Photo: r.classen (Shutterstock)
No house or apartment is perfect. Even if it seems perfect when you first move in, your needs will shift over time, and you might wake up one day and realize your bedroom, office, or the living room looks too small, too big, or otherwise weirdly shaped. Changing the physical characteristics of a space is usually an expensive and time-consuming slog. But you can change the perception of a space using various visual tricks—and one of the cheapest and easiest of these visual tricks is paint.
Simply by choosing and applying paint color to the walls in a thoughtful way (backed by some simple scientific principles), you can make rooms look bigger or smaller without physically changing anything else.
It’s important to note that the impact of paint on our perception of a room is generally subtle—you’re not going to convince anyone that the office you built into your closet is spacious by painting a bold accent wall. But that subtle effect actually can be quietly powerful.
How paint color can affect your perception
There’s a gentle debate about the efficacy of paint color on our perception of a room’s size, but there’s real science backing this up. There are three main things going on you look at a room:
Color saturation. Color saturation is a measurement of how vivid or intense a color is. Highly saturated colors look bright and vibrant to your eye—pastels, for example, are not very saturated at all. Studies have shown that the more saturated the color of an object, the larger it appears to be. Experiments have also demonstrated that color saturation affects the perception of the size of a room—for example, a piece of furniture with a highly saturated color made the ceiling seem lower. This also applies to the color of the walls—highly-saturated wall colors can make the room seem smaller. Color progression. Color draws our eye. Going from light to dark draws the eye up or down, making a space seem larger or smaller as a result. One study showed that rooms painted a light color seemed taller when people were asked to estimate ceiling height. The Rectangularity Illusion. Studies show that people tend to overestimate the size of spaces when they are rectangular as opposed to square. By creating an illusion of rectangularity, you can fool the eye into seeing a square room as larger than it is.
Again, we’re talking about perception here, so your mileage may vary on how effective these tricks are. There are also other factors aside from the color on your walls and ceilings: The light in the room will be a factor, as will the furnishings and type of flooring.
How to paint a room to make it look bigger or smaller
OK, so how can you apply color to a room to change its perceived shape and size? Here are five ways you can transform a room with just a coat of paint:
Embiggen a room: Since color saturation can make a room feel smaller, lighter colors can have the opposite effect. Light colors closer to white are reflective and bounce more light, making a room seem brighter and thus larger. White also “disappears” to the eye, making things like the opposite wall seem further away. Also, using the same color throughout a room can enlarge it by erasing edges—edges make a space seem more defined and thus smaller. You can also use The Rectangularity Illusion to make a room look bigger by painting the walls a contrasting color to the ceiling, visually stretching them. Cozify a room: If you have a large room you want to feel more intimate and cozy, paint all the walls (and ceiling) a saturated, rich color that absorbs more light, “shrinking” the space visually and making it seem enclosed. If you choose a saturated color that contrasts with the flooring, you’ll create edges that will further define the space and make it seem smaller. Heighten a ceiling: Paint a low ceiling white if you want it to seem higher—it’s the same effect as white on your walls. Using a gloss finish on your ceiling will increase the amount of light it reflects, making it seem higher as well. You should choose your wall color carefully if you’re trying to raise a ceiling—too dark and saturated will bring the ceiling down, but a bit of contrast helps sell the illusion. Squeeze a room: If you have a room that resembles a bowling alley, paint the shortest walls a darker color, which will make them seem nearer. This will reduce the perceived rectangularity of the space, making it seem smaller. Paint the ceiling the same color for an even stronger effect. Widen a room: You can also split your walls into a top and bottom, painting your ceiling and the bottom “band” of your walls a light color and the middle band a darker color. This sandwiching effect creates an illusion of a wider room, as the darker band will seem larger and the lighter bands smaller.
None of this is magic, and painting your room in a certain way won’t make your oversize couch fit in there. But if you feel like the walls are closing in when you sit in your tiny living room to watch TV, or if you feel like you don’t have enough furniture to anchor your surprisingly enormous master bedroom, a splash of paint can have a real visual impact.