Painting 101

Since painting is on the brain right now, I thought I’d do a short series.  First, we’ll just go over the basics.  Then, the next two posts will be about tips that I’ve learned.  This post is fairly basic, but I decided to do it because way back in the day I wouldn’t have known all of this stuff.  So, who knows, maybe some readers out there are young or new to diy painting and would benefit from this information.

Paint stores can be intimidating, so here is some basic information to prepare you for your trip and for painting.


Paint comes in six basic finishes.  Below is a list, in the order of sheen:

Flat:  Dull, matte look. No sheen. Flat paint is usually a few dollars cheaper than the others.
Use for: Walls.  This is the current trend for walls and is my preference.  They are making it more durable these days.  It is a little richer, and contrasts more with the semi-gloss used for trim.

Matte:  Dull, with very minimal sheen.
Use for:  Walls.

Eggshell:  Like the name implies, there is a slight sheen, but not too shiny.
Use for: Walls.

Satin:  A little more glossy than Eggshell.  It holds up well to cleaning, so it’s many times used in kitchens and bathrooms.
Use for: Walls and trim on windows and doors.

Semi Gloss:  More sheen than Satin.  A great choice for trim. Wipes up well.
Use for:  Trim on windows, doors, and furniture. (I use this finish for trim and doors.)

Glossy:   High sheen.  Not widely used.
Use for: Furniture.

You will also notice at the paint store that paint comes in interior and exterior.

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It’s just as you’d think – interior is for the inside and exterior is for outside projects.  Exterior paint costs a bit more than interior and has a few added ingredients to help it weather well.

Paint comes in oil and latex.

For house walls, you want to use a latex (water-based) paint.  For trim, you usually want to use oil based paint. But, what is the difference?

Oil goes on smoother, takes longer to dry, holds up better, is more likely to yellow over time, has worse fumes and requires solvents like mineral spirits to wash brushes.  Oil adheres better to metals and shrinks less.  It shows less brush marks and dries harder, though drying time may be up to three days.  Oil based paint is especially good for high-gloss, smooth surfaces, though its high sheen may highlight imperfections as well.

Latex paint, on the other hand, doesn’t yellow over time, dries faster, cleans with soap and water, and is more forgiving.  Latex is also less susceptible to pealing and blistering.

Neither is ideal for every situation.  Oil is great for furniture and trim.  Latex is great for walls.

Do not paint latex over oil based paint.  Latex paint will chip right off if it’s applied directly on top of the oil-based paint.  You need to sand and prime in order to do use latex on top of oil based paint.

How do you know what your paint is?  Take a Q-Tip, dip it into some denatured alcohol. Rub it into the paint. If the paint comes off onto the rag, or smears, or appears to melt, its latex or another water-based product. If it remains solid, it is an alkyd, or oil product.  There are also similar testing kits sold at hardware stores.

What is it?  Primer is a pre-coat of paint that goes on before your normal paint. It helps paint adhere better and helps cover stains. It’s most often white or gray, but it can be tinted.  Most paint brands sell a slightly more expensive version of their paints with Primer already mixed in.

Is it necessary?  I usually use primer in the following situations:  when painting unfinished wood, when going from a very dark or saturated paint color to a light paint color, and when covering marks or stains.

If you need to cover marks on the wall such as crayon marks or other stain, you’ll want to prime.  Another reason, as mentioned above, for using a primer is when you are going from a super dark and saturated color to a light color.  Otherwise, you’d need a ton of coats of the new light color.  When painting furniture, it’s good to prime if you are covering any type of clear coat or if you just need better paint adhesion.

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Zinsser primers get good reviews.

This is where I’d love for readers to chime in.  It’s all a personal preference.

Paint varies in price per gallon, from $12 at Wal-Mart to $56 for Benjamin Moore’s Regal.  And, it’s as you thought.  The Wal-Mart paint can remain tacky for some time and doesn’t cover as well, so requires more coats.  The Ben Moore paint, on the other hand, covers well, is low VOC, and dries quickly.  The testers come in flat which is nice since I prefer flat for walls lately.  Yes, you can tell a difference in quality between it and the less expensive paint brands.  However, having said that, I don’t always just go for Ben Moore as it’s not always in my budget.

My favorite is Sherwin Williams.  I’ve found that for around $32 a gallon, depending on the exact line, you still get a good quality paint.  It covers well, they have a no voc (voc is explained further down in the post) option, and it dries well.   Best of all, if you are like me and mix your own color half of the time, I have found them to be the best at matching colors.  What I mean by that is that you can bring a color you created in and they will match it and create a formula and then make gallons of it for you.  Color matches are never perfect, but it’s super close at SW.  I tested this at Ben Moore and Home Depot recently and they were not even in the ballpark for a close match.   Keep in mind, when paint goes on the walls, the differences, no matter how small, become much more obvious as it’s now covering a larger area.

