How to cope with a bad choice of paint color

By E. E. Kane

You wanted Ralph Lauren's Safari Tan, but instead of paying for name-brand paint you chose to have the computer match the paint chip. Even though the computer came very, very close, the paint you bought looks more like brown mustard. What can you do? Obviously you can go back to the store and buy another gallon of paint, and cross your fingers that it will be the right color this time. Or, if you like to play with color and love a challenge, you can fix your mistake and turn those walls into a work of art.

The easiest way to adjust the color without completely covering it up is to do a color wash. You will need a quart of paint in a second color in the same sheen as the base color. Choosing the second color will probably take as much deliberation as the first one did, but don't apologize for taking a long time at the paint store. Even though the second color choice is important, the good news is that you have more room for error with a color wash. 

A good rule of thumb for choosing color combinations is to stick with the same color, but apply the color wash in a shade darker or lighter. That rule works really well if you like that color to begin with, but this article is geared for the situation where you hate it. The next best choice is to choose one color over on the color wheel. 

In the example mentioned above, the base color was a bad version of Ralph Lauren's Safari Tan. The second color chosen was Valspar's Brilliant Oak, 3003-7A (no computer color-matching was attempted the second time around).

It helps to have an artist's eye, but don't be afraid to rely on your common sense. If you want camel instead of gold, it makes sense to choose a shade of orangey-brown to get closer to the color you desire. Ask an artistic friend if you don't trust your own judgment. Or buy a sample size and experiment with it before you commit to the walls. Even if you buy a quart of the color you think is going to be perfect, experimentation is essential.

Color washing is easy to do, but it can be time consuming, and it helps to get your technique and desired effect down pat before you begin to slap paint on the walls. Ideally, you could experiment on a wall in your house that needs painting in the near future, but in lieu of that luxury you can buy sheets of paper at the paint store for your samples. Paint a base coat, then let it dry while you are mixing your wash solution. Color wash can also be called color glazing. 

The mixture is simple. You could buy glaze from the paint store, which has the benefit of not drying as quickly. The longer wet period allows you more time to play with it and touch up the edges. It's a good idea for a beginner, but not necessary. Mix the paint with water and you will have the same effect.


The amount of water you mix in depends on the look you want. Start by mixing a solution of one part paint to one part water, then adjust it by adding more water if you want the base color to show through more, or more paint if you want it to look more dramatic. Apply the color wash in small sections (one foot by one foot) so that you can easily work in the edges for a seamless look. Also pay attention to corners and edges.

You can apply the color wash in dozens of ways: rag it on, sponge it on, rag off, sponge off, brush on… Each technique is slightly unique from the other, but in the end you should have a wall with more depth. 


For the Safari Tan/Brilliant Oak example, the color wash was applied with a 3-inch brush in overlapping X motions. After dipping the brush in the color wash, the excess was squeezed out before applying. After brushing out the desired section, the painter continued to brush around the section, blending in the old with the new, and brushing on new areas with less paint on the brush. Some of those areas were purposely left lighter to allow for variation in the wall color. A second coat of glaze, watered down even more, was applied with a 6-inch dragging brush in wavy strokes. The second coat helped to blend the colors and any blotchy spots.

Plan to spend several hours more on color washing than you would if applying regular paint with a roller. But if you are willing to take a little more time, you can turn your disappointing paint color choice into a dazzling success story. 

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