Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Sky is Blue, Part 2: Painting the kitchen skylight

(Last updated August 11, 2013)  Back in May of this year, I published this post describing the process I went through to zero in on the best color for our outdoor patio ceiling. 

At that time, I hinted that there would be a "Part 2" to this ceiling-painting endeavor (and that's an endeavor without a "u", instead of with a "u").  Part 2, "where the men get separated from the boys".

I will admit straight up that this skylight painting project was not my creative idea.  I've also mentioned in the past that I'm an absolute HGTV junkie...
This is an actual photograph of our TV itself, obviously from the HGTV show Kitchen Cousins, which is a kitchen make-over series.  How wonderful for us that DirecTV can be paused like this, because that's how I scrapbook many of the design ideas that interest me: I sit there with a camera and take pictures of the television set.  My teenager says that I'm far too eccentric.  I'm old enough not to care.
I was immediately drawn to the impact of the skylight in the photo above.  It just glows.  This is the effect that I wanted to duplicate in our home.  Our issue came down to the following:  we chose an unusual but popular Meritage plan that has the kitchen in the absolute center of the house, instead of on one of the exterior walls, which is the case with most house designs (including the one shown above, which is unusual in having a kitchen sink window AND a skylight).  Because our kitchen has no windows, we ordered a big wide skylight option much like this one.  And our skylight turned out OK, but it didn't have much visual impact in its original "builder-basic" form.

It's fairly unremarkable, isn't it??  Gives some feeling of weightiness being lifted off the head, but really no WOW-factor here.
So this was my challenge:  duplicate the impact of the HGTV example above in our space, which was quite, quite different in terms of color scheme and geometry. 

Men from the boys.  There was not a single fifty-dollar home improvement project I've ever done that was anywhere near to being as challenging as this one proved to be.  Converging on exactly the right shade of blue came down to an almost scientific process that went something like this series of steps below.

Have you ever noticed that just the right shade of aqua/turquoise can have tremendous WOW-factor?  Such as this art glass piece in a fancy hotel as photographed by Lloyd Edwards (image screengrabbed from this site).
That visual impact occurs most impressively when the shade of aqua is on the opposite side of the color wheel from the orangey wood tones that are together with it in the same room.
Here's an image of a color wheel screengrabbed from this HGTV site.  Do you see how the blues are opposite the oranges?  That is extremely important for the analysis below.
In order to go via process of elimination to constrain the right shade of blue for our kitchen skylight, we first had to find the formula for the color that was essentially the opposite of our kitchen cabinets, which are a spice-colored maple, and which supply a lot of the kitchen's color due to their sheer number.
This is how our cabinetry appears when photographed without using the camera flash.  This is fairly true-to-life.
According to a color-wheel calculation software that my husband located on the internet, this is the color-wheel-opposite to the cabinet photo above.
Just to bracket the range of possibilities, this is what the same cabinet looks like when photographed with the camera flash on. This is much more yellowish than how it appears in real life.

And this is the blue shade that was calculated as being opposite the camera flash option.
So those two shades gave me a rough idea of what the final product was supposed to look like. 

August 11, 2013:  There's now a cool app that can help with that sort of determination. 
Go to this site and play around with it if you're trying to constrain colors. 

Screengrabbed from Color Scheme Designer.
The rest, unfortunately, became a difficult task of largely trial and error.  Remember, there are multiple independent variables involved with a color choice - hue, saturation, lightness, intensity, value... this stuff is tough if you're not an expert at it, which I certainly am not...
...and of course, daylight conditions varied substantially as seen down the skylight, even as I was trying to choose the paint.  Meritage painted it a flat off-white color, and so it was also fairly dark to start with because of the low reflectivity of the light-absorbing paint.  Here you can see some of my initial paint tester shades added at photo left, but it's really too dark to tell much of anything here.
Here is a clearer view so you can see some of the tester trials.  I could immediately see that all of these were too dark (saturated), although the samples to the left were starting to get toward the proper hue.  And the greener tones were just not right.
Aaaaand even more samples.  Finding the right color literally took me the better part of a week's worth of free time.  I went through between ten and twenty different tester shades and had to make multiple trips to Lowe's hardware store because each time I thought I had finally zero'd in on it, I'd get the paint home and find out it was wrong for the space. 

You can also see in this pic that I'm switching to a satin paint from Meritage's original flat paint.  This was to increase the reflectivity and the resulting brightness of the skylight. 
All this fussing around did finally pay off as we hit the proverbial jackpot in a Valspar shade called "Sweetleaf".
I almost did not buy an 8-ounce tester of "Sweetleaf" because it looked far too green to me in the store and on the chip card... isn't a "leaf" supposed to be green rather than blue??  And I thought I was looking for a blue.  Here it is above as screengrabbed from this site
And here it is as screengrabbed from the Lowe's site.  But paint shades as seen on a fan deck don't necessarily bear any resemblance to what they look like once they are up on the wall.
And here is what that very same shade looks like up in our skylight.  Hard to comprehend, eh??  Nobody was more surprised than WE were!!

