How to Choose the Right Paint Sheen

Eggshell must be an actual colour in a fan deck somewhere because I have had many clients ask for it and they were not talking about low lustre sheen (which is what eggshell is). The other day I received a request from a reader to write a post explaining paint sheens and I thought, “How can I have a blog about colour and paint and not include a post about which sheen is right?” So here they are:
Flat for ceilings is the usual rule

Flat or Matte; no shine is what you get here. Joanne Day with the Daystudio said “If you paint a dining room a dark colour and you leave it flat, at night it will look black”, better to give it a sheen and then (if you have recessed lighting) the wall will reflect the light back into the room”.

The problem with using flat paint in the past, was that it wasn’t washable, (until paint companies came out with washable flats). And the plus side is that you can touch up flat paint where you cannot with any other sheen. If you do, you get flashing, which is a phenomenon where the additional coat or sheen builds upon the first–which is why you have to re-paint the space when your tenant moves out.

Great for dark colours which are sometimes hard to get perfect with a sheen 

Flat paint is also good for walls where you want to cover a lot of imperfections as it doesn’t reflect light.

Bottom line, use flat for ceilings–unless you are designing something very dramatic, like this high gloss ceiling [image] below–because if you are, your ceiling must be absolutely perfect, so that all you notice is your reflection!

Eggshell; the low sheen of the shell of an egg is what this looks like on the walls. It’s the sheen I specify the most. Good for any room in the house (including the powder room) except really high traffic areas where a shinier finish would be even better. This room below, both the ceiling and the walls are painted in an eggshell finish.


Pearl; These days where latex paint is much preferred to the toxicity of oil, at least use a minimum of a pearl finish if you are painting trim, as latex does not take the beating oil will take which is why furniture and trim are usually painted in oil.

This sheen is usually the one I specify for bathrooms and kitchens because it’s more durable and scrubbable.

Image source

Satin; It’s the one I specify the most for trim (in oil, with Benjamin Moore you can't get latex in a satin finish anyway) because it’s self-leveling and has a smooth, velvety look to it. However, with latex paint becoming more and more durable, you can now paint trim in much lower sheens with Benjamin Moore’s new Aura which is great on trim (and you can even do a flat in a bathroom).

Semi-gloss; This finish has a slightly glossy appearance but is not wet looking. Good for high-traffic and high-moisture areas like laundry rooms. Keep in mind that the imperfections in the walls will reflect in the light with this finish.

High-Gloss; The trim in this hallway [below] is definitely high-gloss. The more formal your decor is, the shinier everything gets (and it’s the most durable).


If you pick the same colour for the trim as the walls and you change the sheen, many times it can look like a completely different colour, or at the very least, look like you tried to match it and failed, so make sure you test it before you start painting it all. This happens many times in a contemporary space where the woodwork is painted the same colour as the walls (but in a different finish)!
One more very important point; what one paint company calls eggshell, another may call semi-gloss, so if you don't have a lot of experience specifying a certain brand of paint, make sure you pick up some sheen samples which every paint store will supply.

Suggested Guidelines:
INTERIOR
Living Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Family Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Kitchen ~ Pearl
Bathroom ~ Pearl
Powder Room ~ Matte or Eggshell
Bedroom ~ Eggshell or Matte
Kid's Bedroom ~ Eggshell or Pearl
Foyer ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Staircase Walls ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Hallways ~ Eggshell or Washable Flat
Trim and Doors ~ Satin or Semi-Gloss

EXTERIOR
Stucco – Matte or Eggshell
Siding – Eggshell (to repel dirt)
Trim & Doors – Semi-gloss (for durability)

Related posts:

The best trim Colours – NOT Cloud White
White Floors for Instant Happiness
3 Ways to beat the high cost of buying the wrong paint colour

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40 Responses to How to Choose the Right Paint Sheen

  1. The Boese Family says:

    Oh MY Goodness! You are incredible! It was not even 24 hours ago that I asked you this question, and VOILA!!! Thank you so much, Maria!

    Does it make me a dork if I start printing all of your posts so I can have them on-hand while shopping the paint aisles? :)

    I find your info so incredibly helpful and relevant. I must admit that I have been spending HOURS each day going back through all of your old posts. (I highly recommend this to any of you new fans out there! You won't be disappointed!)

