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You could spend days with a float and a trowel trying to make your walls look perfect. But where's the fun in that? You'd be much better off if you just embrace that old messy plaster and play up its rough surface and worn-out paint. Or if you're in a new house, infuse your too-pristine drywall with a little old-world character. All it takes is a little paint trickery.

With a few brushes and a series of complementary hues, you can mimic walls created long before the paint roller came along. As This Old House senior technical editor Mark Powers shows, brushing on your colors will hide imperfections—or create them with intention on smooth walls. What you'll end up with when you're done is a room that's so delightfully imperfect, it's perfect.

Step 1

Color Wash Overview

Illustration by Gregory Nemec

When you color wash, you essentially stand with a brush in your hand and scribble the paint onto the wall in frenetic, wild sweeps. But the colors you choose are as important as the technique. So to be sure you actually like your hues, your first step should be to make a test board to hold against your wall. (See Product Gallery for color guidance.)

Color washing works best when all the colors show through—the base and the brushed layers. To create that effect, your brushwork has to be as random as possible—bare patches and bristle marks should clearly show. The more haphazard your brushing, the more successful the effect will be.

Today's paints have fewer solvents in them than they used to, however, which means they smell better but dry faster. So you'll need to open up the paint's working time by thinning it out with glaze. Glaze comes with a slight sheen that has the added benefit of imparting some depth to the finish. For the base coat, which you should roll on to speed the process, use a semigloss paint for its slickness and reflective properties.

Balance between the two top brushed layers is the sign of a good color wash. Many first-time decorative painters worry too much about coverage and end up with an over-blended surface. Start out as rough as possible; you'll be able to soften things up by using a soft, dry polyester brush to feather out any harsh markings while the top layer is still wet. Then, if you're still not satisfied, you can always go back over discreet spots with more glaze until the effect is exactly the way you like it.

Step 2

Paint the Base Coat

Photo by Kolin Smith

Clean the walls, and cover the floors and furniture with a canvas drop cloth. Using a putty knife, fill holes with spackling compound. Sand and prime the spackled areas when dry.

Using a 1½-inch angled sash brush, cut a line of the base color at the ceiling, corners, and around the trim. Using a roller, fill in the field until the walls are covered. Apply another coat only if the color you've just covered shows through.

Step 3

Brush On the First Layer

Photo by Kolin Smith

In a lined paint bucket, mix the second color of paint with the glaze, two parts to one. Stir thoroughly.

Using a 2½-inch polyester/nylon paintbrush, brush the color onto the wall. Begin by marking a large X in the middle of the wall

Step 4

Spread the Paint Out

Photo by Kolin Smith

Without refilling your brush, sweep smaller, random marks across and over the X to drag and spread the paint. Dip the brush in the paint again as it begins to dry and continue the choppy, random motion until you've covered the wall in haphazard marks. Be sure to leave a lot of the base color showing through.

TOH Tip: Stop and step back from the wall often to check that you're covering the space evenly. Go back and fix bare spots if necessary.

Step 5

Cut In at Corners and Edges

Photo by Kolin Smith

Wherever the walls meet the trim or adjoin the ceiling, use the straight edge of the brush to fill in up to the edge. Position the bristle tips a fraction of an inch from the edge, then gently flick the brush toward the center of the wall in short strokes.

Continue along the edge, staggering the angles and length of your strokes as you go until all the edges are filled in. Once the wall is complete, allow the first-layer color to dry.

Step 6

Brush On the Second Layer

Photo by Kolin Smith

In a paint bucket fitted with a fresh liner, mix the second-layer color with glaze in the same 2-to-1 proportions you used for the first-layer color.

Using a fresh 2½-inch paintbrush, brush the second color onto the wall. Apply the paint with the same random X motion and cutting-in techniques you used with the first color.

Step 7

Dry-brush the Finish

Photo by Kolin Smith

As you apply the second layer, stop every 3 feet or so and, using a dry 4-inch polyester brush, sweep the wet glaze with the tips of the bristles to blend and soften the effect. Work in long, broad strokes; the more you dry-brush, the more the paint marks will fade. Be careful not to brush the effect away completely.

TOH Tip: Stop occasionally to wash excess paint off the brush. Dry it off as best you can by brushing it over several paper towels.