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When applying a fresh coat of paint to a surface, it can appear as though the paint is a different color than when it’s completely dried. It takes a lot of time and planning to choose the correct shade for a project, so it can be extremely frustrating when paint doesn’t turn out exactly as you intended. So that begs the question, why does paint appear to change color as it dries?

While paint may look like it changes colors as it dries, it does not. Paint mainly consists of a liquid ingredient that evaporates after application, usually water or oil. Lighting, other colors in a room, and paint becoming less “wet” looking as it dries often make the paint appear to change colors.

Paint color science and how it reacts in different environments is quite complex. You must consider many nuances when painting to ensure the final product looks the way you want. Below we’ll take a more in-depth look at why paint appears to change colors as it dries and some more common questions regarding the seemingly inconsistent appearance of fresh paint.

Why Paint Looks Like it Changes Color as it Dries

Paint appearing to change colors as it dries is a very common observation. Fresh and dried paint has very distinct appearances, and it often looks like there is a darker or lighter color difference between the two.

However, generally speaking, there is no real color difference between wet and dry paint. All of the supposed color changing is thanks to other factors influencing how the paint appears, and not the color changing in any way.

Pigments give the paint its color. There are many types of paint pigments, ranging from natural ones extracted from the earth to synthetic ones created in a laboratory. Regardless of their origin, pigments do not change colors easily. Over time they can fade, and you can mix pigments to create different colors, but applying fresh paint to a surface is not enough to change its color.

The pigments do not change colors as the paint dries, which means there are other elements at play in creating the appearance of the paint color changing. Below are some of the most significant contributing factors to this common illusion.

Paint Finish
An essential factor in the perception of paint color is its finish. Paint finish refers to a paint’s level of reflectiveness. The reflectiveness of a surface can play many optical tricks that can make colors appear much darker or lighter. Generally, there are five primary paint finishes:

  • High-gloss
  • Semi-gloss
  • Satin
  • Eggshell
  • Matte

Different paint finishes can completely alter the overall appearance of a surface and its color. High-gloss and semi-gloss paints tend to appear darker because the finish reflects more light. On the other end of the spectrum, flatter paints such as matte, eggshell, and satin tend to appear lighter because they absorb more light instead of reflecting it.

When you first apply a coat of paint, it appears incredibly reflective and wet. As the liquid ingredient in the paint dries over time, it exposes the paint’s true finish. Paints with a flatter finish may appear to change color more than glossy paints because there is a more drastic change as they dry.

Regardless, the paint’s actual color never changes throughout the application and drying process—only your perception of the paint color that’s based primarily on the surface’s reflectiveness.

Ask any interior designer or painter, and they’ll tell you that lighting plays a hugely impactful role in how we perceive colors. There are two primary types of lighting you have to consider when looking at paint colors: natural and artificial.

Natural light is pretty self-explanatory; it’s the natural white light from the sun often let into a home through windows, skylights, or other exterior openings. Natural light is very inconsistent depending on the time of day, season, weather, and a million other factors.

On the other hand, artificial light is much more controlled and predictable. There are so many different lighting options, though, ranging from color temperature to how the light emits from the fixture.

Light can alter your perception of paint color in two primary ways. First, light reflects off the painted surface differently as it dries, making it appear lighter or darker. Additionally, the natural light entering the space will likely change due to the time of day, cloud cover, or weather. All of these combined factors often contribute to the illusion of paint changing colors as it dries, while nothing of the sort is happening in reality.

Surrounding Colors
While a paint’s finish and the lighting in a room directly impact the visual appearance of paint, some other factors can play a more psychological role in how you perceive color. Other colors present in a room can compliment or contrast paint and make it appear darker, lighter, or a different shade altogether.

Applying starkly different dark and light tones in a room will make each appear darker and lighter, respectively, due to the contrast. For example, suppose you paint the walls of a room a medium sky blue while the flooring, furniture, and decor are all white. The sky blue will appear much darker in the above situation than if you applied it to a room with other dark tones.

The same slight perception change also works with complimentary colors. If you add a light beige color to a room with orange tones present, you’ll perceive it as a much warmer color than if you applied it to a room with more blues and earth tones.