    Thanks again,
    Jessica

  2. The Boese Family says:

    Another question: Would you ever use an unlikely sheen to create an effect? For example, in my last house we had some rennovations done before moving in and the painter used semi-gloss (not sure why) in our living room. At first I was shocked and thought that it would need to be redone, but in the end I kind of liked the way it reflected light and brought out the texture of the walls. We actually got tons of positive comments, and it sure was washable :).

    Any thoughts on this? Be honest.

  3. Maria Killam says:

    Absolutely, I think that's a great idea. I really love the shiny ceiling I've shown above as well. I must admit though I've never really thought too much about using 'sheens' in an unusual way so I can't speak from experience there.

    I think it can add a whole new dimension to a space though!

  4. lizawiza says:

    Thanks for the low-down on paint sheens. I love the blue beaded board ceiling in one of you pics.

    • sue says:

      The blue was a popular color for older early century homes because it looks like a cloud, typically used in the porch area, the reason was it kept the spiders away. They thought it was the sky.

  5. qerat says:

    And this post is also going out to several clients. It will save the time to explain in such detail all this info about paints :)

    Wonderful post.

  6. Renee Finberg says:

    this is brilliant of you to do.
    i use eggshell in all my jobs.

    i am putting this article on my sidebar.
    xx

  7. Hill Country House Girl says:

    What a great post, Maria. So many people do not understand about sheens. I am saving this one for reference – you explained is so clearly and gave great examples!

  8. Design Esquire says:

    Thank you so much for the post, I am definitely saving it. You break down the information simply and concisely, and the images illustrate your points perfectly. We're about to paint our foyer and hallway, so this is perfect timing for me!

  9. Slices of Beauty... says:

    Wow, beautiful lesson, thank you.

  10. Pat@Back Porch Musings says:

    Wonderful, informative post!!

    Thanks so much!

  11. Ivy Lane says:

    I did matte finish everywhere except the dining room… I had it done to "look" like venetian plaster … it has a velvety product on the walls with a metallic sheen…now..after this FABULOUS post..i am thinking all the trim and wood doors need to be painted in a higher gloss and brighter white…Thanks Maria for this wonderful, informative post!!!

  12. Brillante Home Decor says:

    As Tareq said, this post is a great tool to give to clients (unless we call you…)

  13. Enchanted Treasures says:

    I'm with Jessica. New fan and have spent hours going back through all your posts! Interesting, great pics and very informative. Thanks Maria!
    Roberta

  14. K @ Blog Goggles says:

    This is really interesting – I've never thought about paint sparkliness before!

  15. Velvet and Linen says:

    I know I say this all of the time, but this is a great post! You have an amazing ability to make a confusing topic seem so simple.
    I am definitely keeping this in my Colour me Happy file (which is getting quite large at this point!).
    I think I would just add one thing that I learned the hard way: What one company calls Eggshell another company may call Semi-Gloss. If I don't have a lot of experience with a certain brand of paint, I find that it is important to not only test color but to also test sheen.

    xo
    Brooke

  16. Maria Killam says:

    Thanks Brooke that is a very important point that I will add in this post right now!!
    Thanks!
    Maria

  17. Julia says:

    Nice post! I'm happy I found your blog.

    I use egshell on ceilings regularly as long as they're in good shape. Eggshell gives darker colors more depth and luminosity.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Great post Maria! What sheen would you suggest for porch railings and pillars? (I would think semi-gloss is the most water-repellant and still I don't see many porches painted that way…)

  19. Gwen says:

    Thanks for this. I was always taught Semi for kitchens and baths, flat in other rooms. I am learning to think outside the box. There are so many choices nowadays!

  20. Maria Killam says:

    HI Anonymous,
    The sheen on exterior paint doesn't last long so thats why you don't think you've seen it before. So to answer your question– yes, exterior trim should be semi-gloss for maximum dirt repellency and durability.
    Maria

  21. DesignTies says:

    Another great & informative post, Maria :-)

    I love matte paint — the finish is so perfect :-) And I like latex semi-gloss on trim and doors. I know oil would be better, but I'm such a sloppy painter, I'd end up with a massive mess if I used oil!!

    We'll be doing Rewind Wednesday again next week — I hope you'll pull up one of your great archived posts and participate :-) And feel free to spread the word!!

