Sheen is a measurement of the amount of light reflected from a painted surface. It’s the gloss level of the paint finish or lack of it. The higher the sheen the more reflective it will be. Picking a sheen can be as overwhelming as choosing a paint colour, but it’s an important part of deciding how you want a space to look and feel.
Choosing a sheen can be confusing because some manufacturers use names for their paints that are different than the common industry standards, like eggshell and satin. To further complicate matters, you can’t assume that eggshell paint will be the same across the board through all manufacturers. One company’s eggshell paint might be shinier than another.
Talk to the salesperson at a paint store about the characteristics of their particular paint sheens or ask your painter who will be familiar with the sheen level of the products they use.
If you’re more confused than ever about paint sheens, don’t worry we’ll dive into deeper detail.
Types Of Paint Sheens
Most paint sheens are available for interior or exterior use. Here are some of the options:
- matte or velvet
- eggshell or low lustre
- satin or pearl
- low gloss or soft gloss
- semi gloss
- high gloss
Flat And Matte Paint Sheens
A true flat paint has no visible sheen and therefore no reflection. It does a good job of concealing surface imperfections. This is why it’s the most common paint finish for ceilings. The drywall tends to be less than perfect and you don’t want lights reflecting off of every flaw. Some companies have a paint they call flat, but it’s has some sheen so it’s not a true flat. Painters will often seek out what’s deemed as a “dead flat” paint for applying to ceilings.
Matte paints have a bit of sheen, but less than eggshell. The lower reflection helps to conceal imperfections so they are a good choice for older walls that may not be in good shape or walls with drywall issues.
Matte walls are a popular choice of interior decorators. The matte sheen doesn’t really absorb or reflect too much light so what you see is the truest representation of the colour. It tends to give a velvety looking finish, especially noticeable in deeper colours.
Flat and matte paints are more forgiving when trying to do touch-ups, but they do have drawbacks. Improved paint technology created more durable flat and matte paints but they are still not the best choice for areas with high traffic or abuse. Their more porous nature (more so in flat paints) can make it difficult to remove stains and they don’t hold up as well to abrasion.
Eggshell Or Low Luster Paint
Eggshell or low lustre has a slight sheen that is higher than matte, but lower than satin or pearl. It’s the most commonly used sheen for interior walls. It may not look that different from matte paint when viewed straight on, but from even a slight angle you can see that it has more sheen.
Technology advancements have created high-quality eggshell paints that can be extremely durable. They can be used in spaces where traditionally a higher sheen was more suitable such as kitchens and bathrooms. You can choose an eggshell paint that has been designed to hold up to moisture and humidity and has mould and mildew resistant properties.
Eggshell seems to be the sheen that varies the most between paint manufacturers. One company’s eggshell can be more like a satin, whereas another company’s might be closer to a matte finish.
Satin, Pearl And Low Gloss Paint
As satin and pearl sheens have become more durable they have been the home decorating trend for doors and trim work for the last decade or more. It’s a nice sheen for highlighting architectural details, it gives a bit of distinction from walls that have an eggshell or matte finish.
Satin finishes are also used on exterior house trim and sometimes on siding. It can repel water and is more resistant to dirt and stains than lower sheens. It’s also a popular choice for exterior doors.
Low gloss is a sheen some paint manufacturers offer. It has a sheen slightly higher than pearl or satin and slightly lower than semi-gloss paint. It’s another option that is suitable for trim work and doors.
Semi-gloss paint has a lot more sheen than eggshell and is a step up in sheen from pearl or satin. It has a fair bit of reflection, is resistant to dirt and scuff marks and is easy to clean. It used to be the popular choice for trim work and doors but has dwindled in popularity in favour of satin and pearl finishes.
Kitchens and bathrooms were commonly painted with semi-gloss because it was the best finish for washing off food stains and could withstand the humidity in bathrooms. There are now plenty of high-quality eggshell sheen paints designed for use in these spaces. Semi-gloss would still be the best solution in high-grease areas like commercial kitchens or where trim work receives a lot of abuse.
High gloss is the highest sheen of all the paints. It’s extremely glossy and highly reflective. It can be a bold and glamourous finish, think of a shiny black piano as an example of a high gloss finish. The surfaces need to be near perfect. Any flaw will be enhanced so proper surface preparation is a must. Application by brush and roller is not recommended. The best finish will be achieved by a person experienced in spraying paint. Surfaces you may see it used on are front entry doors and cabinets.
Summary Of Paint Sheens
Lower Sheen Paints
- help hide surface imperfections
- can have a more user friendly application
- easier to touch up
- less washable
- can hold onto stains
- not as durable
- lower reflection, shine and glossiness
- give a truer appearance of a colour
Higher Sheen Paints
- can enhance surface imperfections
- can more readily show brush and roller marks
- can be difficult to touch up
- stand up better to washing
- more stain resistance
- increased durability
- higher reflection, shine and glossiness
- can be harder to see true colour when there’s a lot of reflection or when viewed at angles
Everything above is not a hard and fast rule when it comes to paint sheens. The quality of the paint can greatly affect its durability regardless of the sheen level. A high-quality paint of a lower sheen will have greater durability than a mediocre paint of higher sheen.
The characteristic properties of a particular paint may make it level out better and therefore not show brush or roller marks as much. Or it may touch up better or have some additive that makes it more scuff-resistant, regardless of the sheen.
What Are The Most Common Choices For Interior Paint Sheens?
