How to Color Wash Walls

A collection of plants against a gray color washed wall.
  • 2-15 hours
  • Intermediate
  • 0-300
What You'll Need
Sheepskin cloth
Furniture wax
2, three-inch paintbrushes
Paint roller
Paint tray

Think way back to a time when walls were plastered instead of painted. Colors in various shades were layered on walls. At the time the look wasn't purposeful, but now it's become a style people actually want. To emulate this vintage look, people often use a technique called color washing.

Color Wash Techniques

There are multiple ways you can do the color washing. One isn't better than another—it just depends on the design aesthetic you're going for.

Color Family

With this method, you get a softer finish. Choose a base color. Then, also get the hue that's two shades lighter and one that's a shade darker in a glaze.

Light Over Dark

This technique provides more contrast between two hues and it achieved when you paint a lighter coat over a darker one.

A gray colorwashed wall.
Dark Over Light

This is a technique that copies the look of older paints that have aged and grown darker with time. As the name implies, you paint on a light base and accent it with a darker color on top.

Vertical Strokes

To give the room a more spacious and taller feel, use only up and down strokes with an accent color over your base coat.

Cross Hatching

A technique that makes tiny squares on your wall, and can give it a "knitted" look.

How to Color Wash

Step 1 - Practice Your Technique

Use a scrap piece of wood or drywall to try your desired technique with your chosen colors before you do the entire wall. This process of covering your wall looks best when you do the entire thing at once, so keep that in mind before you take on color washing.

Step 2 - Apply Two Base Coats

First, add your base coat to the entire wall. Use a brush to edge around the ceiling, baseboards, and doors. In the middle, you can use a roller to paint on the base coat. Give the first coat at least six hours to dry, and then add another coat. Let the second coat dry for 24 hours.

Step 3 - Wet the Wall

Use a damp cheesecloth to add some moisture to the wall in a nice-sized section. Then add a swirl of your top coat to blend with a paint brush.

Step 4 - Blend in Using Your Favorite Technique

A paint roller applying paint on a wall.

Here's where the process is different depending on the look you want to get, as outlined above.

Color Family

Dip your brush into some wood furniture wax and make X marks all over the wall. Make sure the Xs stay wet with a damp cloth or spray bottle until you can blend them. When you finish the Xs, dab them with a damp cloth to even them out. When you finish, you shouldn't have any X marks visible. Let the glaze cure for an entire day before adding another layer of wax.

Light Over Dark/ Dark Over Light

Rub a sheepskin cloth over the top coat in a circular motion. The edges should feather out so there isn’t a harsh line. With a dry brush, continue spreading the paint using your technique to the point where you can’t see any brush lines. This will make the wall look darker in some areas and lighter in others.

Vertical Strokes

Just like it sounds, paint the top coat with up-and-down strokes. Use a minimal amount of paint so the bottom color shows through.

Cross Hatching

Paint one section of the wall in both up-and-down and side-to-side strokes. Use a minimal amount of paint so the bottom color shows through.

Additional Tips

Colder is better. Color washing is an art and it takes time. If the room you're working in is a little cold due to the weather outside, it will make your job a little easier. The wax or paint will take longer to dry, giving you more time to perfect your wall.

Do it alone. Teamwork may sound like the best option for this monumental job, but it's better to try it with just one person. Each hand has their own technique, and if two or three try to work together, it will be obvious when the project is done.