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Publication Date: 2014-11-13

Design Insights

The 5 Things You Need to Know Before Choosing a Paint Color

Your official guide to different paint types and how they can impact your space.


Paint manufacturers have formulated new products that cut down on VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which the Environmental Protection Agency warns may have adverse health effects. Traditionally, homeowners had a choice between water-based and oil-based paints, but because they tend to have higher VOC levels, it's important to consider if oil-based paints are for you.

Advantages of Water-based Paints

• low VOCs

• easy cleanup with water

• quick drying

• an elastic, flexible finish resistant to cracking

• stable color over time, without yellowing

Advantages of Oil-based Paints

• attractive gloss

• good “leveling” (brush strokes fill themselves in to create a smooth finish)

• hard, durable finish

The majority of wall paint sold today is water-based, but oil-based paint remains popular for glossy woodwork, doors, and furniture, as well as demanding surfaces such as floors.

However, there is a definite shift away from oil-based paints in the industry. “Personally, I don’t use oil anywhere in my home,” says Sonu Mathew, Benjamin Moore’s senior interior designer. “It’s not necessary in this day and age, because the technology of acrylics has almost surpassed that of oils.” Farrow & Ball also recently phased out its oil-based paints altogether.

For those instances when an oil-based paint would traditionally be preferable, but you desire a water-based product, a number of companies have recently introduced “waterborne enamels” or “waterborne alkyds.” These paints look and behave much like oil-based options, because they have good leveling qualities for a smooth finish, but deliver improved environmental performance.

Be cautious when switching to a water-based paint if the surface has previously been coated with an oil-based product, as the new paint may not stick. In this situation, Sherwin-Williamsrecommends washing the surface and then roughening it all over with a medium to smooth grit sandpaper—making it clean, dry, and dull in order to prevent peeling of the new coat.

Silky Sheens

Sheen options vary by manufacturer, but share some common characteristics.

Matte paint:

• is the least reflective sheen available

• has a velvety texture

• helps hides imperfections in walls and ceilings

• offers great depth of color

• is generally considered the standard sheen for walls

• can sometimes be difficult to clean

Eggshell and satin paint (satin is slightly glossier than eggshell):

• have some reflectivity

• offer improved durability

• are frequently used in demanding environments, like kitchens and bathrooms, where easy cleanup without a highly glossy finish is desired

Semi-gloss and gloss paint:

• are the most reflective sheens

• are highly durable and stand up to multiple cleanings

• are traditionally used on baseboards, moldings, and doors

• can make a statement, but also highlight imperfections

As durability improves across all sheen levels with newer paints, many people are finding creative ways to mix and match them. “We’ve noticed that customers are becoming more experimental in their use of paint finish, to create real impact and texture within a scheme,” says Farrow & Ball director Sarah Cole. “Try painting a stripe of full gloss on a matte wall in the same colour to create a striking, textured look,” she suggests. Gloss is also “increasingly being used to striking effect on ceilings and walls to create a contemporary look,” she says.

Sue Kim, color trend and forecast specialist at Valspar, also recommends trying an accent wall with a gloss sheen, while painting the rest of a room matte. But at the end of the day, “It’s all about how you want to set the atmosphere of your home,” she says. “A matte sheen gives you a calm and serene feeling, because of that textural element.” On the other end of the spectrum, gloss adds energy and excitement. As for eggshell and satin, Kim likes to use them in smaller spaces with little natural light. “I always say that a satin finish is great in a powder room,” she says. “It reflects the light to bring out the color.”

By Tim McKeough


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