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How to Create Decorative Paint Techniques

Some paint effects are used to add detail, such as stenciling, distressing, and some trompe l’oeil effects. Others are used to decorate whole walls or rooms, using a discontinuous topcoat of color to create depth and texture. The topcoat is chosen to complement the base color of the wall where it shows through. Traditionally a translucent glaze, known as scumble glaze, is used for the finish coat, although other paints are sometimes used. Once you are familiar with the key techniques of the effects shown here, you can experiment with colors, layers, and tools to create effects of your own.

Trompe l’oeil

Trompe l’oeil translates as “trick of the eye” and includes all those paint effects that try to mimic a different surface. Examples include marbling, where paint and glaze are carefully applied to create the appearance of marble, and tricks such as recreating the look of old stone on a new plaster surface. To produce convincing trompe l’oeil takes practice, so hone your skills on some scrap paper before tackling a new project.


Stencils are normally made from acetate or cardboard and can be bought ready-to-use, or you can cut your own. Any paint can be used for stenciling, but water-based options dry quickly and are the most user-friendly.

Use a very small amount of paint on a special stenciling or small stippling brush and dab lightly into the stencil. Stencil crayons or aerosol paints can also be used. You can apply a coat of flat color, or create a three-dimensional effect by concentrating color around the edge of a design. This creates a central highlight. You can also apply more paint on one side to suggest directional light.


There are several techniques that can provide the illusion of age. Masking areas with petroleum jelly or glue prevents paint from adhering so that once the surface is painted and the area is sanded, the masked areas lose all their paint to provide a patchy, aged finish. Surfaces can also be physically distressed with strokes of a hammer or other objects. Accentuate the texture by rubbing some colored wax into the surface or colorwashing.

For a different effect use crackle glaze or craquelure. Used as directed, they create a surface like cracked antique paint or varnish. You can enhance the finish with colored wax.

Sponging On Effects

Glaze or latex can be applied over a flat coat of paint to create a textured effect. Translucent glaze, bought ready-to-use or mixed as shown for color-washing, gives a more subtle effect than emulsion. Here, sponging on paint is described, although you can experiment with other “tools” — such as rags or bags. Whatever tool you use, the general technique is similar.

The first step is to paint a base coat of latex or eggshell onto the wall. When this is dry, pour a small amount of your topcoat of paint or glaze into a roller tray. Dip in your chosen tool and make sure it is well coated. Remove the excess paint by dabbing it off on the ridged section of the tray, then on some newspaper, until a light touch produces a mottled mark rather than a solid block of color. Begin to apply it to the wall in a random pattern, varying the side of the tool that you use for each mark. Build up the effect slowly rather than attempting a dense coat the first time. Go over the whole surface with one very light coat first, then check it for even coverage. Apply subsequent layers until the desired result is achieved.

Creating a random yet even pattern is harder than it looks and you may want to practice on some scrap paper first. However, mistakes can be corrected and evened out by applying some of the paint you used for the base coat with the effect tool you are using.

Applying Colorwash

A colorwash provides depth of color and enhances textured and distressed surfaces. Create the effect by applying translucent glaze over an opaque base coat.

Water-based glazes are available and can be bought colored, or you can color them yourself using a special dye. For a greater range of colors, tint glaze with acrylic paint. Apply a second coat of glaze if more color is required, or work on the wet glaze to create one of the effects below. The finish is usually glossy.

Pour a small amount of dye into the glaze and mix it well with a length of clean dowel . Test the color and adjust if required.

Spread glaze onto the wall, using random strokes . Work quickly because if you let the edges dry they will show on the finished surface.

Creating Off Effects

The first step for these effects is a translucent color-wash of glaze that is applied over an opaque base coat. Use a vinyl silk or satin latex, eggshell, or even gloss for your base coat because this will prolong the drying time of the glaze while you work with it. You need to work quickly to complete a color-wash and create one of the “off” effects shown below before the glaze dries. If you are inexperienced at creating paint effects, or are tackling a particularly large area, get some help so that one person can apply the glaze while the other follows behind creating the effect. When using these techniques, replace or wash your tool clean often and keep plenty of newspaper and water or mineral spirit on hand. Complete the whole wall surface before taking a break.


Press a damp sponge into the glaze, and lift it off to leave a mottled impression. Move the sponge across the surface, pressing and removing the sponge in a random fashion. From time to time, rinse out the sponge to remove excess glaze.


Press a dampened, crumpled cloth into the glaze randomly across the wall surface. Rinse the rag regularly or have a few ready for when the one you are using becomes too soaked with glaze. Vary the effect by using different types of cloth or even plastic and paper bags.


Crumple a rag and form it into a sausage shape, then roll it down the wall surface to create a subtle effect resembling tumbling material. Rinse or change rags often. You can also rag-roll glaze or latex onto a wall for a similar but more dramatic effect.


By pressing the very ends of a specially designed stippling brush into the wet glaze, you can create a very finely textured, almost velvet-like finish. Pat the brush into the wall surface in a random pattern and make sure that you go straight up and down with no drag.


A wood-grain effect often used on MDF or melamine furniture, graining can be applied to any flat surface. Rock the special graining tool gently as you drag it down the wet glaze surface. Vary the pace of rocking to give different effects.


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