Color Washing Technique for Walls

If you'd like to have really ethereal colors on your walls: a color washing technique can give you that. You do a number of transparent layers, on a white or a light colored background. The number of layers depends on your wish for refinement.

  • If you don't want to see structure or brushstrokes, you need to do lots of very thin layers and work with a dry brush. 'Lots' means: as much as it takes, count on at least 10 layers. A manual paint sprayer is also an option (scroll down for that), but still you'll need to do layers.
  • If some visible structure by a sponge or a brush is okay, you can do with painting only 2 or 3 layers. For that, you need well matching colors.

color washing technique used in a bathroom

In this room, I worked with blues and violets. I started off with a white wall. In between layers I added bits of white, otherwise the blue would go smudgy

The more layers you do, the more subtle shading you can do. Shading can make the colors in your room more natural or pleasing.

In these rooms, I decided on shading by looking at the natural lighting situation: around the windows and on the ceiling, there's more shadow, and there I put slightly different colors (in this case, a little more violet).

A color washing technique using gradient colors

color washing technique applied to a bedroom

In this example, the bottom wall color is very different from the wall color near the ceiling - top and ceiling are light limegreen (very thin). Then going down: yellow, orange, red and burgundy. You don't really notice because the transitions are gradient. I glazed different colors in different sections, preventing visible edges, by starting on the top of the layer with painting a 10 inch stripe of clean water first. Your glazing layer starts halfway that water stripe. When you do it this way, your layer won't get a sharp edge, even if it starts somewhere halfway down the wall. When you end before you reach the floor: end with a broader water stripe.

Colors and amounts are best chosen by 'tasting and smelling'. When you look upclose, you see some brushing structure, but that's okay because the colors are in balance and not too light or dark.

Bedroom done with a color washing technique

Violets and blues

Violets for this room, more blue on the ceiling. I used magenta, ultramarine, violet, purple and white for this room.

I looked at the light carefully, so around the windows the colors are a bit different (more blueish violet). In between, I had to add some white to keep the violet from going smudgy. Also more blue instead of magenta on the ceiling, to keep an 'airy' feeling. This room is very small, but it's the residents' favorite room.

How much time does it take?

These rooms (with one extra room, done just like the middle one above) were all done in one go. I did all four rooms in about five days.

After three thin layers, the paint needs to dry out overnight. After those three layers, I could move to another room and work there. So, doing the color washing technique in one single room would also take five days - just not full days.

Materials for the color washing technique

The color washing technique can be done with latex, or with casein paint. You need a hiding base coat, latex or plaster. It can be white or colored. For glazing with latex, you need some transparent latex as well. There are latex glazing mediums, but I've also worked with unmixed base-paint. In the paintstore, they use a transparent base-material for mixing light colors. Buy a jar of unmixed paint, and add the colors later yourself. For glazing, add 2 volumes of water to 1 volume of glazing medium, and a bit of color. Try it on a paper - with a dry brush, you should hardly notice the color (that is, if you want to do many subtle coats like above here).

Caseine paint is a good option too, in working with them, you can apply the same guidelines as in working with latex (in terms of drying times and materials). It gives you the ability to create an organic, non-toxic paint.

When you're done and happy with your results, consider applying a (matte) transparant acrylic laquer for protection. Of course, you can do everything in acrylics. But the advantage of latex is, that it sucks up the layers so you can do a few in one day.

Drying times

The name is 'color washing technique', but you want to put colors on, not wash them off. You can make sure you don't wash previous layers away, by allowing them to dry well.

You can apply about three layers in one day, after that the wall needs drying overnight. Each layer should be dry to the touch, before you go over it again. Do light and gentle brushing (no hard rubbing) with a big dry bristle brush.

What colors to use

You can take the cheaper artist's acrylic colors for color washing over a latex basecoat. Do check the paint for light-fastness (some paint colors just bleach out after a few years). Color samples of latex paints are good too.

warm colors look nice and radiating, applied on a lighter basecoat. For yellow and beige, take a white basecoat.

It's possible to decrease the numbers of layers by taking a colored base-coat. This coat should be fairly light, unless the end-color should be really dark.

Color washing technique on laminate

Laminate needs to be primed first with a shellac primer, over that you can paint latex, and on the latex, you can do the colorwashing technique. It's a bit of a job, but the shellac and latex both dry fast. Click here for more on painting over laminate.

Further tips on color washing techniques:

  • When you start, take a bit if drywall or plywood and give it the same basecoat as your walls. Every time you do a wash, first try it out on that board.
  • Mix every glazing coat to your taste.
  • If you work with blues or violets, and they go smudgy, do a very thin white or white-and-blue coat
  • Plan only roughly ahead - while you work, tasting and smelling is important. Find out what color is missing, to your taste, and apply it.
  • You might want something different on the ceiling or on higher wall sections then down below - also follow your taste in that.
  • I haven't tried it yet, but an aerosol color washing technique might be good, if you don't want texture and strokes. For the next job I'll try a manual sprayer like those simple ones used for packaging glass cleaner. The online art store also has little sprayer pumps without gases (you pump them up manually). The advantage: no strokes, you don't touch the wall, and you can do some extra layers. Try it out on the board first.

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