You are probably sitting there thinking,
"She is just plain wrong.  She mixed up her colors."

But I have the half-empty paint can sitting beside me as I type this post.
The best I can tell you is this: 

Painting a skylight is not like painting any other surface of your home - especially if your skylight is a massive shaft ten feet in length up through the very center of the house, as ours is.  If you remember your high school science, what this means is that the light coming down that shaft is largely polarized, which can drastically affect how colors manifest.  We noticed right away that the paint as applied seemed to immediately resonate and self-amplify, particularly because it was a semi-shiny satin - it reflected light back upon itself to intensify its own blue tones.  I've never seen this happen to this degree in any painting project before (but I've never painted the inside of a shaft before).
Just in case your mind is not totally blown at this point, THAT is the very same paint in the roller tray immediately prior to me applying it to the sides of the skylight.  To our naked eyes, the paint itself appeared almost pure white.  The tiniest hint of green can be seen in this open paint can beside the tray.  A hint of minty green similar to the Valspar paint samples shown in the screengrabs above.
But hey, despite this counterintuitive solution to our color predicament, the results have been simply awesome.
The shade of blue created is constantly changing depending on the angle of the sun, the amount of cloud cover in the sky, and the time of year!

We never get tired of being surprised by whichever color is going to appear next.  It's more fun than watching TV!  It literally ranges from aqua to baby blue to navy blue to various shades of off-white and gray.
In the evening as the sun lowers in the sky, there is a mysterious subtle glow that reminds me of Cherenkov radiation.
Look again at the initial pre-painting view of this same skylight:

There's simply no comparison.  I've never done any other home improvement project that resulted in  this magnitude of visual impact.  Our whole kitchen now comes alive in a vibrant new way. 

Anyway, in summary, should you be one of those intrepid souls who is intent on finding just the right color for your skylight, my advice is this:  just keep trying and trying until you find the shade that suits your particular room configuration and lighting conditions.  Done correctly, the final result is more than worth all the effort and energy that it might take to get there. 


  1. Thanks!. For me this was an intensely interesting article. Those pictures are worth a thousand words.
    I enjoyed the Cherenkov reference, although I hope you don't actually have a reactor up in your attic ;-)
    My suspicion is that the blue appearance is probably due to Rayleigh scattering, in that most if not all of the light that gets into your skylight well is just 'blue sky' back-scatter light that is predominantly made up of the blue frequencies. And then any paint with even a hint of blue pigment will become highly exaggerated in that color.
    If that's the case, then at times when direct sunlight enters the shaft, or when bright white clouds are overhead, then the blue would probably disappear and you might see the actual 'sweetleaf' color.
    Another fun thing to do, if there is polarizing occurring, would be to look at the skylight with polarized glasses and see how the color and brightness change.

  2. I don't have one up in my attic, but I once stood directly above a pool-type nuclear reactor and gazed into the proverbial light, which does not photograph very true-to-life (it's much more spectacular in person), and this is what brought the comparison to mind.

    Once upon a time, once upon a class, I knew terms like Rayleigh scattering. Actually if we're going to use big words here, the other one that comes to mind in this situation is Bernoulli. Meritage actually got its own panties into a knot after they built this skylight, because they had an "oopsie" moment upon realizing that they had spec'd this massive frame to fit a skylight that would NOT conform to hurricane code as it applies to our coastal county!! So the entire thing as built looks a bit weird because they had to retrofit it with a too-small glass hatch that the City inspector would agree to sign off on. For this reason, it's been in the back of my mind that I eventually want to replace that thing with a properly-sized pane - and if I'm going to all that trouble and expense, why not motorize it at the same time? The one we received is a builder-basic fixed pane that can't be opened. But if we motorize it and could open it at will, given that it's straight up through the highest point of the house, we would then have fantastic potential for Bernoulli-driven ventilation on those many Houston days that are cool enough to turn off the a/c if only we could get some outdoor air-moving efficiency going for us.

    That and the fact that it's in the kitchen - we have the standard exterior exhaust vent via the undermount microwave, but it doesn't work very well, and I cook A LOT. It would really be neat to have this skylight work as a passive or even an active chimney up through the center of the kitchen to get rid of the constant cooking smells.

  3. Using a color wheel definitely shows how meticulous you were with this project. Anyway, I love how painting your skylight turned out! It seems like you have an aquarium on your ceiling. Congratulations for a job well done!

    Eugene Head

  4. The final product of your experiments was really worth it. Even with these few shots, I am already fascinated with how your skylight turned out! If I were you, I might be tempted to look at it at different times of the day and seasons of the year. Haha! Thanks for the great tips!

    Willie Norman

  5. The skylight looks amazing! It gave the whole room a different feel because of the paint. By looking at it, the room looks like it's underwater, which is pretty cool!Chantay Smithingell


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