23 Fundamental Painting Tips to Know Before You Pick Up a Brush

paint cans
Photo: Kim Cornelison

Before you open up that can of paint, brush up on these painting tips and tricks. Learn how to pick the right paint color, what tools you need, and how to clean up once the job is done. Even if you're a beginner with a brush, you'll be painting like a pro in no time.

Painting Tips

BHG / Mira Norian

01 of 23

Choose Paint Color Wisely

paint chips
Adam Albright

Consider the amount of light and the decorative elements in a room when choosing paint colors. Light colors tend to open up a room, making it seem lighter and more spacious. Dark hues can add depth and warmth. Use a dark color on a single accent wall to create visual interest without making the room feel smaller. Before painting a room white, pay special attention to how surrounding elements will reflect light and alter the color. For example, red furniture or rugs might make white walls look pink.

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Consider Paint Sheen

entryway with orange lamps
Paul Dyer

One factor you must consider is sheen, the degree of light reflection off the painted surface. In other words, how much the paint shines. Sheen affects the finish's appearance, durability, and suitability for certain uses. As the amount of sheen increases, so does the enamel value, which determines the hardness or protective value of the coating. Generally, the higher the gloss, the better the finish will stand up to stains, abrasions, and cleaning. Choosing sheen can be a matter of personal preference, but there are some general guidelines to follow. Flat paint is widely used for ceilings but is not a good choice for walls in high-traffic areas. Eggshell works well in bedrooms, living rooms, and hallways where frequent cleaning is not needed. Easier-to-wash satin or semigloss paints are good choices for bathrooms and kitchens. Use high-gloss paints for trim, cabinetry, and doors that are in perfect condition.

03 of 23

Test Paint Color Before You Buy

gray chair
Jay Wilde

You probably selected the paint color by looking at it under a different type or intensity of light than what's in your room. Sunlight, daylight, fluorescent light, halogen light, and incandescent light affect colors differently. So bring the sample card into the room you intend to paint and look at it several times during the day. See how the color looks using different kinds of artificial light before making a final decision. The only way to be certain about a paint color is to see it on the intended surface, surrounded by the room's other elements. The best test is to buy sample sizes or quarts of a few colors, paint small sections of a wall, and observe during different lighting conditions. If you're hesitant to paint your walls with samples, pick up some poster board and paint it instead. With this method, you can also see what the color looks like in different parts of your room.

04 of 23

Determine Paint Needs

paint cans
Peter Krumhardt

Some manufacturers include calculators on their websites to help you figure out how many gallons of paint to buy. You can also use this formula: Add the widths of the walls, multiply that figure by the room's height, then divide the total by 350 (the square footage that 1 gallon typically covers). This formula doesn't factor in doors and windows, so you should have paint left over for touch-ups.

Don't forget about a second coat, too! For the best durability and coverage, you'll want to apply a couple coats of paint. However, you might need additional coats, especially if you're trying to cover a dark color with a lighter color. In this case, you'd want to use a primer as well.

05 of 23

Spend More for Quality Paint

paint cans grey color
Marty Baldwin

The accrued costs of frequent repainting cancel the savings you enjoy by buying the cheap stuff. Good-quality paints cost more because they have a higher percentage of titanium dioxide, which determines covering ability, and other additives that increase durability. The heavier bodies of high-end paints help them go on smoother, splatter less, and resist fading.

06 of 23

Choose the Right Roller Cover

woman rolling white paint onto cabinets
Brie Passano

You might be tempted to buy a cheap, throw-away fuzzy-napped roller, but save yourself the headache! A ⅜-inch foam paint roller ($4, Home Depot) works faster, easier, and better. You can load three or four times the amount of paint onto the roller. This porosity means less dipping into the roller tray, which means more coverage in less time.

The differences in nap on roller covers are tailored to specific jobs:

  • 3/16 and ¼ inch: Apply a perfect finish with gloss paints on smooth surfaces.
  • 3/8 inch: Roll flat and semigloss paint onto walls or ceilings with ease.
  • ½ and ¾ inch: Tackle tough surfaces such as concrete floors and textured walls.
  • 1 and 1¼ inch: Cover brick and stucco completely.

For smaller jobs, consider a paint pad ($8, Home Depot). This tool's foam core holds three times more paint than a brush, has five times more surface area than a regular brush tip, and has bristles that are only ¼-inch long, so the paint won't dry out. It splatters and drips less than a brush. Most pads even come with a plastic paint tray and airtight snap-on lid.