However, the catch with Sherwin Williams is that all samples are in satin.  That alters the color a bit if you are actually going to be using a flat finish in the end.  Flat will appear a tad darker than satin due to the reflective nature of satin.  So, keep that in mind.

A paint and primer combination is always a good choice.  Most of these brands offer that option.  This simply insures better coverage.

Behr’s Premium Plus, found at Home Depot, and Valspar’s HD, found at Lowe’s, are also good and are middle of the line in pricing.

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Other great brands are Pratt and Lambert, Dunn Edwards and Farrow and Ball.  I do not personally like Glidden, Olympic or Wal-Mart.

There are various lines within each brand, so ask what the offerings are and what may be best for your project.  Or, check their web site before your trip.  Here is Ben Moore’s comparison chart for their paint lines.

And, note that most paint stores have the recipes for other paint brand colors on file.  So, for example, you could go to one store like Sherwin Williams or Ben Moore and get a variety of colors from various other brands, all at one stop.

For furniture painting, I like Annie Sloan Chalk paint.  Cece Caldwell chalk paint is also getting good reviews.  Chalk paint is not the same as chalkboard paint (which does exist). It’s simply a type of paint that has high adhesion and does not require priming or sanding. It will stick to most any surface.  This makes it great for furniture painting since most furniture has a clear coat on it and therefore requires sanding and priming prior to painting.  For more info, go here.


Those are my favorites.  What are yours?  There are many brands out there.

What is VOC?  Volatile Organic Compound.  Basically stuff that is bad for you.  Unless specified, paints are made from petrochemical-based solvents, which off-gas toxic indoor air pollutants (voc) that can lead to health problems over time.  Now, major paint companies offer safer alternatives which are called either low or no VOC paints.  Ask about these.


Most builders use “Swiss Coffee” on trim, so you are pretty safe, if it’s a newer home, asking for that color when needing to touch up trim.  If you want a brighter white to contrast a wall color more, then, Behr and Valspar have a white called Ultra White and it’s great, too.

Neutrals include grays, beiges, tans, taupes, and whites.  Anything that can match a myriad of other things can be considered a neutral.  When you may change your color palette often, want a monochromatic look, or the space is large, you may decide to use a neutral for the walls.

If you are looking for suggestions for the new neutral, greige (blend of gray and beige), go here.  The current trend is towards lighter colors on the wall.  Know the trend, but do what works best in your home.


Back in the day, people painted them all white.  Nowadays, there are a couple of trends to take note of.  First, the ceiling is the new accent wall.  Go here for many examples.  Second, builders paint ceilings the same color as the walls to save money and that is also a new trend, if the paint is a lighter color.

Other tips include – If there is a straight line or true corner, then you can paint them a different color like white.  If there is a curved corner, the same color on the wall needs to continue.  See the example of a white ceiling by Sarah Richardson below.

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If the ceiling is angled, to keep it from being choppy, you don’t want wall and ceiling to contrast too much – if you go dark on walls and white on ceiling or it will emphasize angles and make the room feel choppy.

In general, don’t bring a darker wall color on to a ceiling as it may appear like a cave.  The one exception is if the color is very broken up with lots of windows and trim work.

Before you buy a gallon of paint, no matter what, get a sample first.  Why?  It could look completely different in your room than on the swatch.

All brands offer a small sample size ranging from a teeny tiny 2 ounces to quart size, depending on the brand.  Prices vary from $3-7.  Just ask for a sample size at the counter.  They do cost, but it’s cheaper than buying gallons of paint that may not work.

Once you have your samples, start by painting poster board if you don’t want to mess up your walls.  Hold it up in the space.

However, poster board isn’t a true test as you most likely will not be painting on top of white.  So, in the end, you’ll need to put the paint on your walls.

Take the sample paint and paint a 2 ft x 2 ft square on the wall.  Label it with a piece of painters tape if you are doing this with multiple colors.  I always suggest trying 3-6 colors.  If you like the color, paint the same size of square in other spaces that will get the paint – other walls or rooms.  Then, take a peek at it at various times of the day to see it in different light.  Does it have any unexpected undertones (colors showing through the main color)?   Does it go with the other colors in the space – flooring, ceiling, trim, décor?  And, lastly, put a few colors up next to it as that will help reveal any undertones that you need to be aware of.

Be sure to note what finish the sample is in.  For instance, Sherwin Williams’ samples come in satin, while Behr’s come in flat.  This can impact the final result.  In other words, if you sample in satin, but paint in flat, expect the flat to appear a bit darker than the satin sample.

