Choosing the right paint types and finishes for your home

Home of the Year winner Jennifer Sheahan guides you through the world of emulsion, high-gloss and eggshell delights
Choosing the right paint types and finishes for your home

The kitchen in Jennifer Sheahan's home: 'It's painted a dead flat matte finish to hide any fingerprint smudges.' Pictures: Moya Nolan

Picking paint colours can be all-consuming, but don’t forget to reserve some brainpower to decide on your paint type and finish.

It turns out all paints are not created equal, and knowing which to use takes some understanding of their different components and attributes. Paint types can affect how the colour appears with different lighting, how it holds up over time, and how well the paint will adhere to your surface.

Choosing the right colour of the wrong paint type can end up with you being dissatisfied with your choice and can be costly to redo. So let’s go on a journey together to discover a wonderful world of emulsion, high gloss, and eggshell delights.


Whether you choose oil- or water-based paint usually comes down to a matter of durability. Generally, oil-based paints are more durable, as they form a hard coating which is not breathable and so effectively prevents rust.

They’re water resistant and don’t stain easily, and adhere easily to most surfaces. However they have drawbacks which make them a less popular choice in larger areas —the main one being that while they are more hard-wearing, they tend to go yellow over time.

 The downstairs bathroom in Jennifer's house is painted in a soft, sheen finish to allow light to reflect. 
The downstairs bathroom in Jennifer's house is painted in a soft, sheen finish to allow light to reflect. 

Depending on the colour you’re choosing, this may offset the durability advantage

Some older oil-based paints have also been found to emit some volatile organic compounds that may cause health issues.

This has been addressed with modern manufacturing, but still check with your supplier that your paint is “low in VOCs”. Generally, oil-based paint can be a good option for items such as skirting or mouldings.

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

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


While not all paint companies use exactly the same terms, typically they will offer paint finishes ranging from high gloss to a very flat matte. High gloss paint is exactly as it sounds — it has a shiny finish which reflects light. Gloss paints are very easy to wipe clean and work well on windows and doors, although you can put it on any surface. Beware though — it’s a good thing it’s easy to clean because it also shows up fingerprint smudges and stains very easily. I was advised to paint my ceilings in a high gloss finish as the light reflection creates a bigger sense of space. I chickened out in the end and went for a satin finish, but maybe I’ll go back and do it someday.

In descending order of shininess you’ll see terms such as satin, soft sheen, eggshell, interior matte, and even “dead flat”. Most finishes are easily wipeable, and the matte and “flat” finishes can still be cleaned with water and soap. In general, glossier paint works well on trims and finishes while more matte paints are suitable for larger surfaces, but this is really a matter of taste, and the trends change all the time. Personally, my main design goal was to create a home that required as little cleaning as possible. Therefore I went for an “interior matte” finish on my walls, because it conceals any little smudges such as fingerprints, and is still easy to wipe clean. I went for a “dead flat” finish for my kitchen cabinets, both for the reason above and also because I was just super into the look of a matte finish at the time. I still am, but who knows — perhaps that will change. We’ll see how I get on with my ceiling.


We know that oil or water forms the base of the paint, but what else is in the tin that is ultimately going on your walls? Pigments are the key component —they’re the particles that provide the colour. Most paint manufacturers use
titanium oxide. Titanium oxide is an inorganic compound that is pure white — that is to say it is very good at scattering light.

Jennifer Sheahan and Perry outside her artisan cottage. The exterior is painted with a water-based paint which won't yellow over time. Pictures: Moya Nolan
Jennifer Sheahan and Perry outside her artisan cottage. The exterior is painted with a water-based paint which won't yellow over time. Pictures: Moya Nolan

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

Binders are liquid polymers that bind the pigments together — powdered pigments are mixed with binders to create a film that can then be mixed with the 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 usually use mineral spirits, whereas water-based paints use…water.

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