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A guide to paint sheens, from glossy to matte

Yas sheen yas (but also, in some cases, no)

Sam Frost

So you’ve done the hard part—after much debate you’ve finally settled on a paint color. Now, the merchant wants to know what sheen you want and there are so many choices. We asked artist Mary McMurray to help us sift through the options.

For the past thirty years, Murray has run her own color consulting business, called Art First Colors for Architecture, in Portland, Oregon. Her unique perspective—she’s an artist and also became a licensed painting contractor in order to mix her own colors—makes her an authority on the medium. Here’s a cheat sheet for choosing the right paint sheens.

1. In general, there is a sheen scale

The first thing to know is that sheens typically exist on a scale, usually from flat (no shine) to glossy (ultra-shiny), with steps in between. According to McMurray, a loose sheen scale that accelerates in shine quality looks like this: flat > matte > eggshell > satin > semi-gloss > gloss or high-gloss.

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The sheen designations can be a little confusing at times because each paint manufacturer coins their own. For instance, at Benjamin Moore, satin is also referred to as Pearl. At Farrow & Ball, sheens are referred to as emulsions. In general, however, a scale will exist.

2. Shine tends to equal durability

The general rule for matching a paint sheen to the room is this: The higher the shine level of the paint, the more durable it will be. This means different sheens are appropriate to different areas of the home, depending on their activity level.

There can be exceptions to this, thanks to modern developments in paint formulation. For instance, Sherwin-Williams now makes a line of flat paint called Emerald that they advertise as having the same “washability and durability as the matte or glossier sheens.”

3. Low sheen for low traffic rooms

The lower end of the spectrum, that being the flat and matte sheens, are typically used for low-traffic rooms since the finish is susceptible to marks and stains that don’t easily wipe off. This makes these finishes good for places like adult bedrooms or home offices—as opposed to kid’s rooms where there is more activity.

When picking a flat sheen for a wall, McMurray suggests using the highest quality paint possible, as it will be more durable in the long run. “If you do happen to get a handprint on a flat-finished wall that you used a cheap paint on, and you try to wipe it off, it’s probably going to destroy the finish,” she says.

4. Higher sheen for high traffic or moisture-prone rooms

Since higher shine equals higher durability, use an eggshell, satin, or semi-gloss in the bathroom, kitchen, hallways, and kid’s rooms. This ensures that constant exposure to moisture doesn’t affect the finish and impromptu stains or scuffs can be cleaned off the walls easily with a sponge and cleaner.

In the bathroom and kitchen, make sure to extend the same sheen to the ceiling that’s being used on the walls. “In the kitchen, it depends on what kind of cooking you do and how much ventilation you have,” says McMurray. Some people might be able to do a matte finish in a kitchen but a safer bet would be eggshell or higher, for ease of wiping down splatters.

5. Highest sheen on trim and doors

Baseboards, doors, and trim are probably the hardest hit surfaces in your house. For that reason, opting for satin or semi-gloss will protect them. “For trimwork, I like satin or semi-gloss depending on what the project is,” says McMurray. The higher sheen will highlight the architectural features and allow them to contrast with the body of the wall surface nicely, while also surviving nicks and scrapes better.

Just be aware that higher sheen paints are thinner in consistency, and can be harder to work with and control for a smooth finish (depending on your painting skills, of course). For this reason, self-leveling paints, like Benjamin Moore’s Advance line, are extremely helpful. McMurray does not often specify a gloss or high-gloss finish, except for the occasional client who wants a standout front door.

6. Consider the overall effect in the room

In addition to selecting a sheen for its function, McMurray cautions people to also be aware of how it will look in a room. Consider the wall surface quality as well as the sheen’s overall effect. Lower sheen paints will soak up more light rather than reflecting it, which is good if there is imperfections in your wall surface that need to be hidden. Shinier paints will reflect light and draw attention to bumps and divots in drywall or plaster.

The latter can be “very distracting,” says McMurray. “I like flat finishes on the ceiling, partly because that doesn’t offer any distraction with light bouncing off the surface and it creates a calmer effect,” she says.

Noise amplification is also something to consider. “If you painted a whole room in semi-gloss, the light would feel very noisy,” says McMurray. “You would get a lot of glare reflected and it wouldn’t be a very calm and peaceful environment.” She has read studies wherein it was discovered that audible noise increases with the degrees of sheen.

7. For the exterior, go more matte

Exterior paint has a similar range of sheens, yet here McMurray cautions against painting your whole house satin, even if the logic is that the shinier finish will stand up better to the weather and elements. “Then your house looks kind-of like a big plastic box,” she says. “So I would not recommend satin on the siding.” Instead, save satin for the exterior trim and paint the body of your house flat or “low-lustre.”

Looking for the perfect shade of white paint? We’ve got you. And check out all our advice for painting your home here.

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