Painting over dark colours: easy ways to take walls from dark to light

What's the best method of painting over strong colours? Take advice from the experts and learn the best tips and techniques for painting over darker wall colours
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  • Strong colours can transform a room, making it feel rich and luxurious and warm and inviting, so it’s easy to see why dark, moody paint colours have become so popular in our homes over recent years. But if dark walls aren’t your thing, or you’ve moved into a new property with one-too-many dusky paint shades, then what’s the best method of painting over dark colours if you want a little light relief?

    While taking walls from dark to light is slightly more labour-intensive than simply painting over a paler colour, the good news is that with a little extra effort it is possible to cancel out dark colours completely and effectively. So if you really can’t live with that dark navy downstairs loo or wall-to-wall black hallway, then the good news is that you don’t have to with our easy DIY and decorating advice.

    What’s the best method of painting over dark colours?

    navy blue living room with grey sofa and copper accents

    Image credit: Future PLC/Simon Whitmore

    We asked the top paint experts to share the best techniques and paint ideas for painting over strong colours and make it possible to take a room from dark to light. The general consensus is that ‘cutting corners’ and ‘quick tricks’ are a waste of time. When it comes to painting over darker colours, it’s all in the prep work and investing in the right tools, equipment and paint materials to achieve the best results. So read on and find out all you need to get started.

    Kit yourself out with the right tools and equipment

    paint roller and tray with paint brushes

    Image credit: COAT paints

    As with any DIY project, having the right tools at the outset will make the task easier and give a better end result.

    What you’ll need:

    Sandpaper, filler and a filling knife
    Good quality primer
    Roller, paint tray and brushes
    Quality paint for the top coat

    ‘To make the job easier, invest in a good quality 2 in acrylic decorators brush for cutting in around the edges and fiddly bits, plus a good quality medium pile emulsion roller and an extension pole,’ says Marianne Shillingford, Creative Director at Dulux.

    Do the prep work first

    neutral bedroom with plum alcove and yellow velvet chair

    Image credit: Dulux

    Even when painting walls white on white, walls should always be clean and sound before you do any painting at all. But prep work is even more important when taking walls from a dark colour to a lighter one as any imperfections will show through and ruin the end result.

    Start by cleaning walls with a dry, long-handled duster or microfibre cloth to get rid of any dust and cobwebs first, running it along the whole length of wall from floor to ceiling. Then use detergent cleaner on a damp cloth to get rid of any additional stains and marks on your walls.

    Scrape and brush off any areas of peeling or flaking paint. Then fill any holes, dents or damage caused by furniture or picture hanging, using a good quality filler and a filling knife. Allow the filler to fully dry before rubbing it down with sandpaper so filled areas are flush to the wall. Wipe down a second time to remove filler dust and paint flakes.

    Take time to prime the walls

    Applying primer to the walls is key when transitioning from dark walls to light, and while with most painting projects a single coat of primer is sufficient, with dark walls a second coat will be necessary. Multiple thin coats of primer will provide a more even finish than trying to save time by applying one thick coat of primer.

    Choose white primer when going from dark to light, and grey when going from light to dark. And don’t skimp on the quality if you want to achieve a good quality finish. Using a high opacity primer is key to deaden the dark colour and to prevent it coming through again. And always allow sufficient drying time between each coat of primer and paint.

    neutral living room with cream sofa and white table and lamp

    Image credit: Little Greene

    ‘If you are transitioning from a dark paint to a light colour, start with a suitable undercoat which will help to obliterate the colour beneath,’ says Ruth Mottershead, Creative Director at Little Greene. ‘Our All Surface Primer with it’s low sheen and versatility will create a matt finish with excellent adhesion on any surface.’

    ‘At Little Greene we use 40% more pigment than many ordinary paints, because to put it simply, the more pigment a paint has, the higher the opacity and the better it will cover, meaning you require less paint to cover an area. Once you have applied your undercoat, you will only need two coats of your top coat to achieve an unrivalled depth of colour.’

    Ensure complete coverage

    green panelling in living room with neutral sofa

    Image credit: Valspar

    ‘When painting over darker walls, it’s really important to use a primer that will prevent the existing shade from bleeding through in your new shade – this will also help cut down the number of coats needed, saving you time and supplies,’ says Tobie Lewis, Senior Brand Manager at Valspar. ‘Primers can come in different shades, so you can actually pick a primer that is suited to your new colour, helping ensure your walls turn out vivid and bold.’

