A Paint Expert's Simple Guide to Choosing the Right Paint Finish

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how to pick a paint finish
LEFT: 2LG Studio; RIGHT: Alisa Bloom

If you’re new to the whole wide world of paints, you're likely to either feel like a kid in a candy store while wandering the color aisle or like you are drowning in a sea of options. But wait! Color is not your only choice—it gets even more complicated. That's right, we're talking paint finishes. Indeed, a single paint color can look completely different based on the finish, from matte to glossy and every sheen in between. But take heart: this added layer of possibility means all the more options for getting the perfect paint for your space. To make the complex simple, we asked Jessica Barr at Behr Paints to break it all down for us. Chances are, you'll learn something. As Barr points out, “people often come in looking for one thing and then leave with something else."Read on to learn about the different types of finishes, what they’re good for, and how they make a small but transformative difference in the resulting paint color and texture before you start painting your walls.

Flat

Philip Friedman

With more pig­ment than any other finish, it’s the concealer of paints.

The look: Nonreflective, a flat finish will soak up light and hide any bumps or scratches in the surface of the wall.

The Lowdown: Flat finishes are the hardest to clean, so don’t use them in high-traffic areas. But if it’s high-quality paint, you should be able to gently scrub away any imperfections after paint has cured for 30 days.

Best For: Low-traffic rooms with lots of light, like an office or a formal sitting room.

Eggshell

Philip Friedman

This popular finish is not shiny but not totally matte, and easier to clean than flat.

The look: “It’s slightly velvety in appearance," says Barr. "When the light hits it, there’s the softest glimmer." Think of it as a goes-with-anything glow.

The Lowdown: Though not as tough as semigloss, eggshell hides imperfections better, and it’s easier to clean than flat finishes.

Best For: Everyday spaces, like living rooms and bedrooms.

Satin

Philip Friedman

Perhaps the best all-around player when it comes to durability.

The look: Right in the middle of the sheen spectrum, a satin finish is more light-reflecting than eggshell without appearing as shiny as semigloss.

The Lowdown: Hides imperfections like bumpy walls reasonably well, and it’s easy to clean.

Best For: Humid spaces like bathrooms or dark rooms that don’t get a lot of natural light, like basements.


Semi Gloss

Philip Friedman

Sleek and easy to live with, semigloss is a happy middle ground.

The look: Shinier than a satin finish, semigloss is known for its radiance. It pairs well with other finishes when used as a an accent, too.

The Lowdown: If you need something durable, and you’re OK with shine, semi­gloss is your match. However, due to its heightened sheen, you’ll be able to see existing imperfections more easily.

Best For: Great in high-moisture, high-traffic areas, such as kitchens and bathrooms, or on crown moldings and trims to make them pop.

High Gloss

Philip Friedman

Super light-reflective and statement-making, it’s also the most durable.

The look: Most designers would consider high gloss a specialty finish, as it has a glamorous glass-like effect, Barr explains.

The Lowdown: It does show imperfections, but it’s also extremely easy to clean. That being said, high gloss is the trickiest to apply. Barr suggests using a quarter-inch roller or a high-density foam roller for smaller spots.

Best For: Accents that you really want to stand out, like furniture, doors, or cabinets.

An Intro to the Specialties...

Super Matte

2LG Studio

Matte surfaces can look like velvet: rich and super-saturated. They’re not easy to clean, so use the flat finish in small doses. This office nook by 2LG Studio and John Lewis of Hungerford was sprayed with Mylands’s FTT-018 in Matte. If you're not sure whether your home would accommodate a matte finish, Barr says to "ask yourself what your expectations are as far as durability and lighting, both from natural and artificial sources. But if you have a low traffic home, you can just think about your decision in terms of shiny or not shiny,” Barr advises.

Super Gloss

DESIGN: Alisa Bloom; PHOTO: Bjorn Wallander

The rich, liquidy sheen of a lacquer-like finish bounces light around a dark room. Designer Alisa Bloom used Fine Paints of Europe’s Delft Blue 4003 in Hollandlac Brilliant to illuminate this bedroom. And remember, "before you make up your mind, take a personal inventory of your house and be realistic about the condition of your walls, thinking about how a sheen can either highlight or minimize imperfections," Barr advises.

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