Color Theory


Colors are frequencies of light. The sun emits white light which encompasses all the colors. Colors are perceived as reflected by an object. Red things will reflect red light, and absorb other colors. Just as blue objects will reflect blue light, and so on. White reflects all colors, and black absorbs all colors. Hence, why wearing black outdoors on a hot, sunny day is not recommended.1

Remembering this simple color theory, it can be deduced that there exists variability of color in different light conditions. This is very important to remember when dealing with artistic design like interior design. As Cheryl Kolander, a natural dyer, points out some simple examples: blonde hair can be perceived as russet in the late afternoon sun, just as the ocean can look dark blue on a cloudy day.2 When considering the color finish of a wood floor, the light conditions of the space must be well-thought-out first. Colors can look different in different light conditions, hues and values of the color can change, even when paired next to other colors.2

There is variability to color when placed next to other colors. For example, putting a rust next to a grey blue will result in the rust seeming more red, and the grey will seem more blue. A rust next to a pink will seem more orange.2 Color illusion is a second factor to consider when designing interior space and considering wood floor finishes.

Color Wheel

Sir Isaac Newton first created the color wheel, in 1666.

There are three primary colors: red, yellow, and blue. All other colors are derived from these three, but these primary colors cannot be formed using other colors. There are color harmonies such as: analogous, complementary, and triadic. Analogous are colors that are adjacent to each other on the color wheel. Complementary colors are located opposite each other on the color wheel. Triadic colors are three colors that are equally distanced from one another.

Colors are associated with specific meanings with cultural backgrounds, and can also evoke emotions. Red on a sign or on a traffic light means ‘stop’. It can also mean danger. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. It is an angry color, or very passionate. Red is a color that screams at you. Green on the other hand can mean ‘go’, or money. It’s a color that represents good luck or nature. It is a soothing color, often used during meditation. Orange is a color that induces creativity and enthusiasm. In the Chinese culture, designing a space according to ‘Feng Shui’, using the color orange in a living room can provoke conversation among the occupants.

Color Intensity

As seen in the above diagram. Two examples of color illusion. In the example with Color A, the same sage green is put with a green background and a fuchsia background, but the sage green is washed out with the green background. However, the color pops against the fuchsia background.

Alternatively, Colors B and C are different colors. Yet, these colors look the same against a blue background and a bright green background. Color illusion is important to consider when choosing the right colors for interior finishes. Thus, it helps to consult a color wheel and learn how colors can have differing effects.

White Light Reflectance

As mentioned above, white reflects all colors, therefore it reflects light. Reflectance of a product such as hardwood floors can be beneficial to naturally enhance the lighting conditions in a space without added pressure on energy use. White floors have been shown to reflect light in a space. These techniques are used in daylighting design strategies. However, careful consideration should be given when installing a light flooring material with a glossy finish. A glossy finish can reflect light and create unwanted glare. Glare is a form of light pollution which can cause headaches, distractions, and is essentially light pollution.

According to the Material Council in the U.K., the reflectance of white surface materials can improve the performance of a building. In their report on white surfaces, metal has the highest albedo; the total solar radiation reflectance of a surface. However, metals do not have the same effect in mitigating thermal accumulation and the effects of the ‘heat island’ problem as white surfaces do.3 The Light Reflectance Value measures the reflectance of an object; it is the “percentage of light in the visible part of the spectrum that is reflected from its surface”.4 This value can help determine how beneficial a surface material is during the daylighting design phase of an interior space.

The drawing below shows an example of how a darker material surface versus a white material surface can have different temperatures effects on the surrounding environment. The white roof reflects more of the sun’s thermal heat and light, instead of absorbing it, resulting in lower rooftop temperatures (in this case), and lower indoor temperatures. Same conditions occur with flooring, as described in the next section.


There is a general rule to remember when dealing with reflectance of surfaces, there is an inverse relationship between reflectance and emissivity. Emissivity is the ability of an object to emit infrared energy; it is the temperature of the object. The lower emissivity a product has the higher the reflectance value. In conjunction with this, there is a relationship between emissivity and absorption, both can be high at the same time. Installing darker colored floors are more useful on top of radiant cooling systems as the floor will reduce accumulation of heat during warmer months. As a passive design element, darker colored floors will have greater benefits for the occupants in rooms with North facing windows.4

An example of how absorption and reflection is found in flooring is shown in the diagrams below. The left diagram displays a flooring that has high emissivity without radiant cooling installed. This type of flooring leads to thermal discomfort for the occupants. The diagram on the right is properly installed with a heat removal system incorporated.

Achieving White Wood Floors

There are a series of interior surface materials which can easily achieve a white surface that can help to increase light reflectance. Achieving white wood flooring while sustaining the natural beautiful wood characteristics is not impossible, but difficult to do. You must make sure to choose a wood that is naturally pale and that which has minimal changes in the grain. Four basic tips must be taken into consideration if daylighting techniques are an important feature you would like to incorporate into your project3:

  • The wood species – Non-tropical species are more likely to achieve pale/lighter tones: Ash, Maple, and Beech are a few good examples.
  • The cut of the plank – Minimize changes in the grain by choosing the right cut. Quartersawn will achieve a straighter, consistent distribution in the grain. Plainsawn will achieve greater variability in the grain pattern.
  • The grade of the wood – Higher grades will decrease the inconsistencies in the wood’s appearance, like: knots, marks, and grain pattern. It’s important to try to achieve a more homogenous appearance.
  • The Surface Finish – There are many ways to finish the surface of floors, but some recommendations to lighten the wood, by the Material Council, are: oils, soaps, pigments, staining and bleaching.

For more on Color Theory, read Cheryl Kolander's full lecture on Color Theory & more HERE


1Kelleher, C. (2012, December 12). Colm Kelleher: What is color? [Video file]. Retrieved from

2Kolander, Cheryl. (2004). Brilliant Colours with Natural Dyes. Portland, OR: MAMA D.O.C.

3Creative Materials Consultants Limited. 2012. Whiter than White. [accessed 2017 Jan 5].

4 Healthy Heating. c2012. Floor Covering R Values. [accessed 2017 Jan 5].

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