. If what you WANT is a small dark room that feels intimate and seductive go for it and paint it an dark inky blue. If you have a large living room or bed room and WANT it to feel spacious and grand DON’T paint the ceiling a darker hue, paint it in a pale vintage pink (FYI-big trend for 2015).

The most important choice is making one that is right for you. If someone walks into your brightly painted living room with every surface painted pink and says “I can’t see where the wall finishes and the ceiling starts!”, say “Great. That’s what I was aiming to achieve”. Your home is a reflection of your personality, there is only one of you, so in turn, there shouldn’t be another room like it.


Image credits: Title page, Dulux. Opening page. Farrow & Ball.