Selecting the Right Paint Finish Is Easier Than You Think

Welcome to our Painting 101 series, where we tap the pros to answer your burning questions about paint colors, finishes, and applications. If you have any other questions about decorating, reach out to us here. 

Painting Tips - LEAD 3
Photo: Fritz von der Schulenburg

Nailing down the perfect paint color for your walls can be fun, albeit a little bit stressful. But selecting the appropriate finish is a whole other task that many of us would prefer not to have to deal with. Some labels are pretty obvious—matte finishes will come out matte and a high-gloss finish will give you shiny, slick walls—while others are less so, and you may find yourself relying on the expertise (or lack thereof) of the sales associate to enlighten you on the differences between eggshell and satin, and on which options are best for the bathroom vs. the bedroom. We say skip this stressful conversation and follow our finishing guide instead.

First, familiarize yourself with the various options. From the flattest to the shiniest, the labels you might find are: matte or flat, eggshell or satin, semi-gloss, and gloss. With this list in mind, here are some other important factors to consider.


Be aware that the more reflective the surface, the more obvious a wall's flaws become, warns N.Y.C. color consultant Eve Ashcraft. “Aside from personal taste, the decisions regarding finish are should be based on how much preparation has been done to the surface that’s about to be painted,” she says. So if you’re considering super glossy walls, you better be equipped to prepare that wall to a T.


The shinier the paint, the more resilient they will be, and therefore easier to clean (you can take a damp cloth to them without ruining the paint job). “Matte or low-sheen finishes create an elegant look and are good for hiding minor flaws as they don’t reflect light,” says Australian interior designer Greg Natale, who prefers these treatments to the ceiling and walls in low-traffic areas. “But hey do show marks, so they’re not ideal for high-traffic zones like cabinetry. There I like to use satin finishes because they can take a bit of a beating,” he says. For drama, “High-gloss is extremely reflective and will show the smallest of imperfection—I generally use this on a frame or front door for big impact.” Basically, the most forgiving is the middle-man, satin, or semi-gloss, which are easy to maintain, but won’t pick up on fingerprints and other marks like a high-gloss finish would.


It’s pretty obvious that glossier surfaces have more a glam factor, but this extra bit of reflection and shine also affects the way your eyes process the color and react to the room. “Matte will deliver a more understated look, while the glossier finishes will have a greater impression and bring out the color more,” says Natale. So if you’re looking for high-drama and want to amplify those daring aqua walls you so bravely selected, go for the glossiest finish you can find. But it’s also important to consider what the room will be used for. If it’s meant to be a showroom where you entertain and want to keep guests engaged and alert, go for a high-gloss finish because “shine makes your eyes move quickly,” says Ashcraft, and those mirror-like walls will most definitely give them something to wonder at. Conversely, “if you want a calm space, make everything matte,” she says. Sounds like the direction you would want to go for a super zen bedroom or library.

Related Articles