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Brighten a Dark Room By Letting the Light Shine In

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I receive a lot of emails and comments asking me all sorts of decorating and DIY questions. One that has popped up more than a few times in the past weeks is this question… How can I brighten a dark room?

I think the reason the question has popped up more recently is because we are entering the time of year when it’s dark when we wake up and dark before dinner.  When Ed used to work in an office building, he called this time of year… like living in a tunnel with no light at either end. :-)

stone fireplace in living room with glossy white trim
See photo below on how this wall used to look dark and drab before painting it.

I am a lover of light, airy and bright rooms so I feel I can answer the question with my tried and true easy and affordable room brightening tips and tricks. If a room in your home is feeling gloomy, these few changes will immediately brighten it.

How to remove shelves from a brick wall

The most dramatic way to brighten a dark room is by painting walls using a light color (but not always white, more on this further down in the post).

A few of my room brightening methods may require a bit of effort. This was the case with my living room that used to have a dark brick wall that made the room look dark and drab, but most can be done in an afternoon with no remodeling or contractor needed.

Before I get into my room brightening tips, I want to cover something that I think can make or break any of your room brightening efforts.

First and foremost, do you have features in your home that you cannot change? Perhaps a room with northern exposure or a room where the windows or doors are obstructed by a porch that blocks natural light from entering the room? In rooms like these you need to experiment with different shades of paint.

White may not be the answer, but a warm white like Sherwin Williams-Creamy will work as it will warm up the cool grey that northern light casts onto a room’s walls.  If you add a white with a blue tone, you are only going to add to the grey-ness of the light.

You may be thinking you just want brighter light. Just remember that light, especially artificial light, or the direction a room faces can add either warm (more yellow) or bright (more blue) light to the room.  Finding the right balance in-between these two is what I strive for – a true white light throughout my house. In my house the color that works is Sherwin Williams – Pure White.

Both warm and cool light can brighten up any room; picking the right one is more about what makes you feel good in the room. I prefer pure white, but I have a friend who has a bright, open home, but she uses more warm whites in paint and light bulbs.

With lamp shades, she uses ecru-colored shades, where I prefer a pure white lamp shade. Her rooms never look dark, but they are not white white. So making a room appear brighter is not just about using white for everything.

My 8 Go-To Tricks on How to Brighten a Dark Room

1. Add More Lights – Literally

This is the easiest way to brighten up a dark room. Add more lamps. When I worked doing interior decor consults, I often found that homeowners didn’t really understand the power of lighting, the amount of lamps needed and the cast of color a lightbulb emits. They are almost an afterthought in their decorating scheme.

Instead, make room light a decorating priority and give it as much thought as you give when choosing a new piece of furniture and how it will fit into the room as a whole.

Brass floor lamp with white shade in living room

To easily brighten up a room, have at least 3 sources of light (lamps or lighting fixtures) in every room.They should be placed around the room in a triangular pattern.  You can read more about how to do this in Decorative Lighting Tips 

This approach will spread the light around the room in a pleasing way. You can have more than 3 if you have a large room or, if there is a dark corner, an extra small lamp will help.

Lamp shade and light bulb

If you like warm light, use incandescent soft white 100 watt light bulbs, if you can find them.  If you prefer the look of a cooler brighter room, use white LED’s.  Do some lightbulb trial and error. Lightbulbs have become overly expensive in the past few years, so save the receipts while you do some experimenting.

Buy a few different types of bulbs and wattages and try them out in your lamps and fixtures to see how the light affects the room and how you feel in it. Some bulbs will make the room appear too yellow or blue. Experiment and edit.

Trust me, it is worth the time and effort to find what works for your room. Return the the lightbulbs that you didn’t like and then buy a few more that you do like so you always have the type you like on hand.

When adding more lamps to the room, make sure that the shades are not totally opaque and that when turned on, the color of light that shines through the shades is the same. You don’t want one to have a yellow cast and another to be bright white.

blue and white decorated living room

I have a lamp in my living room with a shade that looks awful at night. It looks white during the day, but when turned on at night it looks orange. It is because the inside is more ecru and over the years it has aged and yellowed more.

I have bought many replacement shades for it, but can’t find the right size and style for the lamp. I like the lamp and will keep trying to find a shade or I may end up buying a new lamp with a nice white shade and lining.

2. Don’t Block the Windows

If you have window valances, remove them or hang them higher on the wall so they don’t block the window.

Dining room with white drapes and chalk painted table

If your drapes block the sides of the window when open, remove or re-hang them on the rods so that the stack-back of the drape on each side is not covering the window at all.  Doing this will not only add more light into the room, but will make the room appear larger.

House exterior window before and after removing shrubs in front of it.

If you have any landscaping outside your home that blocks a portion or all of a window, trim it back so that the full amount of light can enter.

3. Paint the Ceiling White

Regardless of whether you like warm or cool light, paint your ceilings white.  I use Sherwin Williams Pure White in a flat finish. I once made the mistake of painting a ceiling using high gloss thinking it would brighten the room more, which it did, but it looked horrible since it showed every imperfection in the ceiling.

bedroom being painted white

If your ceiling is very high and perfect then paint it high gloss, but a flat white finish on a ceiling will provide light reflecting qualities to a room, too.

4. Add Wainscoting to Walls

If you have read my blog for a while, then you know about the space in my home I dubbed “the hallway 0f darkness”.  This hallway is really dark. Even if I removed a row of cabinets in the kitchen, the hall would still be in shadow all day long.

I tried a few room lightening methods like painting the walls white and the trim a glossy white. I even painted the door a bright fun color, but the hallway still looked drab.

 a fake transom made from a mirror and hung over a door that brightens a dark room.

