The Basics of Paint Selection

Color, finish, quality, and personal taste are important factors in paint selection.

By Bob Vila | Updated Oct 23, 2020 10:30 AM

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Paint Selection, Oil Based Paint

Photo: Flickr

There was a time when paint was nothing more than pigment and cow’s milk. When the milk dried, the pigment remained. Today, manufacturers put chemical additives into their products to give them gloss, washability, mildew resistance, and toughness. The very best paint jobs start with thorough preparation, so choose your products carefully to ensure a good beginning. When it comes to paint, one size does not fit all, whether working with wood or wallboard, ceiling or basement, kitchen or sunroom. A mismatch of paint with surface or interior conditions spells trouble down the road. So, do your research up front.

First look at what you plan to paint. Determine whether it is wood, metal, plaster, or drywall. Painting new drywall, for example, is entirely different from applying a top coat over existing paint. Going from light to dark, masking handprints, or painting high-traffic areas like banisters all require different approaches and products. If you don’t know what to use, don’t guess. Armed with a little knowledge, you can match the paint to the project and achieve the lasting finish you’re looking for.

How to Choose a Paint Finish


Here are more details on the various factors involved in choosing paint:


Pigment is color; it covers and hides the surface. All colors are born of the same base pigments: sienna, umber, titanium oxide, and zinc oxide. These pigments are ground into particles and stirred into paint. Since pigment is particulate, paint cans that sit for awhile need to be shaken to stir up color that has settled to the bottom.


Solvent is the industry term for spreading agent. Wax, water, and lime were once the dominant solvents used in paint. Nowadays water is the carrier for water-base paint, while petroleum serves as solvent for oil-base paints. The solvent may also be referred to as a medium, carrier, or thinning agent. The other ingredients are suspended in this liquid base, which thins the color mixture and allows it to spread evenly.


Paint is no good if it doesn’t stick and maintain a uniform appearance. The binder joins the pigment particles and gives paint its sticking power. It also dries into a protective finish. In water-based paints, the binder is usually a plastic, either acrylic, vinyl or a combination of both. The binder in oil-base paints is either a natural oil or a synthetic resin (alkyd). Paint is named for its binder, so latex paint is the common name for water base, while alkyd paint is the other name for oil base.

Oil-Base vs. Water-Base

An oil-base coat takes longer to dry than latex, but some painters prefer it for this very reason. The longer the drying time, the better the paint will flatten out to hide brush marks. The odor is strong, but for durability oil based paint is hard to beat. Use it on primed walls or woodwork and already-painted surfaces. Cleanup is trickier than for water base, and must be done with mineral spirits or turpentine.

If a people’s choice award was handed out for paints, however, water base would be the clear winner. It dries rapidly, so two coats can be applied in one day. Cleanup is done with soap and water. And, unlike petroleum-base paints, there is less odor when paint dries.


Gloss, or finish, is determined by the ratio of pigment to binder. The more binder in a paint, the shinier the finish. Finish choices range from flat to high-gloss.

  • Flat finishes are dull and hide imperfections.
  • High gloss draws attention to itself, and imperfections, while giving off a brilliant shine.
  • Low luster, eggshell, satin, soft gloss, and semi-gloss lie between the two extremes.

Just as colors vary from brand to brand, so do finishes. When shopping for paint, ask to check the finish. Have the salesperson dab some paint on a mixing stick, then watch it dry.


Primer is like insurance: It seals any well-prepared surface, leaving a solid base ready for paint. Primers can be tinted and used to cover a darker shade. Primers can also hide slight imperfections in porous surfaces like new wallboard, patched drywall, wood, masonry, concrete, or metal. Always check, though, to see that the primer is made for the surface you’re covering.