Tricks of the Trade: How to Paint Like a Pro

Anyone can paint, right? Not so fast.

You may not need special training to paint, but you need to know what you’re doing before you spread the drop cloth.

We asked two local experts, Grace Ragsdale, vice president of Ragsdale, Inc., and interior designer Julia Buckingham Edelmann of Buckingham Interiors + Design, for the facts on painting—everything you need to know to pick the right color and finish and do the job right.

Choosing your color

Paint color is incredibly personal, and there are plenty of factors that come into play. Besides considering the furnishings that are in the room, Ragsdale considers the psychology of color (i.e., red can get your heart racing, while blues can be calming), the function of your space, and even how formal or informal you want the room to appear.

If you have a historical home, you might want to limit your selections to period colors. Color is also a great way to create optical illusions, making a room feel cozier or larger, creating width in a narrow space.

And while the color you choose is completely subjective, the process of selecting the right one is not.

  • Once you narrow your choices on the color deck, sample the paint on location.
  • Put a different color on each wall, rather than grouping swatches together, and always use two coats to get the true color value. “It’s easier to make a decision when colors aren’t competing against one another,” Edelmann says.
  • Look at colors in different areas of the room (e.g., high/low, east/west, next to a window and across from it), against all of the furnishings, in natural light and in artificial light. “Colors can appear unbelievably different from one corner of the room to the next, so make sure to move the swatch around,” Ragsdale says.
  • Once you narrow down your selection, or if you’re struggling with a decision, have your painter make up a large sample board so you can live with it in the space for a few days and see how it looks in different areas at different times of day.

Getting the finish right

When it comes to a standard paint job, Ragsdale offers these simple rules:

  • If you don’t have the time or money to invest in much wall repair, use a flat finish, as it’s best for hiding imperfections.
  • If washability is key, opt for a paint finish with more sheen. Eggshell is ideal for bathroom and kitchen walls that require regular cleanup. Satin offers a nice sheen for trimwork, but semi-gloss will stand up better in high-traffic areas.
  • Always look at a sample on location. Recent revisions to product formulas have made standard sheen levels shinier than what they used to be.

More complex finishes (e.g., lacquered, glazed, washed) are beautiful options, Edelmann admits. But make sure to consult a professional painter, as they are likely to know the ingredients and labor it takes to achieve this type of finish.

Why paint quality matters

As with most things, you get what you pay for. A premium quality paint offers better components and a higher concentration of solids, which results in enhanced hiding characteristics, color-holding power, improved washability and mildew resistance, and a longer-lasting paint job. Also, professional painters tend to prefer a premium paint as it flows nicely, splatters less and requires fewer coats.

Designed by Julia Buckingham Edelmann, the column was faux painted to look like marble.

Ragsdale warns customers to not be fooled by a designer name on the paint can. Do your research and ask your painter for his opinion. You’ll find most experts are comfortable with Benjamin Moore, as it’s proven to be the most dedicated paint company when it comes to research and product development.

Preparation is everything

Even the highest quality paint won’t hold up to an improperly or poorly prepared surface, Ragsdale warns. Paint application is actually the smallest part of the equation; preparation is always the most important step. A surface can quickly be ruined by a poor paint job, and the cost to reverse the damage will far exceed the cost to have it done right the first time.

Also, make sure to hire a true professional. Of all the trades, painting is probably the trickiest. Make sure to choose a licensed, registered, and insured painter who is in compliance with the laws and regulations of the areas where he does business.

Eco-friendly options

Oil-based paints are a product of the past, only used in limited capacities. Today’s water-based technology delivers exceptional quality, reducing dependence on non-renewable resource petroleum. It also offers less smell, easier cleanup and fewer health-related concerns.

Ragsdale credits Benjamin Moore for staying at the forefront of paint technology, converting to their new Gen-X system, an entirely low-VOC coloring system. She warns that while other paint companies market their paint as low-VOC, they still use a high-VOC coloring system.


Lead photo: Julia Buckinham Edelmann used a dramatic wall color for her room at the 2013 Lake Forest Showhouse.