Escape the gloom indoors with these en-lightening ideas
by Cheryl Cook
February and March may signal the start of spring in some places, but in Atlantic Canada, we know that they more often herald the last leg of a long slog through the colder months. This time of year is also known as the season where I tend to stand at the window, staring out at the prematurely dark skies, clutching a glass of wine, and making dramatic pronouncements about moving to Italy. We all cope in our own way.
While the nights may still be endless and dark, there is no reason that your home must follow this trend. And what better way to snap you out of the dreary doldrums than taking stock of your surroundings and seeing how you can quickly and easily battle the mid-winter gloom with a few changes.
Look for the light
No matter what space you’re eyeing for change, the first step is to assess the natural light. A north-facing room will be the biggest challenge, with fairly gray light most of the day, while a south-facing room will be treated to lots of sun from early morning to mid-afternoon. East-facing rooms get beautiful morning light, but little bright light for the rest of the day, while west-facing rooms will get a touch of the golden hour, with the rich hues of evening and sunset coming in.
It’s worth taking a moment to note which direction your windows face and consider this when deciding which the of the ideas I’m suggesting might give you the best result. South and west-facing spaces can benefit from the addition of some cooler tones to contrast the warmth of the sun, and north or east-facing rooms will appreciate a warmer palette to counterbalance the cooler light.
Photo credit: bigstock/PlusONE
Brightening your space
I realize that not everyone relishes the challenge of painting a room the way I do, but if you are up to the task (or happy to pay someone to tackle it for you), paint is one of the most effective ways to quickly change the tone and light in a space.
The most obvious way of lightening a room with paint is to use a light or white shade. But you don’t have to banish colour. Pale tones can still bring colour to space without crowding or darkening, but bear in mind your natural light. In a room with cool light, a cool gray may end up looking very blue, so you’re smarter to stick with neutral or warm grays. Similarly, yellow walls in a bright sunny room may feel overwhelming. A neutral, cool cream colour may work better.
If you’re lacking in natural light, you can also use the sheen of the paint to your advantage. The higher the sheen of your paint, the more light it will reflect. The other edge of this sword, however, is that semi-gloss or gloss paints can show every flaw on your walls. A great middle ground between the two is a satin sheen. It gives a minimal but beautifully reflective quality to your walls, helping to pick up any available natural light.
As always, sampling paint in the space you want to apply it will save you time and money in the long run. Purchase sample cans from your paint store and paint two-foot by two-foot patches on your walls to get a sense of how the colour will look over the course of the day, as the sun moves through the room.
Windows light your rooms
The first piece of advice I can give you for windows is to make sure they are as clean as they can be. You’d be surprised how much light can be lost of a film of dirt or dust.
Next, have a look for items that might be blocking your access to light. Outdoors, you may want to assess trees and bushes, and possibly make plans for a spring pruning. Indoors, furniture can sometimes be rearranged to free up space or minimize blockages in front of your windows.
But by far the most common culprit in a loss of natural room light is the curtains we hang on our windows and the way we do this. For the language lovers and décor pedants out there: yes, there is a difference between curtains (usually lighter and unlined) and drapes (usually heavier and lined) but for expediency, I’ll be referring to all of the possible fabric window coverings as curtains.
Your first task is to take stock of what you are using to cover—or to accent—your windows. If you have dark walls, are your window coverings also dark and heavy or are they offering a contrast to this? If you are lightening the palette in your room, but don’t want to paint your walls, this is a great place to add a paler tone. Conversely, if you are bringing light colours to the walls, you can use the curtains or drapes to either offer a contrasting burst of colour, or to keep the smooth, light palette flowing across the walls.
Next, have a look at how your curtains are hung. If I had a nickel for every time I have seen curtains hung too low and tight to the window, well I wouldn’t be a millionaire, but I’d certainly be keeping myself in smart cocktails for a while.
Hanging your curtains low and tight reinforces to the eye that the windows are small, and the ceiling is low, which is usually the opposite of the effect we’d like to have. It also means that your curtain panels will be covering the windows to some degree most of the time, blocking out light.
By bringing the rod up to sit at least four to six inches above the window frame, and hanging it wide enough that when you pull your curtains open, they just cover the edge of the window frame, you create the illusion of height and wider windows, and you let the windows do their job of bringing light into your space.
Finally, when considering your windows, you may want to ask yourself if you even need those rods and curtains at all. If your home is situated away from prying eyes or high in the sky, you may want only blinds that can be discreetly mounted and brought down to shield the sun or for occasional privacy. And if you have large, beautiful windows, particularly if they look out onto a wonderful view, you may want to make this the feature of the space, rather than the décor around it. It’s not a look for everyone, but it’s worthwhile remembering that we don’t need to do things simply because that’s the way we’ve done things before.
Bringing the light
Not every room has stunning natural light, and not everyone lives in a place where there is sun for more than four hours a day in February. (Note: I realize that statement may be perceived as overly dramatic by some. They clearly winter in Florida and, as such, should not judge me.)
We often fail to light rooms adequately according to their function and our own needs, and then grumble about it every time we sit down and try to read a book. Stop grumbling and take note of some basic rules for lighting.
Think of the function of the space. If you are doing tasks like cooking, you’ll need general overhead light, and task lighting such as pendants hanging over your work spaces. If it’s a cozy space, like the bedroom, you’ll want the soft light of table lamps, but don’t forget some general overhead lighting that will allow you to find errant socks in the corners.
In a living or family room space, layer your lighting. If you have nothing but overhead light, your room will always feel a bit harsh. If you have nothing but lamps, the room may look cozy, but good luck seeing what you are doing. Creating layers of light with overhead lights, table lamps, and floor lamps creates the best lighting for a space like this. If you enjoy a bit of knitting or crosswords you may require task lighting, so don’t forget to add this to the set up.
In a space like the bathroom, overhead lighting is essential for general lighting. Vanity lighting for applying makeup or grooming works best when you light the sides of the mirrors first, and then add more light from above. Cooler light can also help brighten a space. Consider replacing some of your bulbs with bulbs in a fuller spectrum of colour as these cast light which more closely resembles sunlight. This is a great idea in functional spaces, but for cozier spots, you may want to test it out, as the light may simply be too much.
Finally, have a look at your lampshades. Darker (or dingier) shades can be replaced with lighter, whiter shades that will allow the lamp to cast more light. Bonus: this is a great way to update the look of an older or vintage lamp.
A final, simple step you can take to enhance light in a space is to use reflective light. Mirrors and metallics are the quickest way to achieve this. Consider a gorgeous big mirror above a fireplace or on a wall that is currently bare. You can use a single large piece or create a feature with a variety of mirrors. Hanging these at ninety degrees to the main window will help add light to your room.
Metallic surfaces also add a bit of shine. Metal frames on coffee and end table, metallic vases and even light fixtures all add to the overall effect.
Armed with these ideas and your own will to create brightness where it is dark, I encourage you to go forth and decorate. Make something beautiful that you can enjoy in your own home. Or join me in Italy. Whatever works.
Intro credit bigstock/AntonioGuillem
Header credit: bigstock/Voy