Eggshell sheen remains the most common choice for the interior walls of a house and a satin or pearl sheen for trim work and doors. Matte has become more popular. It can even be used in a bathroom thanks to innovative paints like Benjamin Aura Bath And Spa matte finish.
Sheen choice can be a matter of personal preference, some people find shiner surfaces attractive and others prefer a matte look. The intended use of the space should be taken into consideration as well as aesthetics when it comes to choosing a paint sheen.
Examples Of Sheens Used In Home Interiors
The photo below shows walls with an eggshell sheen paint and a semi-gloss on the trim work. The increased reflection can be seen on the trim work.
In the room below the decorator chose to use the same colour on the walls, baseboards and trim work. In a space with lower ceilings the use of a continuous colour from the bottom to the top of the walls can give the illusion of more height. There’s no break up of the wall with a different colour. To give the trim work and baseboards some distinction from the matte walls and a more durable finish they were painted with a satin sheen paint.
Completely white interiors have been a trend for the last few years. In this home the walls have been painted with durable matte paint and a satin sheen paint has been applied to the baseboards.
The interior of this modern home has a matte sheen on the walls and pearl sheen on the trim work, baseboards and doors. It depicts the subtle and soft look the owner wanted to achieve. These lower sheen finishes don’t draw attention so they allow the other décor to equally be a part of the overall design.
Using higher sheen paints that would cause more reflection on the walls and trim work would not have worked with the particular style of the home.
This rancher has detailed interior trim work and crown mouldings. The homeowner didn’t want a lot of reflection that occurs with semi-gloss paint. A pearl sheen paint was used on the trim work and doors. It offers durability and a bit of distinction from the eggshell sheen on the walls.
Choosing Paint Sheens For Exterior Surfaces
When choosing the sheen for exterior painting it is important to think about the practical considerations of the paint and not just how it looks aesthetically. A flatter paint will hide imperfections better but it can hang onto more dirt and won’t hold up to abrasions and scuffs as well. A higher sheen paint will be easier to wash and you’ll find that dirt won’t adhere or stain the surface as easily.
The drawbacks to a higher sheen are more reflection which may not be a good look for surfaces with patterns or texture. This is why most wood siding is stained or painted with a flat sheen. Stucco is usually painted flat as well. Hardie board siding is usually painted flat, but some people choose to use a satin sheen. The wood trim work on Hardie board houses is usually painted with a satin sheen paint due to its ability to repel water and dirt that window sills and other trim work are more prone to collecting.
Examples Of Sheens Used On Exterior Surfaces
A decorator directed the sheen choices for this house’s exterior. They wanted a flat sheen paint used for the siding which gives an overall softer look to the house. It also allows the deep midnight blue colour to be fully appreciated due to the lack of reflection. A high-quality flat paint was used, but it will be more prone to scuffs and dirt retention in comparison to a higher sheen paint of the same quality.
When looking down the siding at an angle there is no visible reflection in the flat paint finish.
The house has a satin sheen paint on the Hardie board siding. There is no right or wrong decision, the pros and cons need to be weighed for each sheen choice and the preference of the look.
You can see the reflection of the satin sheen paint on this Hardie board siding. Notice how it highlights or enhances the texture of the siding. The benefit of the high-quality satin sheen paint on this house is the resistance to dirt and stains.
The reflection on the brown siding of this house is very noticeable even when viewed from straight on. This is an example of how sheen levels can vary between paint manufacturers. Notice how the higher sheen paint takes on a “plastic” look. It is a satin paint, but would be considered a very high level of sheen for a typical satin paint.
The modular home below has Hardie board siding and wood shingles painted with a satin sheen paint and the trim had a stain applied which has a flatter sheen. In the photos it’s hard to see, but the siding has a bit of a sheen to it. However, this particular paint manufacturer’s version of a satin sheen is much lower than some others.
Exterior doors are commonly painted with satin sheen paint. It adds a pop of contrast and boldness in comparison to the siding surfaces of the house which tend to be painted in a lower sheens.
The satin sheen of high-quality paint will offer a more durable, scuff-resistant surface that frequently used doors will benefit from. It also holds up well to being washed or wiped down.
The Hardie board siding and trim work of this home was painted with flat paint. The builder did not want any sheen in the products being used.
These cedar shingles are stained, generally stains have little to no sheen to them. It’s a subjective opinion, but a paint product with a higher sheen would not be an aesthetically pleasing look. The extra reflection and shine would highlight all the texture in the wood.
This modern style farmhouse exterior is painted entirely in a light off-white colour. It’s not easily seen in the photo, but it’s a satin paint that has been used. It’s probably not as noticeable because the siding is vertical versus long stretches of horizontal Hardie board where a higher sheen would be more detectable when viewed from an angle.
Sheen Affects Paint Colours And Paint Colours Can Increase Sheen
Just when you thought you had a good grip on how paint sheens work, it gets more complicated.
We’ve already talked a bit about how sheen affects paint colours or their apparent colour. A matte sheen for example lets you see the most pigment of the colour because of the low reflection. A higher sheen paint reflects any available light, whether natural or artificial it bounces off the finish and skews how you see the colour. The same colour in two different paint sheen can look very different.
Paint tints in larger volumes can alter the sheen of a paint. A very dark or vibrant colour that requires a lot of tint or colourant will intensify the sheen level of the paint it’s put in. It’s not by a significant amount, but something to keep note of if you’re looking at dark colours and you don’t want a lot of shine, go down in the sheen scale.