07 of 23

Painting Tips for Brushes

four open paint cans with paintbrush on top
Blaine Moats

For best results, choose brushes with long and dense bristles. Use nylon for latex (water-base) paint and natural for oil-base paint. Follow these brush tips for most painting projects:

2-inch angled sash brush: Good for painting door and window frames, moldings, and other areas where you need a lot of control; hold it like a pencil.

3-inch trim brush: This workhorse brush is good for outlining walls and ceilings and for painting large areas. Look for a bare wood handle to get the best grip. Hold it between your thumb and fingers in a relaxed grip.

08 of 23

Use High-Quality Brushes

Person painting in taped area
Cameron Sadeghpour

High-quality brushes apply paint in a thick, smooth film. Examine a brush for a good taper, with bristles in the center slightly longer than those at the edge. The bristles should be at least half as long as they are wide and should be bound with a rust-resistant metal ferrule that is nailed on, not just crimped to the handle. Look for a well-shaped, bare wood handle large enough to grip comfortably.

09 of 23

Painters Tape Pointers

using painters tape to mask wall from ceiling
Marty Baldwin

Specialty painters tape is used to mask off areas before painting. Medium-adhesion tape is often used on woodwork that has a nonporous finish, such as gloss or semigloss paint. It adheres and seals well and will stay put for the duration of the project. If left on too long, however, it may pull off the finish when removed. Low-tack painters tape for delicate surfaces is used to temporarily mask off stripes, borders, and wall panels. It is often removed immediately after painting. Its mild adhesive will not pull off paint when removed. Both types of tape are available in a variety of widths.

10 of 23

Painting Prep Work

window with painters tape
Marty Baldwin

Paint will cover more uniformly and adhere better to clean, dry, nonglossy surfaces. Scrape off any flaking paint, fill holes with spackling compound, and sand walls. Wipe off sanding dust, and wash dirty walls with a trisodium phosphate (TSP) solution. Remove switchplates and other hardware, and apply a primer, which helps to conceal stains and ensure uniform color and absorption.

11 of 23

Applying Painters Tape

pressing tape to trim with tool
Jacob Fox

Apply no more than 8 to 10 inches of painters tape at a time to be certain of a straight edge. Smooth the edges with a putty knife and heat-seal the tape to prevent paint from seeping through. Run a tapered painter's tool($7, Home Depot) quickly over the applied edge of the blue masking tape after you've set the tape. This heats the edge of the tape, the waxy adhesive on the tape melts, and when it resolidifies at the edge, it creates a barrier that prevents paint from seeping underneath the tape. Wait until paint is dry to the touch and remove the tape slowly at a 45-degree angle. If the tape begins to tear, run a crafts knife along the seam to loosen it from the dried paint.

Instead of spending hours masking off the glass, rub lip balm around the inside of each pane. When the paint dries, take a knife and score around the glass, then scrape the paint and wax away. If you still have wax on the glass, heat the glass with a hair dryer and buff clean.

12 of 23

Prep and Pour Paint

pouring paint into bucket
Mike Dvorak

Always paint from a small plastic bucket, not the paint can. That way, you can keep the lid on the can so the paint stays fresh. Pour only a couple inches of paint in the bucket to create less weight to carry and help you avoid overfilling the brush.

Use a 5-in-1 tool ($7, Home Depot), not a straight screwdriver, to pry up the can lid around its circumference. (A screwdriver will put crimps and dimples in the lid, compromising the seal and letting air in.) If the paint was mixed and shaken at the store within the past week, stir it lightly. You can use a flat wooden stirring paddle (usually free at the paint store), but one with holes will move through the paint without causing it to spill over the edge of the can.

Carefully lift the paint can with one hand on either side (you get better control of the pour this way) and pour paint into your small bucket. Put about 2 or 3 inches in the bucket to reduce your chances of overloading the brush. (An overloaded brush keeps paint in the ferrule of the brush instead of applying it to the wall.)

13 of 23

Keep the Lid Clean

paint lid in plastic bag
Mike Dvorak

A wet paint can lid creates the potential for a mess: Someone might step on it and track paint across the floor. When you remove the lid, slide it into a plastic freezer bag and seal the closure. That will protect the lid and give you a clean edge to lift it off with the next time you need to remove it.

14 of 23

Loading the Paint Brush

white paint in bucket
Mike Dvorak

Before dipping a brush into paint, dampen it with water (for latex paints) or paint thinner or mineral spirits (for oil-base or alkyd paints). Blot excess solvent from the brush so it is just damp. Priming the brush this way keeps the paint on the surface of the bristles and makes cleanup easier.

