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Color Wash Design Guide

Here's a primer on how the various combinations of hues and brush marks can create different color-washing effects.

A Colorful History

Color washing is a modern technique, born in the late 20th century to mimic the look of early-American interiors. Back in the 1600s, if you got tired of your yellowing plaster walls, you'd enlist the village plasterer to slap on a fresh coating. The cheapest and most durable whitewash was limewash, a pale slurry made from lime, the main ingredient in traditional plaster. It adhered well to the walls and still allowed them to breathe, but it was thick and left visible brush marks when applied. Plus, the pigments were spotty and dried unevenly. So these days, when we paint in varied colors and leave visible brush marks, we're only trying to re-create the look of a primitive attempt at interior decoration.

The colors you choose, the order in which you layer them, or the way you use your brush can drastically change the look of your walls. Here's a primer on how the various combinations of hues and brush marks can create different color-washing effects.

Dark Over Light

Photo by Pratt & Lambert

Layer a deeper color over a light one to mimic the way older finishes get dirtier and darker with age.

Light Over Dark

Photo by Courtesy of Benjamin Moore

Work from dark to light to create brightness and depth in saturated hues.

Same Color Family

Photo by Alan Shortall/Corner House Stock Photo

Choose a base color from a company's paint strip, then use the color two shades lighter and the one a shade darker for the glaze layers to create a soft, suedelike finish.

Vertical Strokes

Photo by Robert Falls

Drag your brush straight down the wall in a single glaze color to create a vertical texture that adds a feeling of height to a wall.

Crosshatch

Photo by Robert Falls

Drag the brush vertically and horizontally to effect a soft, fabriclike weave.