Earlier today, a friend asked me for advice on how he should paint his media room. After a bit of discussion, where I realized how much I thought the choice of color and finish had improved my own media room experience, I figured the topic would make for a good blog post. Hopefully you will find this somewhat useful as you make decisions about your own media room.
If you’re planning to base your media room around a projector, then I believe the single most important choice you can make is to pick the right kind of paint finish. Why? It comes from the fact that a human eye’s ability to resolve the details in a picture is based on the relative light levels in that picture versus the overall surrounding environment — I’m not talking about the contrast in the picture itself, but between the picture and other light in your room. Your eye can best resolve the detail in the picture when the darkest parts of the picture aren’t much darker than the overall light level of everything your eye can see, i.e. the light level in your room. You can easily see this effect yourself by going into any theater store and looking at a projector picture in a dark room (looks nice) versus in a room with lights on (looks duller and more washed out.) This is exactly why public movie theater’s are dark.
So how does the paint finish matter then? Any sort of glossy finish is highly reflective of light. Which means that light, originally coming off your projector screen or any other source (lamp, window, doorway, etc.,) is reflecting off the wall and into your eye from multiple directions, even if the original light source is not in your direct eyesight. This light bouncing off the ceiling and walls reduces the effective contrast in your projector picture. The best way to minimize this is to minimize the opportunities for light to reflect, which means picking a flat finish for your paint – both for the ceiling and the walls.
Now that you have a type of finish, the next critical decision is to pick a paint color. In general, you want a dark color because it reflects less light and we just went over why that is important, right? But it’s also important to consider the tint of the color. You should avoid extremely vibrant colors like true reds, blues, or greens. This is because there will always be some reflected light of your walls and ceilings, and this will pick up the tint of the paint. Besides reducing the perceptive contrast of the picture on your screen, this light can throw off the color balance as well. I believe there is some evidence that there is a perceptive effect, but I believe the main effect is the reflection back onto the screen itself of the now colored light. This would add a tint to your picture in the direction of the color of your walls.
So, ideally, you should go with neutral dark colors such as browns and grays if not outright black. But not everyone can live with those sort of color schemes, so my final bit advice on color is that if you’re going to go with a color, red is better than blue or green. I believe this because the red colored light reflecting off your walls will scatter less in the air and thus less of it will get to your eyes before it is absorbed by the various surfaces it bounces off of. It’s the same principal that makes the sky blue, and I believe its part of the reason why when you look at the light traveling from your projector to your screen, you see mostly blue, and why a room with a TV on glows blue through the window at night.
My last bit of advice is to seriously think about painting your ceiling. This is because most home media room screens are positioned where the vertical center is above the eye level of the seating position and this causes your head to look slightly upward. This physical screen position is common because (a) people want to minimize the shadows cast while someone walks around in the room, thus they tend to locate the screen higher, (b) home decorators (wives) generally don’t like to see whole walls dedicated to a screen so they want some furniture or something else there and it is much easier to put something underneath a screen than above it, and (c) a seating position on a couch or chair is naturally low and most people don’t put in stadium seating. All of this contributes to the fact that you are looking slightly upward at the picture which means your eye is aimed to receive light bouncing off the ceiling. As discussed in the previous paragraphs, the best way to minimize the reflection off the ceiling is to paint it with a flat finish of a dark color. Most people generally don’t pick this combination for a ceiling, they go with some sort of white or light color, and thus you’ll likely need to change it when you paint your media room.
My own media room was recently painted with a flat Behr premium paint in a dark red color called Chianti. All the walls and the ceiling are this color — which has proven to be a HUGE improvement over the previous standard builder’s off-white paint color. Unfortunately, I don’t have any equipment to make measurements that prove this, but everyone who’s seen the changes has commented on the improvement, not to mention the overall elegant and traditional theater look of the dark red color. This improvement is obvious even though we’ve left all the trim in the room (crown molding, floor molding, window and door molding) as glossy white. This makes sense given the relative area of trim versus wall and ceiling — which is probably a ratio on the order of 1 to 100 or so. The only downside of choosing a dark red is that, due to the nature of red pigment used in paint and the lack of white opaque additives, it does not cover as well as other colors. Expect to do on the order of 5 coats to make it look even and solid, and that’s after first putting up a similar tinted primer. Believe me though, it will be worth it!