Color Psychology: purple paint swatches

What to know about paint light reflective value before you choose a paint color

Understanding Light Reflective Value (LRV) in Paint

Batman understands light reflective value and so should you. Doused in black, Batman knows he needs to reflect as little visible and usable light from his enemies. That black Batmobile and shadowy bat cave isn’t just dark because it’s cool, it’s also functional.

You can use the same light reflectance value science on your home. Paint light reflective value (LRV) is the percentage of visible light reflected or absorbed by a paint color. 

You instinctively know LRV as “black absorbs light” and “white reflects light” because we all know black shirts are hotter on a sunny day than white shirts. Thus white paint has a high light reflective value and black paint has a low LRV. Thus dark paint colors have a lower LRV than bright colors.

As light changes in your home, the paint color will change, too

Paint LRV is why it’s important to try multiple paint samples and color chips before choosing paint colors for your home’s interior spaces. Even exterior paint colors can be dramatically different at noon versus sunset. 

Bruce Wayne probably had an army of color consultants who helped him decide between “Tricorn Black” and “Black Magic” for HQ (his suit is “Rich Black). But you can get by browsing paint samples with a little more knowledge about light reflectance value.

So what’s the difference between a lower LRV, medium LRV, and higher LRV?

A lower light reflectance value is 0-40, with a medium LRV in the 41-80 range. A high light reflective value is anything 80+. A medium LRV is highly subjective for many paint colors.

Generally — and we do mean generally — you’ll want to stick to these ranges if you want to be in the mainstream:

  • Use a lower LRV for very large rooms, any room with fewer furnishings than the room was made to hold, or your furnishings are all bright. A light white couch pops more when it’s against a dark wall.
  • Consider darker paint with a low light reflectance value when surfaces around you reflect irregular amounts of light, like a pond that reflects artificial lights or a mirror that reflects direct sunlight.
  • Use light colors with a higher LRV when the interior spaces are very small, when exterior spaces are heavily shaded, or the area reflects lots of other colors from furnishings or flooring.

How to choose a paint color based on LRV that works for your home

Every major paint manufacturer lists every color’s LRV on the back of their sample paint chips (the little squares with quirky names like “Careless Whisper,” “Un-Teal We Meet Again,” and “Nacho Cheese”). You can also check their websites if you only remember the name or the paint can has been covered over with drippings. It’ll be listed as “LRV” with a score up to 100. 

If you have a “fan deck style” paint chip deck, the sort of thing you can hold like a deck of cards, the lighter colors are at the top, and the darker colors are at the bottom. Technically these are called “tints” and “shades.” You tint a color by adding more white and shade it by adding black. The more black, the more it absorbs light reflectance and the lower the LRV. Sometimes the LRV of these colors is printed in an index rather than on the card, making looking up the color online easier.

This matters if you have a room in your home with lots of windows and natural light. Or in an office or space with more than adequate artificial lighting, like halogen or LED bulbs typical of store rooms and offices.

The old axiom “never paint a small room a dark color” comes from the notion that darker paint will “absorb” all the light and airy vibe a room could have as if the light itself is oxygen. But plenty of rooms and buildings feel perfectly fine with rich, dark paint — like a library.

A high light reflective value can be tricky to work with

Take the example of a white house surrounded by trees. It’ll show the shadows of branches and leaves against the walls. This isn’t inherently good or bad. In some ways, it can highlight nature and use natural light to add visual interest around your home. 

Indoors, particularly under artificial light, you may find lighter colors are a struggle to work with because every painted surface will reflect light in ways you didn’t expect. For instance, if you imagine a red can of Coca-Cola sitting on a white tablecloth and you ask someone, “What color is the shadow of this can?” Most people would instinctively say, “Black because shadows are always black!” 

But color and light are relative, meaning they’re just a little bit different depending on what’s around them. If you could take a digital photo and use software to analyze precisely what color the can’s shadow is, you’d find it’s a dark red, like a sepia-tinted black that’s almost black but not quite. Pure black and pure white are rare occurrences in our natural environments.

Thus a higher light reflectance value will show a few more colors than darker, lower LRV ones. 

“I don’t really notice that much,” you say, but even people who don’t spend all day thinking about paint colors will intuitively recognize when a room “works” or “feels off,” and it’s because our brains are thoughtfully attuned to our environments. Subtle changes in a few colors, hue angle, or ways paint color reflects how light moves around our environment is deeply ingrained in our evolution.

What is the best LRV for interior paint colors?

Color consultants will use a 50% midpoint as a base guideline for interior residences. This is, of course, nearly all personal taste. 

There’s no right or wrong choice for the paint colors you choose in your home just like there are no right or wrong light fixtures for your living room. Someone reading this has one of those leg lamps they’re absolutely delighted with. Is it wrong? Of course not. Poor taste or tacky? Maybe to most, but it’s not wrong.

Still, guidelines exist when analyzing light reflectance value in a possible paint color. You don’t want to choose a paint color at the hardware store next to a window or under a halogen light if your house doesn’t have similarly-sized windows or lighting. 

What looks like a lovely light yellow or cream in the store might look like Mountain Dew in your dark home interior. Even pure white can change dramatically based on the shadows formed by corners, trees, exterior lighting, and direct sunlight at certain times of the day.

  • Pick colors that look best in the corners, at noon, and in the morning or evening. 
  • Paint a sample color on multiple points of your wall to see how the light hits it throughout the day as light changes.

If you go to a hardware store to choose colors, they sometimes have adjustment filters that mimic daylight versus direct natural light. These filters can also reduce the amount of light produced, but you’re still standing in an unnatural environment compared to your house.

What is the best LRV for exterior paint color?

If your home is dark, perhaps because you’re a secretive billionaire superhero or it mixes darker colors like browns alongside deep, red bricks, a lower LRV might mean you need more exterior lighting. The number of light fixtures needed depends on other fixed factors, like trees and roof lines. 

The best example of how much light reflectance matters is on a porch. Many covered porches appear dark from a distance simply because they’re always in the shadows. If the rest of your house is a dark paint color, it can be classy but makes the porch look cavernous. 

A little extra outdoor lighting can add dimension to those shadowy corners and spaces so they don’t appear like the Bat Cave (unless you’re going for that sort of look, in which case: cool!)

Exterior paint light reflectance value can change your home’s temperature (a little)

Remember, just like wearing a black shirt on a sunny day, your home’s internal temperature is likely higher if you use darker colors with a low LRV. As the name suggests, a lower LRV means less light reflectance. 

This can be ideal for cooler climates, but here in the East Bay it likely doesn’t matter too much. It depends on how much direct light your home receives. The roof is the single biggest collector of direct natural light, and roofs are frequently dark. 

Likewise, covering your home’s exterior in white paint or shrouding it in inky black will not dramatically save or expend energy. Unlike the small confines of a car, you likely won’t even notice a difference in a house, but you will notice how it looks and feels to you, so choose a wall color that works for your taste and style.

Bring color consultants to your door armed with paint swatches and samples

Knowing and understanding paint light reflective value isn’t genuinely all that necessary for most people. Pick what you like and what feels good for you and your home. 

But understanding LRV a little will help you choose paint colors with an understanding that your room is different at 6 in the morning than at 6 in the evening.

Avoid the hassle of going to the paint store and let one of our experienced consultants come to your home. You’ll get to feel like Bruce Wayne outfitting Wayne Manor, even if your house has a handful fewer rooms. We can help you decide between dark colors, warm colors, paint finish, and more. Contact us to get started or request a quote.