Color can look a certain way in a paint showroom on a sample sheet, but it can appear completely different once you apply it to the walls of your home. The other colors and textures in the room can subtly alter how you perceive the color, even though nothing has changed about the paint’s tone.

choosing paint color

How to Know What Paint Will Look Like After It Dries

The exact paint finish you choose, the other colors in the room, the lighting in your home, and many other factors can contribute to how you perceive paint colors. The paint chips you can get from hardware stores or photos online can look drastically different from what a paint shade looks like in your home.

So how are you supposed to choose a paint color you’re sure to love with all of these variables? The simple answer is paint samples.

  1. Paint samples, as the name suggests, are small samples of the paint color you’re interested in that you can apply to a portion of your wall at home to help you make a final decision. Most paint stores have small sample containers you can get; even if they cost a few dollars, it’s well worth the investment.
  2. Apply the paint samples at about eye level to the wall you want to paint. To give yourself a true sense of what the space would look like painted in the color, don’t be afraid to create quite a large sample swatch and do two coats to get a nice, rich color.
  3. Next, it’s time to decide which paint color looks best for the space. Situate furniture in front of the paint swatches, look at them from different angles, observe them under different lighting conditions, and spend at least 24 to 48 hours around the colors to see which one you like the most.

Nothing is worse than investing lots of time and money into painting a room only for it not to look the way you want. So save yourself the time, money, and headache and paint a few samples on your wall before making a final paint color decision.

How Long Paint Has to Dry to Reach Its Final Appearance

Fresh paint can appear to change colors as it dries due to its surface sheen and how its reflectiveness interacts with the lighting and other colors in the room. But how long does it take for these illusions to subside and the paint to reach its final appearance?

There are generally three stages that paint goes through as it dries: dry to the touch, ready for a recoat, and completely cured. Many factors can lengthen or shorten how long paint takes to dry, including the specific paint formula, sunlight exposure, temperature, humidity levels, and many more.

Paint TypeDry to the TouchReady for RecoatCompletely Cured
Water-based paint1 hour3 hours21 Days
Oil-based paint6 to 8 hours24 hours7 days

Paint generally becomes dry to the touch after 1 to 8 hours after application, depending on the paint type. At this point, most of the liquid ingredient has completely evaporated from the newly painted surface, so most illusions from a highly reflective surface have subsided. Once the paint is dry to the touch, it has essentially reached its final appearance.

Newly painted surfaces become ready for another coat of paint typically after 3 to 24 hours. The surface won’t look much different than when it became dry to the touch at this point because the vast majority of change occurs at the molecular level.

Paint undergoes a chemical bonding process to the surface where you apply it. The time it takes for paint to cure completely, typically 7 to 21 days, is the time it takes for these processes to complete. Not much visual change occurs during this time.

Why Paint Touch-Ups of the Same Color May Look Different

Paint inevitably scratches, wears, and peels after some time. To keep things looking fresh and clean, many people choose to do minor touch-ups to extend the life of the coat of paint without having to repaint the entire surface completely.

Logically, you would think the touch-ups would be almost entirely invisible if you use the same paint color. However, this is not often the case. Touch-ups are commonly much darker than the surrounding paint, even after completely drying and curing.

  • Inconsistent Mixing – Inconsistent mixing can occur if you buy a new can of paint or decide to use some leftover from a previous project. Mixing mistakes and formula changes occur, so buying a new can of paint in the same color as the wall you want to touch up does not always guarantee a perfect match. And if you’re using a can of paint from storage, failure to properly stir the paint before use can result in uneven pigment distribution and inconsistent final color.
  • Paint Storage – Many problems can arise from improperly storing paint, resulting in a slight color difference once it’s time to touch up a surface in your home. When stored for a long period of time, a small amount of evaporation can occur to the paint. A slightly lower liquid volume produces a more concentrated pigment and a deeper paint tone.
  • Application Conditions –While it might not seem significant, the humidity and temperature when you apply paint can impact its dry time and slightly alter the hue of the final product. Differing conditions between the original coat and the touch-up can make the two layers not match entirely. Even using a different application tool, for example, a brush instead of a roller can create a different coat thickness that slightly alters the final color intensity.

Final Thoughts

It’s not uncommon to notice freshly applied paint appears to get lighter or darker as it dries. While the drying process may look to alter the color, there is actually no change to the pigment used in the paint. You’re witnessing a combination of the paint’s changing surface reflectiveness, some optical illusions, and a few psychological tricks.

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