Interior paints come in a range of different finishes, also sometimes called “sheens,” that impact how well the paint will reflect light. Flat or matte finishes typically absorb a lot of light and tend to be good for covering up blemishes and uneven spots. This sort of paint is usually pretty foolproof to apply, but it may be difficult to clean. High-gloss paints represent the other extreme. These typically reflect a lot of light and are super durable, but can be somewhat unforgiving and often dry showing every brushstroke. Eggshell, satin, and semi-gloss finishes fall in between.
Flat and Matte
A “flat” finish is, as its name might suggest, a paint that has very little shine and doesn’t reflect much light at all. It’s usually considered one of the most basic finishes available. Beginners often have good luck using flat paint since it tends to have a very dense, uniform color that spreads evenly, and many people find that it hides small surface imperfections like bumps or small holes. Brush and roller marks tend to disappear during application, and when dry this finish usually looks even and smooth even if some areas have more paint than others.
Some manufacturers sell this sort of finish under the “matte” name. There isn’t usually much of a practical difference between flat and matte; both are high density, low shine, and easy to apply. They aren’t always very durable, though, and even if they’re sold as washable many homeowners find that cleaning their walls without removing the paint can be tough. Small blemishes or spills can often be sponged off, but larger messes or regular traffic and abuse can make things harder. Most people choose flat or matte paint for guest bedrooms, studies, or other rooms that don’t get a lot of wear and tear.
Eggshell finishes are often described as “matte plus,” since they tend to look a lot like matte paints, but they have a little bit of sheen and are slightly more durable. Paints in this category reflect some light and are usually easier to spot clean; they also holds up to more wear and tear while still generally being forgiving on the painter. People often choose eggshell for living rooms and dining rooms — places that get regular use but aren’t likely to need the sort of regular care a kitchen or child’s bedroom might require.
Paints with a satin finish are better choices for walls or furniture that needs more constant upkeep. They often have a silky, shiny surface that reflects light well and tends to be very durable, which means that it will stand up to a lot of bumps and dings and should be relatively easy to spot clean. Its bright sheen often means that brushstrokes and drips will stand out more, though, which means that people need to be more careful and spend a little bit more time getting the application right.
There are typically two choices when it comes to glossy paint finishes, semi-gloss and high gloss. Semi-gloss tends to be really bright and has a smooth, even surface that can usually take a lot of abuse and still look new. It’s a popular option for baseboards, doors, and walls in small rooms like kitchens and bathrooms. It’s usually really easy to clean and will withstand even serious scrubbing, and also tends to resist moisture and humidity.
High gloss paints have many of these same characteristics, but are in most cases even more durable and more reflective. Most decorators don’t recommend using high gloss finishes on walls since the effect can be overpowering. It’s much more common for furniture, cabinets, and decorative trim.
Decorative and “Faux” Finishes
Many manufacturers also make a number of specialty paint finishes for accent walls and other specialty projects. A chalkboard finish, for instance, will transform a wall into a surface that can be marked and erased over and over again; a textured finish will add interest and tactile elements, while a watercolor finish will lend a softer, more muted look to a room.
It isn’t always necessary to buy decorative paint, however. Creative homeowners sometimes use sponges or other tools to mix paints to get a more unique look, a process known in many places as “faux finishing.” Faux finishes often give the appearance of being very elaborate or expensive without actually requiring a lot of effort.
Most people paint their ceilings separately from their walls, and in some cases it makes sense to use a different finish for this area. Most experts recommend using matte or eggshell. A ceiling that reflects light can actually work to make a room look smaller, and glossier paints are often harder to apply evenly. Getting even strokes without drips is tough enough as it is; using unforgiving sheens usually only gets good results on ceilings that are free of lumps, bumps, and blemishes, and with painters who are very experienced. Even the most expert strokes will often serve to highlight oddities, which is rarely what homeowners want.
Color and Price Considerations
It’s usually possible to buy paint in any finish since most manufacturers make their colors available in every sheen. People usually start by choosing their color, then they determine which finish is best for their particular project Finding the right one is usually just a matter of carefully reading the packaging, though in some shops paint technicians will help customers by actually mixing the paint to order..
The final price of most paint is determined at least in part according to sheen. Flat and matte are usually the most economical and high gloss paints tend to be the costliest. A lot of this has to do with how expensive it is to include light reflecting pigments; the materials that make these paints so durable also tend to make them more expensive.