    Kelly

  22. Eve says:

    If the comment on eggshell color is coming from mid 20's-30's women it may be Sex and the City's influence. There is an episode where Carrie is painting her cabinets a gorgeous shade of off white and there are two different scenarios with banter about the color being "eggshell".

    Great post!

  23. Lauren says:

    great post Maria!!! perfect explanation & a great one to send clients to!!!
    xoxo,
    lauren

  24. Tiina of LiviaConcept says:

    damn, i want that living room. i suppose the view is over .. what, manhattan? damn again

  25. FROM THE RIGHT BANK says:

    This is such a good tutorial. I'm saving it for future reference. Thank you!

  26. Unique Unique Design says:

    I haven't had a chance to comment on blogs lately, but since I subcribe to your blog, I read this post in my e-mail. Just wanted to finally let you know it is a very helpful post. Thanks!
    marcie

  27. Kerry says:

    Hi Maria,
    Just reading this post and probably way late for a response. But my question is about those crazy angled ceilings in upstairs
    spaces (from the roofline and dormers). In smaller spaces like that, do you just paint the ceiling the same color as the walls? It's hard sometimes to tell where the wall ends and the ceiling begins.
    Thanks so much-

  28. Diana says:

    Maria I should have read this last week!

    Because here in Ecuador you have 2 choices matte or satin, and I always pick second choice because I have kids, but now I've learned the hard way you can't make touch ups! And besides I don't know what happenend and the new paint in the same color and finish turned out darker! And now I don't know what to do.

    Xoxo

  29. Marlo says:

    Hi Maria,
    Your blog is a great source of information and I'm always referring to it when I have a question.
    You mention in this post that Pearl finish is okay in a high traffic area. Would you put Pearl on an entire main floor, including the stairwell, if the house is 1700sq feet, mostly open concept except for kitchen & family room, and takes a beating with one very active child? The dining room is part of the hallway to reach the kitchen and wondering if it's okay to paint the dining room in Pearl.

  30. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Marlo,
    A pearl finish would probably be too shiny as a the primary sheen, I would stick to an eggshell finish and use BM new Aura which is very durable and a latex (more expensive but worth it).
    Maria

  31. Jan says:

    hi Maria….a great post, as always! I'm curius, what finish would you suggest for painting a piece of furniture, i.e. a coffee table, hall table, dresser? Love your blog!!

  32. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Jan,
    I would recommend a satin or pearl finish in oil or at least a pearl finish in Latex for durability. Check with the brand that you buy though because they are not all the same in terms of gradation of sheens.
    Maria

  33. Jessica in Maryland says:

    HI Maria!
    Just found your page today. I have a dilema. Our new decorator came by today and we mapped out a color plan for 3/4 of our house. She said she much prefers Washable Flat finishes bc of the low sheen. I told her I prefer Eggshell, bc it's much easier to keep clean with kids and 2 dogs. She disagreed, saying Washable Flat is great, yada yada. We do have some Washable Flat in a few rooms from previous years, and it's not so great to clean for a busy household. Should I just ignore her and do eggshell?? I could possibly do the top of the foyer in Washable Flat … it's so high up, I don't need to worry about it getting marred up. The foyer will be split in colors (one on top, one on bottom, under chair rail.) The bottom would def. need to be eggshell bc it's high traffic. Our last decorator (since retired), said to do washable flat and every time I had to wash it down it was horrible. I have to wash it down frequently bc of the dogs, at least once a month, on the lower part of the wall. You can always see splashes and start and stop points from where you washed. Please help me!!

  34. Maria Killam says:

    Hi Jessica,
    I always spec Eggshell because I like walls to have a little sheen. OMG especially if you have kids and dogs in the hallways you might want even a higher sheen (Pearl).
    Go for eggshell and be firm!
    Maria

  35. ginny says:

    I live in a 1860's farmhouse. The kitchen ceiling is not too high and the kitchen is rather dark but I want to paint the ceiling a bright, shiny white. Would Benjamin Moore brilliant white work?
    Thank you so much Maria!

    • Maria Killam says:

      If it doesn't clash with the other colours in your kitchen. And if the ceiling is perfectly smooth without any imperfections.

  36. NC says:

    Question: what about stairs themselves? I have been told I should go at least semi-gloss on the handrail and balusters. But what about the steps? I imagine semi-gloss, too, since it's high traffic.

    Thanks for any help, and appreciate your post!

    NC

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