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Paint samples are usually not real paint.  I know, it sounds odd, but they are just a representation.  Read the labels. Paint samples are temporary coats of paint that should later be top-coated. So, don’t just use the samples.

Remember that if you are not painting over white, the color will not appear exactly as it is on the swatch on your wall.  For example, when painting over builder’s beige, colors go a little more gray than on the swatches.  Below is Farrow & Ball’s Hardwick White on the wall over the builder’s beige and painted on a white card.  See the difference.  The second is my custom color that I used on my walls – one on the white card and one on the wall.  Again, it looks different on the wall.

PaintColor-003 PaintColor-005

It’s something to take into consideration.  Lighting also can change the way the color appears – do you have lots of light?  Lights from bulbs, light from windows?   What sort of bulbs?  Warm or cool?

What are they?  It’s simply what other color shows through besides the dominant color.  So, maybe the color is gray, but when put up against another gray, you can see that it has a hint of green.  That’s the undertone.

Pay attention to undertones in paint colors.  They will become more obvious when the paint goes up in the room.  This is why so many people think they are getting beige but end up with a pink tone once it’s painted, or think they got gray but it lokos blue once painted.

With neutral paint colors, green undertones are most pleasing to the eye, but the slighter the better.  For more on undertones, go here.

Fan decks are those little books of all the chips.

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And, no, it’s not the same color, only getting darker on each strip.  They are just colors that are close to one another.  So, check multiple strips.  They cost between $15-40.   They are returnable, though.  Some stores have one fan deck per brand, others have several.  For example, Benjamin Moore sells several decks: Aura, Classic Colors, just the off-whites (OC colors), Affinity Colors, Pottery Barn colors and more.

Most decorators/ designers can get fan decks for free since they use them to promote purchases of that paint.  However, even non decorators can get fan decks, you may just have to pay.  It really depends on the store and how many extra they have at the time.  It never hurts to ask.

What’s the advantage of having a fan deck?  You can bring all the colors home with you and look at them in your space.  No more making tons of trips to get individual swatches.

Google the name and then click on Images to see the image results of your search.  From there view rooms with that color in them.

Note, paint colors is they can look completely different from one house to the next based on what is being painted over, lighting, etc.  This can be evidenced by googling a paint color.

You can paint with just a brush and a can of paint.  But here are other tools that are great to have.


Paint tray.
Paint roller.   Get a thicker roller, the more textured your walls are.
Blue tape.
Purdy 1.5 inch angled brush.
Drop cloths, plastic, or old bed sheets to drape over furniture and carpet.

Well, I hope that gets you started if you haven’t painted, tend to hire people, or don’t paint a lot.

Please add to it – what are your thoughts?

Tomorrow and the next day, I’ll share my top 20 tips for painting.  And, please note, there is a list of paint color suggestions, by color, here.



  1. Yay, thanks for this post. I need to repaint my moms house (renter’s destroyed the walls) so this is super super helpful!

  2. Great info!! Thanks for sharing. I was wondering what the difference is between chalk paint and others?

  3. This is fabulous, fabulous information……thank you so much. It will be bookmarked for future reference! So informative!

  4. wow Kristy……fabulous post…. I pinned it! Hope it’s okay. :)

  5. This is such a great thorough recap on paint! Great job Kristy!!! I really love Benjamin Moore’s Matte finish which is in between flat and eggshell. If money’s no issue, Farrow and Ball is like the Cadillac version of latex paint! Oh, it’s SO nice! Thanks for making this clear for people who have questions about paint!

    • Ah, great point. I forgot about the offerings of matte. I should add that, probably. And, yes, Farrow and Ball is awesome, but can be harder to find. Just thought of something else – how one paint store carries other paint stores’ colors many times.

  6. Thanks so much for such a helpful post Kristy! I can never decide which finishes to use!

  7. very good info, a couple of things. Primer can be tinted to your paint color, which is helpful with coverage. also for deep colors on interior walls, I always prime first with grey tinted primer. This allows for the paint color to be true, as gray is non-reflective. as you demonstrated so well, the color beneath the paint always has an effect, and deep colors will never look right over white walls and so on.
    another thing, do not waste money on paint that claims to “cover in one coat”. I have never found this to be true.
    also, when using latex to paint furniture, wood work, doors, etc. there is an excellent additive called “Flotrol” which slows the drying time of latex, making it dry more smoothly. I love this product.
    again, great post on Paint!

    • Great input! I agree with everything. If I had primed my walls, the color would be more true. I have had good luck with one coat with brands like Ben Moore as long as you are painting a light color over a light color, but it does need touch ups if there is texture on the walls. Annie Sloan is also pretty good with one coat, all but the white. Thanks for jumping in!!

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