Painting Fundamentals

Anyone can paint, and most everyone has tried. Pretty basic, right? Yes and no. My first painting experience was a reasonable success; yet dozens of projects and gazillions of gallons of paint later, I continue to learn new tricks and discover ways to get better results.

If you're a newbie painter who wants to bypass several years of practice to get a top-quality finish, here are some easy lessons to apply the next time you apply some paint.

Pondering paint
Choosing between oil and latex is fairly simple: For most applications, latex is the way to go. Fortunately, today's water-base paints are keeping up with the formerly favored oil products in terms of durability and smooth finishes (concerns of high importance if you're painting cabinets, doors or trim).

Other than brand and price point, your next consideration will be sheen. Traditionally, washable surfaces demanded glossy finishes — no flat paint in hallways or bathrooms. The main advantage of flat paint (typically preferred for living rooms, dining rooms and ceilings) is that it downplays surface flaws. Although some manufacturers now offer flat paints that tout washability, to ensure scrubability (in a child's room, mudroom or kitchen, for example), a satin — or even shinier — finish is still top choice.


Store paint supplies in a portable container so you're organized and ready to roll.


A budget brush (top) is OK for applying paint stripper or sweeping dust out of crevices, but not as a fine painting tool. A better brush (bottom) has a wooden handle with a durable steel ferrule, and the bristles (which are epoxy-set and won't shed into the paint) are finer toward the tips.

Buying brushes
Another galaxy of choices is in the paintbrush aisle. To narrow the field, here is some advice for selecting these invaluable tools:

  • Best or bargain? For an optimal outcome (and minimal frustration), be willing to pay $15 or more for a good-quality brush. It will carry more paint, apply it smoothly and clean up more easily — and with proper care, it will last indefinitely, or until you loan it to your neighbor. A cheap brush does none of the above, and it leaves streaks and sheds bristles. The same applies to choosing a roller: A good one is reusable, carries more paint, applies a smooth film and won't leave fuzz on the wall.
  • Natural or synthetic? Use natural bristles only for oil-base paints and varnishes. Made of hairs from animals such as hogs and oxen, these bristles will irrevocably swell if used for water-base finishes or cleaned with water. Tip: To guard these fine tools from accidental misuse, mark the handles "oil-base only" with permanent marker or red nail polish. Synthetic filaments made of nylon and/or polyester can be used to apply both oil- and water-base finishes. These manufactured fibers vary in stiffness and shaping, thus determining the brush's performance for different applications.
  • Angled or straight? In general, an angled (or sash) brush is designed for outlining (also called cutting in) along an edge. A straight brush is better for covering surface areas. Choose a size to suit the spaces to be painted. For multipurpose use, I like a 2- to 2-1/2-in. angled brush.


To keep paint out of the ferrule and on the bristle tips, dip the brush only about one-third of the way into the paint. Then tap the brush tips against the side of the bucket (rather than drag the bristles along the edge) to prevent drips. Paint out of a smaller container to keep the main paint supply clean and to reduce hand fatigue.

Choosing and using tape
First there was tan. Then along came blue, followed by what seemed to be more colors than a mega box of crayons — not to match your décor but to suit your project's requirements (photo, below). When shopping for masking tape, be sure to check the label for recommended surfaces and duration of use. (Some tapes must be removed in one day to prevent damage to surfaces.) Again, it doesn't pay to cut costs: Cheap tape tears too easily and either doesn't stick or sticks too firmly.


From left to right: Frog Tape - resists bleeding, 21-day removal; 3M Scotch #2020 - high adhesion, one-day removal; 3M Scotch Blue #2090 - medium adhesion, 14-day removal; Painter's Mate Green - prevents seepage, eight-day removal
Masking tapes are made in a variety of colors as a means of brand recognition as well as to identify their intended use, depending on adhesive characteristics. Select tape according to the texture and toughness of the surfaces you're protecting, the potential for exposure to UV rays and the duration of the project.

Where and how to use masking tape is a matter of preference and personal comfort with paint application. Professional painters often skip this step, whereas cautious first-time painters like to mask off every edge. At the very least, tape off the tops of baseboards and chair rails to protect against spatters and drips. To prevent bleed-through along masked edges, always avoid brushing toward the tape, especially when the brush is loaded with paint.

Prepping and priming
To reach a happy finish, you can't skip the most tedious aspect of painting: setup and preparation. In a nutshell, start with a clean, dry, sound surface. Caulk cracks and spackle holes. Sand rough spots. Wash walls and trim with a trisodium phosphate (TSP) solution; then rinse and dry.


For a sharp cut line, start a loaded brush about 1 in. away from the intended edge, pressing lightly to fan the bristles. Sweep toward the edge and follow along the line, curving away when the brush begins to drag. Then brush back over the start of the stroke to level out the heavier layer of paint.

To block water stains, smoke film or other marks (ink or marker), apply a sealer/primer such as Kilz. Also spot-prime over patched areas to ensure an even-looking final coat, or coat the entire surface if you're painting light colors over dark.


Whether you're using a full paint tray or a bucket and grid, dip only about one-fourth of the roller sleeve into the paint. Then roll over the grid a few times, dip and repeat until paint is evenly distributed into the roller nap. Do not submerge the roller into the paint or you'll have a mess.

Painting, at last
Now you apply the paint, right? Not so fast: There are strategies to consider. On projects that include painting woodwork, some painters start with the trim; others paint the walls first. Each method has advantages. I prefer to paint doors and trim first, brushing about 1/2 in. onto the wall. Once the trim paint is dry, you can carefully cut in around the trim with the wall paint.


When rolling paint on the wall, your goal is to spread a consistent film of finish and color. To achieve an even coat, start with a full roller in the middle of a 3 x 3-ft. section, paint an "M" or "N" and then go over the area, spreading the paint to form a thin overlap to the neighboring sections.

The other debate: When painting walls, is it better to cut in and then roll, or to roll and then cut in? Again, there are no rules. In my experience, the ideal tactic is to team up with a partner so the roller follows right after the brush. Besides saving time, this allows the roller's nap to smooth out any brush strokes before they dry.

Tip: No matter what the paint can promises, I find that a second coat of paint always improves the finish. Store the wet brush and roller sleeve swaddled in plastic wrap in the refrigerator until the first coat is dry. After all the prep and setup work you've done, applying a second coat of paint will be a breeze. And it's good practice for next time.

Pro Quotes
During my days working in a paint store, I gleaned some memorable (and valuable) advice from the professional painters who frequented the shop. One painter made an indelible impression with this philosophy: "Painting a room without applying a fresh coat of white to the ceiling is like putting on a new suit over a dirty shirt." As much as I loathe craning my neck to paint overhead, this analogy has extended my painting projects to include recoating the ceiling. For this task, an extendable roller handle is invaluable, and a hat is a good idea, too.

Another statement made by more than one pro was, "I buy this high-quality paint because it makes me look good." If a seasoned painter relies on topquality products for optimal results, I could definitely benefit from the same approach. No more low-budget paint for this cowgirl!

This project is part of HANDY's Top 5 Collection: Painting Tips.
Click here to check out the other four painting articles in this collection.