    ‘If you are painting white, cream, or beige, white Primer is your best friend. Cover your dark wall using two coats of white primer, which will lighten your base shade and block in all potential stains and bleeds, giving you a flawless finish.’

    orange painted panelling in bedroom with white bed

    Image credit: Valspar

    ‘Grey Primer is ideal under shades like light yellows, oranges, greens, and any light neutrals with grey undertones. It’s a great option to lighten up a dark surface, without going as vibrant as a bright white primer.’

    ‘If you are planning more bold colour choices, such as reds and pinks, dark grey primer is the perfect base for any red-toned paint. Using a dark grey primer underneath navy, greys, or blacks will make them even deeper in tone and more vibrant. Valspar’s Primer and Undercoat comes in white and available in four shades of grey to aid with hiding edge exposure and help limit the amount of coats you’ll need.’

    Try an alternative technique

    dark grey room with wooden floor and parquet floor

    Image credit: COAT paints

    Rob Abrahams, Co-Founder of COAT Paints suggests another approach for dealing with darker colours.

    ‘If you are painting over a dark colour you need a high quality paint with high opacity which basically means it covers well and there will be less bleed through from the previous colour,’ says Rob.

    pale grey room with wooden floor and parquet floor

    Image credit: COAT paints

    ‘The trickiest colours to paint over are the highly pigmented ones like black and yellow and I’ve found this process to be fail safe in getting the perfect finish.’

    ‘First, use a ‘mist coat’, assuming you are using a water-based paint, simply dilute it with water so it is 50 / 50 ratio and do a first coat, then add a coat of your desired colour followed by two to three more coats. There you have it – a perfect finish with no signs of the colour before.’

    Opt for a more durable finish on skirting boards and trims

    black living room with white skirting and black fireplace

    Image credit: Crown Paints

    ‘When painting skirting boards, doors and architrave apply an undercoat first. This is necessary when painting over a light colour or a dark colour,’ says Justyna Korczynska, Senior designer at Crown Paints. ‘The best way to get a better opacity when painting is to choose an undercoat or base coat that is a similar colour to the new paint. Once you’ve applied a layer of undercoat, then the new colour can be used on top. If you use an undercoat that is not a similar shade to the final colour choice, then an extra coat may be required.’

    Apply your light-coloured top coat

    neutral painted alcove with pictures and cream lamp

    Image credit: Future PLC/Carolyn Barber

    All the experts agree that a good quality paint is key when it comes to painting over a dark wall colour. At least two coats of top coat will be needed and, as with primer, thinner coats will provide a much more even and better-quality finish than one extra-thick coat of paint.

    Before painting walls, place painters tape along the edges of any areas you don’t want to be painted, such as skirtings, door frames and ceiling cornices. Alternatively, if you have a steady hand, use a narrow brush to cut in around the areas that are to stay paint-free.

    Make sure to load your roller with plenty of paint, but try not to overload it which can cause lots of drips and splashes. Use the angled part of the roller tray to wipe off any excess. Apply paint to the wall making M or W shapes with the roller as you move along the wall, rather than going straight up and down. This will ensure complete coverage and prevent streaks showing up when paint dries.

    Take a break between coats

    white living room with yellow band around window frame and blue sofa

    Image credit: Future PLC/Jo Henderson

    With any type of painting project, allowing adequate drying time is key if you want to achieve a top quality finish. Paint that is still tacky won’t provide an optimal surface for the next coat to adhere to and can make the finish patchy and uneven, so it’s essential to let paint and primer dry fully in-between coats.

    When painting indoors the temperature of the room will affect the drying time so ensure that windows and doors are open to aid ventilation. Paint manufacturers will list drying times on the can, but in general, water-based emulsion paints will be ready for a second coat after around four to six hours.

    Once you’ve applied a second coat of your lighter colour and allowed time for it to dry, there should be no trace of the old, dark paint colour at all..voila!

    Can you paint a lighter colour over a darker colour?

    Without using a primer, it will be tricky to achieve a good finish if you are attempting to cover a dark paint colour with a lighter one. Dark colours and highly pigmented paints tend to bleed through lighter colours which will cause patchiness and discolouration. But a primer acts as a block which has the effect of cancelling out the previous colour completely.

    Using a high opacity primer will give superior coverage, deadening the darker colour so that it won’t affect any lighter-coloured top coat. Opacity refers to the ability of a coat of paint to hide the substrate, wall or previous coat of paint from view, so it figures that the higher the opacity, the fewer coats will be needed even if the colour change is significant.

    Can you paint straight over a dark colour?

    Painting straight over a dark colour without using a primer is possible, but it will require several coats of paint to do this, which can be tiresome and work out expensive (as well as being a waste of good paint). A good quality primer should be able to cancel out a dark colour in two coats, which will save labour and time – plus the cost of a tin of primer will be less than the price of a tin of paint.

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