When selecting paint for a project, finish is as important as color—in case you weren’t aware, there are five standard finishes to choose from, ranging from flat to gloss. The glossier the paint, the lower the amount of pigment in the formula, while matte means more pigment and less resin.
But why does the paint finish matter? It affects both the luster and wash-ability, which translates to finishes that are shiny or dull, hard-wearing or less so.
Traditionally, we are taught (by our parents and our paint salesmen) to use certain sheens for certain surfaces without question: satin on walls, flat on ceilings, and semi-gloss on trim. These standards were set decades ago, and are based on old formulas. But major advances in paint technology—together with some inventive designers—are making the old rules obsolete. Ahead, your complete guide and inspiration to paint finishes for your next project.
This is the most matte paint, reflecting almost no light. It’s traditionally used exclusively for ceilings.
Flat is excellent at hiding blemishes in plasterwork or drywall. However, flat paints of the past showed every mark and scuff after the paint was applied—it was nearly impossible to clean or wipe. Enter 21st century paint technology: Today, flat paint can be used liberally. Sure, this finish is still slightly less durable in very kid and pet-heavy zones, but specially formulated products by good-quality manufacturers hold up.
Jeff Spillane, senior product manager at Benjamin Moore Paints, notes, “Matte finishes can be used almost anywhere… all of our finishes are highly durable, so you don’t have to be tied to the old rules.”
The other benefit? Flat paint covers surfaces more quickly, since there is extra pigment in the formula. This means less coats and less money.
Matte finishes are having a moment. Flat, finished walls give a soft, velvety look that adds unexpected depth to a room. This trend looks best when the same sheen is applied to trim and ceilings.
Sue Wadden, director of color marketing at Sherwin Williams, remarks, “Painting trim, ceilings, and walls the same color/sheen is a great look. I would recommend a flat sheen over larger expanses of wall—higher sheen finishes can product high reflection, and therefore show surface imperfections.”
These both sit in the middle of the sheen scale, and are easy to keep clean—while still hiding significant surface flaws. Some manufacturers produce both, with satin just slightly shinier than eggshell. These are tried and true, so when in doubt, satin or eggshell are always a wise choice.
Satin and eggshell finishes are very popular for cabinetry and furniture applications right now. Since both reflect less light than a traditional semi-gloss cabinetry finish, they feel more modern and on-trend. They’re more durable than a flat paint—therefore great for areas with busy activity and ample water use, like kitchens or baths.
Most often used for wood trim and casings, this sheen provides extra cleanability and light reflection. It is ideal for kid bathrooms, mudrooms, or any space that needs some extra scrubbing.
The downside, however, is increased visibility of blemishes—if you’re renovating an old house, examine the woodwork before using a semi-gloss. You may not want to reveal 100 years’ worth of nicks and scratches.
Today, designers often apply the same paint color to all surfaces of a room, but with varied sheens. This application makes a traditional space modern and fresh, de-emphasizing woodwork and architectural details.
Jeff Spillane of Benjamin Moore remarks, “Currently, we are seeing sheens being used to create dimension within a room. For instance, using the same paint color on the ceilings, trim, or walls—but varying the finish—can create a subtle and sophisticated effect.”
Sue Wadden of Sherwin Williams agrees: “You can achieve a very sophisticated look with one color and multiple finishes. It’s much subtler than using two colors.”
Semi-gloss is perfect for such an application, adding just the right amount of contrast against an eggshell finish.
This sheen is rarely included in a standard interior scheme. In the early and mid-20th century, high gloss paints were used in place of semi-gloss in bathrooms, kitchens, and on woodwork. Up until very recently, high gloss was banished entirely from the home, except for the occasional front door: It was almost never used in living areas, and was considered too reflective. This luster will also show surface imperfections more than any other.
Today, high gloss paint is making a major impact on living spaces, particularly paneled rooms with elaborate molding, and trim work that showcases the sheen. Full gloss in dark or saturated colors are best paired with matte lighting, textiles, or artwork, therefore adding contrast.
Charlotte Cosby, head of creative at Farrow & Ball Paint, notes, “We’re seeing a trend to use bright colors in high shine full gloss on walls. This creates a particularly striking scheme, adding a layer of interest to the space.”
Full gloss is also popular for ceilings, and pairs well with a dramatic chandelier.
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