Dip a primed brush into the paint only one-third to one-half the length of the bristles. Work the paint into the brush by pressing the bristles against the sides of the container. Tap the brush lightly against the inside of the bucket and lift it clear. Do not scrape the sides of the brush against the top edge of the bucket. That removes paint that belongs on the surface you're painting.

15 of 23

Painting Tips for Cutting In

painting edges around ceiling with brush
Marty Baldwin

Begin painting by using a technique called "cutting in". This is where you'll outline the walls, ceiling, and trim. Make sure to leave a loosely brushed edge so that you can easily blend in the trimmed area when you paint the rest of your wall.

16 of 23

Paint Top to Bottom

painting paneling after priming
Marty Baldwin

Begin with the ceiling and work your way to the bottom of the room for best results. Once the ceiling has dried, paint any crown molding, trim around windows and doors, and baseboards. Finally, paint the walls. Apply the paint in long sections. If you're using a brush, brush upward to unload the paint, downward to set the paint, then up again to remove the brush marks. If you're using a roller, load it up on a paint tray by rolling it up the paint tray's ramp until it's saturated. Then, work in small sections (about four square feet) and roll paint onto the walls in an overlapping W motion.

17 of 23

Keep Paint Fresh

tap nail into paint can top with hammer
Jacob Fox

Punch a series of holes around the bottom of a paint can's rim with a nail. The holes will let paint drain down into the can and keep it from pooling around the rim when you pour it into a roller tray or other container. It also will ensure that your lid goes on tightly. A good seal will help keep the paint fresh.

18 of 23

Mix Paint Before Use

stirring paint with stir stick
   . Jacob Fox

Before you start, buy all the paint for a room at the same time, and have it shaken at the home center. If you use it within a week, just stir it lightly. If you have to wait more than a week, take it back for shaking or mix it with a paint-mixing propeller affixed to an electric drill (run the drill at a slow speed). To reduce spattering, stick the shaft through a foam plastic picnic plate before inserting it in the drill chuck.

When using more than one gallon of the same paint, mix all gallons together in a 5-gallon bucket. Called boxing, this procedure will ensure that the color is uniform throughout the application. This is particularly worthwhile if you're using a custom-mixed color.

19 of 23

Tips for Break Time

paint supplies and bright paint on drop cloth
Jay Wilde

When you take a break from your paint job, wrap brushes and rollers in plastic bags, squeeze the air out, and seal with twist ties or rubber bands. To leave them overnight, place the sealed tools in the refrigerator.

Trying to figure out how much time it will take to tackle one room (and if you'll need to take a break in between)? It depends on how big your space is, but it can take anywhere from two to three hours to put on the first coat. You'll need to wait another two hours for the paint to dry before applying a second coat. In total, that's anywhere from eight to twelve hours for a bedroom or medium-sized living room.

20 of 23

Store Extra Paint

paint cans
Kim Cornelison

Store paint successfully by keeping air out of the paint container. To accomplish this, add a gasket between the cover and the can using a circle cut from a heavy-duty trash bag. Spray vegetable oil on one side of the bag and set it spray-side down on the can. Set the lid on top of the plastic. Tap the lid to seat it in the well. Store the can upside down in a room free from temperature extremes.

21 of 23

Storing Paint Brushes

wrapping paint brushes
Marty Baldwin

To keep brushes in good shape after your paint job is done, make a DIY cover for the bristles. Cut a rectangle of heavy kraft paper or grocery bag that's twice the length of the ferrule and bristles and four times the width of the brush. Crease the paper vertically down the center. Place the brush next to the crease on the opened paper at the edge, and fold the paper. Roll the brush into the paper and secure it with a rubber band. Hang the brush by the handle or store it flat.

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Tips for Using Old Paint

pouring paint into bucket
Mike Dvorak

Paint that is more than a year old may have lumps in it that will interfere with application. First stir the paint up from the bottom until it's as free of lumps as possible. Then box the paint, straining it through a nylon paint strainer or cheesecloth. If the paint has developed a skin on top, cut around the skin with an old kitchen knife and remove it.

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Consider Paint Additives


If brush marks on your painted projects bother you, consider a paint additive that improves flow-out without affecting the durability of the finish. One such product for oil-base finishes is Penetrol. Its companion product, Floetrol, is for water-base paint. These products also work well when you're rolling paint onto walls or ceilings. The improved paint consistency reduces spatters and the appearance of roller marks.

The label provides general guidelines for the amount of additive needed, which varies with the type of paint and the application temperature. It takes some experimenting to get the feel of these products.

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