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The Vocabulary of Paint

All you want to do is paint some walls. Running into the paint store to check out swatches and make a final decision seems like it should be a breeze until the person behind the counter begins asking questions. “So do you need eggshell or satin?” or, “Do you need latex-based or water-based?”


Suddenly you feel overwhelmed trying to make a decision without knowing what kind of paint you need (never mind choosing a colour!) But never fear.  The vocabulary is simple and corresponds to the area of your house or the type of job you plan on completing. Once you know what’s what, you’ll be pulling on your old sweats, setting up the drop cloth and applying your first strokes of colour before you know it.

Primer vs. Two-In-One

What’s primer and what’s it used for? If you’re putting a lighter colour over a darker hue or if your wall needs a little extra TLC, nothing acts as a beginning base coat to cover a multitude of sins quite like a separate primer.

But what about a paint bucket that says it’s a two-in-one (paint and primer included in one product)? This is what to use when you’ve got a wall with a few nicks or you’re putting a deeper colour over a light hue. The built-in primer in this product will create a smooth coat without the extra prep work.

Water-Based or Oil-Based?

This is easier than it seems and is based on the binder or the material which helps paint maintain its uniformity when you put it on your walls.

Water-based paints are synonymous with latex or acrylic paint. This type of paint previously incorporated real latex but now incorporates artificial latex or acrylic. Water-based paints are the most popular of your two options because they dry quickly and are more environmentally friendly. However, this paint tends to take on a matte finish and isn’t the easiest paint to wipe down when it gets dirty.

Oil-based paint is synonymous with alkyd paint. This paint is super durable and easy to keep clean because it resists just about everything. Though it’s called oil-based paint, it doesn’t actually contain any oil; the “oil” consists of polyester resins which are known as alkyds. The benefit? You’ll achieve a glossy finish with oil-based paint. The drawbacks? Due to its chemical binder it produces an unpleasant odor. All in all, it’s not quite so kind to the environment.

What do you do if you already have paint on the walls? Oil-based paint works well over either oil- or water-based paint. Water-based paint, however, isn’t quite so versatile. If you’re using water-based paint to cover pre-existing colour, make sure the paint already on the walls is water-based, too. Avoid using water-based paint over oil-based paint — it simply doesn’t adhere well.

“Green” Paints

No, not green in colour — “green” as in good-for-the-environment. If sustainability is high on your priority list, look for a paint low in or free of VOCs (volatile organic compounds). These chemicals emit gasses that harm the environment, irritate allergies and can cause respiratory issues for you and your family. Pregnant women in particular should avoid VOCs.

The Right Finish for the Space

Super high gloss? Absolutely matte? Choose your finish based on the particular project and its location within your home.

As a General Rule of Thumb…


These paints reflect light and show imperfections. While they’re easy to clean, they function best on focused areas like trim.

Low-gloss/low-sheen (flat, matte, satin, velvet, eggshell):

These tend to hide imperfections and offer a space a cozy feel, so reach for these less reflective options when painting entire walls.

However, there are specific uses for each type of paint, so check out this video for a step-by-step “big picture” visual description. Or take a look at paint charts that offer detailed assistance so you can pick the right finish by room and by your particular project within that room (think kitchen window trim versus the kitchen walls).

True, interior painting takes a lot more planning and work than you might have initially thought; from picking the colours to getting your trays and brushes together, to buying the right kind of paint for the job. Hopefully this little vocabulary primer will help make the task a bit easier.

By Tarah Damask

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