Choosing the Right Types of Paint and Finishes for Your Home

Picking paint colors can be tedious, but don’t forget to save some smarts when deciding your paint type and finish.

It turns out that not all paints are created equal, and knowing which one to use requires some understanding of their various components and attributes. Paint types can affect how the color looks in different lighting, how well it lasts, and how well the paint adheres to your surface.

Picking the right color of the wrong type of paint can end up making you unhappy with your choice and can be expensive to redo. So let’s explore together a wonderful world of emulsions, high shine and eggshell delights.


Whether you choose oil or water-based paint is usually a question of durability. As a general rule, oil-based paints are more durable, as they form a hard coating which is not breathable and thus effectively prevents rust.

They are water resistant and do not stain easily and adhere easily to most surfaces. However, they have drawbacks which make them a less popular choice in large areas – the main one being that, although they are more resilient, they tend to yellow over time.

The downstairs bathroom in Jennifer’s home is painted in a soft, glossy finish to allow light to reflect through.

Depending on the color you choose, this may offset the durability benefit

Some older oil-based paints also emit volatile organic compounds that can cause health issues.

This problem has been solved with modern manufacturing, but always check with your supplier that your paint is “low VOC”. Generally, oil-based paint can be a good option for things like baseboards or moldings.

Water-based paints are more common and can be a more environmentally friendly option. They retain their color much better than oil paints over time and dry faster. Water-based paints have a wide range of finishes – such as glossy or matte – and can be cleaned easily by wiping with neutral soap and a little water. Water-based paint is a good choice for most surfaces, such as walls, ceilings, and doors.

Emulsion is another term you’ll see frequently – it’s a water-based paint that has additional ingredients – usually acrylic – added for durability. Emulsion can be a great option for floors.


Although not all paint companies use the exact same terms, they generally offer paint finishes ranging from gloss to very flat matte. The high gloss paint is exactly as it sounds – it has a glossy finish that reflects light. Gloss paints are very easy to clean and work well on windows and doors, although you can put them on any surface. Be warned though – it’s a good thing that it’s easy to clean as it also shows fingerprints and smudges very easily. I have been advised to paint my ceilings with a high gloss finish as the light reflection creates a greater sense of space. I chickened out at the end and went for a satin finish, but maybe I’ll come back and do it someday.

In descending order of sheen, you’ll see terms like satin, soft sheen, eggshell, interior matte, and even “flat.” Most finishes are easily wiped off, and matte and “flat” finishes can always be cleaned with soap and water. In general, glossier paints work well on trim and finishes while flatter paints are suitable for larger surfaces, but it’s really a matter of taste and trends change all the time. Personally, my primary design goal was to create a home that required as little cleaning as possible. Therefore, I opted for an “interior matte” finish on my walls, as it conceals small smudges such as fingerprints and remains easy to clean. I opted for a “flat” finish for my kitchen cabinets, both for the above reason and also because I was just super into the look of a matte finish at the time. I still am, but who knows, maybe that will change. We’ll see how I do with my ceiling.


We know oil or water forms the base of the paint, but what else is in the box that ultimately ends up on your walls? Pigments are the key component – they are the particles that give color. Most paint manufacturers use
titanium oxide. Titanium oxide is a pure white inorganic compound, i.e. it scatters light very well.

Jennifer Sheahan and Perry in front of her craft house.  The exterior is painted with a water-based paint that does not yellow over time.  Photos: Moya Nolan
Jennifer Sheahan and Perry in front of her craft house. The exterior is painted with a water-based paint that does not yellow over time. Photos: Moya Nolan

It mixes well with water and makes the liquid opaque, perfect for painting. Carbon is often used for black, then each paint company will have their own proprietary preferences for additional color pigments. In fact, they are not required to publicly disclose the pigments they use in their paints. Many colors are
derived from metals and metal salts and are virtually all synthetic now – although many colors have a fascinating history, such as Tyrian Purple which was once made from crushed shellfish, or Cochineal Red which was made from a very specific insect that lives on cacti.

Binders are liquid polymers that bind pigments together – powdered pigments are mixed with binders to create a film which can then be mixed with water or oil. In good quality water-based and emulsion paints, the binder is usually 100% acrylic. In good oil-based paints, linseed oil is often used.

The final ingredient is a liquid that evaporates as the paint dries. Oil-based paints typically use mineral spirits, while water-based paints use… water.