It wasn’t until I decided that what the space needed was more glossy or shiny surfaces.  When I added bead board to the walls and painted them in semi-gloss Sherwin Williams – Pure White and went with a deep dark Navy with no yellow undertones for the top portion of the walls, the hallway came to life.

I even added a fake transom made with mirror tiles above the door to reflect the light from the single ceiling light.

So the moral of this tip is that you can still use dark colors, you just need to pair them with crisp pure white glossy paint and a white ceiling if you want to brighten a room, even if it is a popcorn ceiling. :-)  It’s pure white and that makes it OK for me.

5. Add Shine

mirror topped table to allow more light in the room by adding more reflective surfaces

Adding shine in the way of a shiny floor finish or decorative objects in the room will add more surfaces for light reflection and in turn add to the brightening of a room. When I made over this thrift store table, I had mirrored glass cut at my local glass store to fit into the top.  When placed by a window or door, it reflects light.

Blue and white bathroom decorating color palette that brightens a dark room

Where should you place a mirror on a wall when you want to brighten a dark room?

My favorite “in-an-instant” way to brighten up a room is to hang large mirrors on a wall in a room that is across from a window or door. This doubles the reflection of light coming from the door or window.

Even if that is not possible, hang a mirror on an adjacent wall so that it can still catch a reflection and will double the amount of light entering the room.

glossy white paint on mirror above blue dresser in bedroom that helps to brighten a dark room

It is truly an amazing light trick. I have a mirror hanging in every room, except my kitchen and studioffice to help double the light in each.

Photo of blogger In My Own Style's lake house

Fun Observation:  I have sliding glass doors in every room on the lake side of the house. I place large mirrors on the walls opposite these doors.  When out on the lake, you can see the mirrors through the sliding glass doors, but the mirrors look like windows that appear to be on the street side of the house.

This makes it feel as though you can see through the rooms to the front of the house, making my house feel more open and expansive.

6. Paint Doors and Trim in Glossy White

Shiny white doors and trim always make a room look brighter. In my previous house, I used either Sherwin Williams -Alabaster or Valspar -Bistro White on all the trim in my house. It looked like pure white in the natural light that came into that house.

Popular white paint colors that will brighten a dark room

When I used the colors on the trim in the lake house, the colors took on a warmer cast that I didn’t like. I had to try out a few paint colors until I found that Sherwin Williams-Pure White looked like the truest white in the natural light.

It is for this reason that I hesitate to give out advice on using certain colors of paint. Every home has different light. No two are the same so the only way to find the right color is to do some experimenting and paint sampling of paint shades until you find one that rings true white for the trim in a room. Have it made up in gloss or semi-gloss and paint all your trim and doors with it.

7. Paint Dark Furniture in a Fun Color

If your room is still feeling dark because of a large dark piece of furniture after making a few room brightening suggestions, consider painting the piece in a light or fun color. Large pieces of furniture that have a dark finish can make a room appear darker.

In the case of the dining room in my previous house, there was a dark corner with a dark stained corner cabinet. Placing a lamp in the corner would have looked odd, so instead I painted the piece a bright fun color making it pop out of the darkness.

how to brighten a dark room

If you have never painted furniture before, it is not hard. You just have to schedule time to get it done. If you need some guidance, I have many how to paint furniture tutorials that will help you to achieve painting success on a piece of furniture.

8. Remove Clutter

Lastly is a trick that will not only brighten a room but make it look larger at the same time. Remove clutter.  Clutter makes a room feel visually heavy and can lessen all your room brightening efforts. Tidy up and reap the room brightening rewards of having less stuff in the room.

I hope this answers the question, How to Brighten a Dark Room, for all of you that asked. If you need any clarification on anything, just let me know in the comments or send me an email.

If you have a decorating question, don’t hesitate to ask me. When I receive the same question over and over again, then I know that many of you will benefit and I will write a post to answer it.

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  1. I love the idea of brightening up a room….Regarding windows–how can one leave them without coverings or with just a sheer—-and not have any fading on furniture on the inside?

    Thanks Kathleen

  2. Love the “Fake” Transom idea. I have a box of mirror tiles and some molding in the basement. Tomorrow I add light to the back stairway of my 1910 foursquare. Thank you.

  3. Great tips, thank you!! Our living room ceiling always looked dim & dirty even after cleaning it( (which was a chore). I finally bit the bullet and painted it a flat ceiling white. Amazing difference & the room looks & actually feels lighter & brighter. We also removed an old pine tree in front of the living room window about 5 years ago. Now we enjoy the glorious southern exposure. Before the room felt gloomy and in shadows. The back of the house faces north so we really did not have much light to begin with.

  4. I love having different lights. I have a suggestion for your lampshade. years ago I had an old-fashioned
    standing lamp that I couldn’t find a shade for. When I went to a lighting store to get it rewired and mentioned about finding a shade they said they could make the right one. It was perfect. Look around someone may have a store like that close by

  5. I totally agree with your tips! My house faces north and the largest window has never seemed to bring in a lot of light. The smaller window faces east so I get some morning sun but it doesn’t last long. Three years ago I had a wood surround built over my red brick fireplace. My living room is 18 feet long and the fireplace mantel was nine feet long and it added a lot of “dark” to the living room. The new surround is bright white and the face and hearth are a beige “marble” tile. That made a huge difference in the room. I’ve always used sheer curtains with solid drapes on the side. Last year I bought new wider rods so now my 6′ window looks like it’s 8′ and the 4′ window looks like 6′. That actually had an added bonus of making the over sized fireplace (on the same wall as the 4′ window) looks more proportional. I”m new to your blog and I’m really enjoying it!