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The air itself can seem colored. Distant mountains look blue because there is inevitably more blue light between you and a remote object. This blue veil is called airlight, which is simply sunlight scattered by the air molecules between you and the view. "Skylight" is the term physicists reserve for sunlight scattered by clouds and molecules in the sky. Most of the light illuminating our world is re ected. We rarely look directly at the sun. Instead, we experience its rays secondhand--bounced oV buildings or the grass beneath our feet, scattered by all those invisible particles in the air.
When sunlight eventually hits the ground, it comes back altered. A Renaissance artist would add a hint of green to the face of a woman walking across a meadow. As in a theater, sunlit grass becomes a virtual uplight, tinting the air and everything it touches. Trees and plants in lush gardens have the same eVect as they lter the sun through their leaves.
The light that lands on the windowsill, then, is layered--the result of many chromatic shadings on its journey from the stratosphere to the sidewalk. The in uences only intensify as it enters a room. Curtains frame light and can shift its hue and temperature. A diaphanous fabric acts like a gel, coloring sunlight passing through.
Inside, light is a nimble captive of four walls plus the oor and ceiling,subject to all sorts of variations in surface from matte to mirror. "Material is spent light," said architect Louis Kahn, and every material re ects light diVerently. White paint scatters light uniformly in all directions, which is why it covers a wall more ef ciently than any other color. Glazed walls refract the light--bending each ray as it moves through two diVerent mediums, from the translucent layers to the more opaque undercoat. (Whenever you glaze a wall, if you make the undercoat lighter and warmer than the topcoat, it will create a more luminous eVect.) Dark woods absorb light. Metal, the most dense of all materials, is also the most re ective, especially when polished.
Colors, too, look diVerent in diVerent lights. A vivid rug that looked great in the clear, strong light of Santa Fe might seem garish in Manhattan, or a pale rug that showed all its colors in Charleston might go at in Seattle. In bright light, we see warm colors more easily. Dim light brings out the cool colors, which is why blue owers look more intensely blue at dusk.
A room becomes more pleasurable when you bring some of nature's eVects indoors. Color in the sky is of a diVerent type than color on the ground. It seems to oat disembodied and dimensionless. Even when it becomes objecti ed by clouds or fog, it tends to softer boundaries and subtler shifts. These blurred transitions feel more atmospheric than sharper outlines. A gray sky is actually more luminous than a blue sky. Re-creating this luminosity in a room is as simple as keeping color values close. The less contrast of light and dark between hues, the more they tend to dissolve into one another.
Trees and rocks are composed of more opaque matter than clouds and fog, but their texture causes colors to break up in a similar way, giving us in nitely shifting nuances of warm and cool shades. We can juxtapose similar warm and cool complements in our interiors for the same luminous eVect. This is not a new trick. Landscape painters have employed this interplay for hundreds of years. Monet's owers and trees achieve depth and radiance by being painted over a red ground. The key to any rich green is red. Complementary colors push each other away, heightening their contrast and emphasizing diVerences in hue that collectively create a full-spectrum range of white light.
The eye keeps trying to re-create white light. We ll in colors that are missing through afterimages. Our bodies want to bask in the white light of
the sun, the energy source from which we evolved. The eye thrives on this atavistic reunion, and the most satisfying interiors merge warm and cool complements--applied to the walls or integral to the materials--to reconstitute the impression of white light.
The choice of particular hues is far less important than how they are combined into a delicate balance. Whether the palette is simple or complex, the interaction comes back to the basic polarities of light and shadow. We're so accustomed to seeing interiors in terms of objects that it requires a bit of readjustment to focus on the light. But light is the essence of color. Sometimes all you need to do is look out the window to gure out what colors ourish in your speci c light. Take a cue from nature. Then, in every room, you will suddenly be able to see the light.