150+ DIY projects

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How to choose colors and paint like a pro

How to make quick upgrades easy, with the help of West Coast paint pros

painting trims and edges

“Cut in” from the wall’s edge (and any trim) with a  paintbrush.

Jeffery Cross

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light blue room
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picking paint
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light yellow room
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Q: There are so many white paints! How do I choose the right one?

A: Do a swatch test on a big piece of cardboard and consider the mood you want to set. Warm whites (those with touches of peach or pink) will make a room seem cozier and more intimate. “And nearly everyone looks great when surrounded by a white with a peach undertone,” notes Molly Luetkemeyer, an L.A. designer.

Q: What are the next go-​with-anything wall colors?

A: See our expert-suggested shades. They “look great with the new, lighter-wood finishes on floors and furniture,” says ​San Francisco designer Charles de Lisle.

Q: What will happen if I don’t prime?

A: If you’re not changing paint formulas or making a dramatic color shift and you’re using quality paint, not much. However, you may need an extra coat or two of paint—which is more expensive, points out paint retailer Rhan Harris, than primer—to achieve even coverage. And if your walls need cleaning or patching, you risk cracking and peeling, which can be prevented by meticulous prep and priming.

Q: I painted a room what I thought was a nice turquoise. Instead, it looks like a kid’s room. What went wrong?

A: “Once you get a bright color up on four walls, it can appear more intense,” says Luetkemeyer. “To ensure a grown-up look, choose a color in the same family that’s a shade lighter, or one with a little more gray in it than the color you like.”

Q: Why aren’t all paints eco-friendly?

A: “I think we may be headed in that direction,” says Steve Revnew, a vice president at Sherwin-Williams, which offers a no-VOC line. But Benjamin Moore’s director of product development, Carl Minchew, notes that even though that company’s eco paints are popular, it still has “a large group of customers who love the traditional lines.”

Remember: If you do opt for an eco-friendly paint, use a matching primer. There are even low- or no-VOC spackling pastes; Crawford’s Free (crawfords.com) is one favorite.

Q: How many square feet will a gallon of paint cover?

A: Most makers claim 350 to 450 square feet per gallon. (That’d put one coat on the walls of a 10- by 12-foot room, assuming the usual ceiling height plus windows and doors.) Note: A porous rough wall soaks up more than a smooth primed one. “You may be able to stretch a gallon over as much as 600 square feet, but it’ll look thin,” says painting contractor Shawn Mylacraine. “When in doubt, buy the extra quart.”

Q: I’ve heard that paint color can vary between gallons of the same shade. How can I get a consistent color?

A: Paint pros use a technique called “boxing” to mix various quantities of the same color together and ensure a homogeneous hue. “Purchase all of your paint at the same time,” recommends Mylacraine. Then combine the contents of the cans in a 5-gallon plastic bucket. Save some paint in a glass jar for touch-ups; label it with the date, room, and paint color, number, and manufacturer.

Q: Where in the room should I start painting?

A: Harris says to start with the ceiling: First “cut in” from its edges—brushing a border of paint about 6 inches wide—then fill in with a roller. Paint the walls from the top down (first cutting in edges on all walls with a brush, then rolling). Finally, paint the trim with a brush. Check the maker’s website, though; due to quicker drying times, some advise completing each wall (cutting in and rolling) before moving on to the next.

Q: How can I save time while painting?

A: Paint pros work like surgeons: They organize everything in advance so that they don’t have to stop midproject.

  • Remove what items you can from the room; put the rest in the middle. Make sure you can move a ladder around the perimeter and reach the ceiling.
  • Tape down red rosin paper over hard flooring, and cover carpet and furnishings with drop cloths.
  • Set all of the supplies on a drop cloth. Buy brushes, rollers, and containers for each color so you don’t have to stop and wash them. Cover or wrap them in plastic when not in use.
  • Paint one room at a time.
  • Let each layer (spackle, primer, paint) dry thoroughly—not just to the touch. Drying time for spackle can be lengthy.
  • Don’t rush! “Most spills come from working too fast,” says Mylacraine. “Keep a damp rag handy to clean up drips and drops before they dry.”

Next: 

How to paint perfect stripes

5 go-with-anything wall colors

 

Meet our paint experts: 

Kimberly Biehl Schmidt, Kimberly Biehl Schmidt Interior Design, L.A. (or nontoxicinteriors.com)

Charles de Lisle, Charles de Lisle Workshop, San Francisco (415/565-6767)

Rhan Harris, Mann Brothers Specialty Paints & Supplies, L.A. (323/936-5168)

Mark Langos, Mark Langos Interior Design, L.A. (323/653-5677)

Molly Luetkemeyer, M. Design Interiors, L.A. (323/933-2981)

Shawn Mylacraine, Surface Painting, San Francisco (415/298-0537)

Tia Zoldan, Zoldan Interiors, L.A. (310/989-9975)

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