Of all the techniques for creating special effects with paint, none is easier or yields more attractive results than sponge painting. You don’t need a precise hand, expensive tools or exotic potions. You don’t even have to put up with smelly, messy, oil-based paint. And, unlike other painting techniques, sponge painting is forgiving. If one part of your wall turns out too light, for example, you don’t have to start over—you can just go back and dab on some darker paint.
This article will walk you through the basics of sponge painting and give you a head start on the hard part: choosing paint colors (see ‘Experimenting With Colors,’ below).
The process we show in Photos 1 through 8 is about as complex as sponge painting gets. We used five colors in addition to the base coat and at one point scoured the walls to create a distressed look (Photo 6). But depending on the effect you want, you can use fewer colors, and do little or no scouring. You may even decide to sponge on just one color. Generally, using only one or two colors results in a bold, heavily contrasted finish, and using more colors creates a subtle, cloudy effect. Photos 1 through 8 show how the effect changes from dramatic contrast to soft, gradual shading as we add more colors.
Sponge painting isn’t any faster than other special techniques. You still have to protect trim with masking tape, roll on a base color and add other colors. The time the project takes will depend on how many sponge-on colors you use, but expect to spend at least one full weekend on a medium-sized living room or bedroom. Latex paint dries fast, so even in a small room you probably won’t have to wait long for one coat to dry before starting the next.
Experimenting With Colors
It’s essential that you experiment before you sponge your walls, both to see what the results will look like and to get a feel for painting with a sponge. Experiment on pieces of drywall, hardboard or any other smooth surface. Before you start buying paints, though, narrow down your color choices by trying out paint chips or small samples, if available.
Experimenting with colors can be time-consuming and expensive, so we’ve provided three sample combinations. Some paint brochures also show suggested combinations of colors. There are lots of variables involved in sponge painting (including how you hold the sponge and the shape of the sponge itself), so you won’t be able to reproduce our samples precisely. Still, using the colors listed will give you results similar to ours. You can also treat our samples simply as starting points, using more or fewer and brighter or darker colors than we show. Whatever you do, don’t let all those choices overwhelm and discourage you. This is one of those rare projects that are easier to do well than
Tip: Examine your sample board in the room
you’ll be painting. The look will vary dramatically
under different lighting conditions.
What you’ll need
Photo 1: Mix paint with glaze
Mix the paint with glaze according to the glaze manufacturer’s instructions (we mixed one part paint with four parts glaze). Extender, which thins the mix and slows drying, is optional. Save and label a small amount of all your colors. You can use them to cover stains or make repairs years from now.
(Editor’s note: Paint labels have changed since this project was done, but the paints and the glaze are still available. The base coat is a low-gloss eggshell finish; subsequent coats flat, but you can use whatever sheen you like.)
Photo 2: First color
Sponge the first paint/glaze mixture over the base coat. Begin in an inconspicuous spot, one that will be hidden by furniture, for example. Dab the sponge into the paint, blot off most of it onto the paint tray and lightly press the sponge against how hard you press, how heavily you load the sponge with paint and which side of the sponge you use. For a consistent look throughout the room, continue to use the same amount of paint, the same pressure and the same side of the sponge. Wash out the sponge as soon as you’re done using it.
Photo 3: Dab the edges
Dab paint into corners and along the edges of the wall with a paint brush (2-in. or smaller) or a small piece of sponge torn from the full sponge.
Photo 4: Second color
Apply the second color after the first is dry. We applied the second color more randomly than the first, leaving areas about twice the size of the sponge untouched by the second color.
Photo 5: Third color
Sponge on the third color. We applied our third color very lightly, with the sponge almost dry, to give the wall a hazy appearance. We also kept a brush handy to dab up paint in spots where we applied it more heavily than we wanted.
Photo 6: Distress the walls
Scour areas using water and a synthetic scouring pad. Scouring is easiest if you do it as soon as the paint is dry to the touch. To remove paint that’s completely dry (and tough), put some baking soda on the pad. Rubbing areas down to the base coat this way added contrast to our otherwise subtle wall. It also gives you a chance to rub away any drips, blotches or other goofs
Photo 7: Fourth color
Add the fourth color. We applied our fourth color sparingly and in spots, using a small sponge and leaving most of the wall untouched by this color.
Photo 8: Final accent color
Apply the final color. Ours was a metallic gold, an accent that reflected light and contrasted sharply with the previous colors. We used very little paint, applying it in scattered clusters and wandering lines.
You can pick up everything you’ll need for this project at paint stores and most home centers (Photo 1).
- You’ll get the best results with a natural sea sponge. Natural sponges are more expensive than standard sponges, but they leave a more varied, random pattern than manufactured sponges. Latex paint washes easily out of natural sponges, so you need only one sponge.
- Latex glaze thins latex paint and gives it a translucent look. Oil-based glazes are also available, but we don’t recommend them for this project.
- We used a glaze extender, a liquid additive that thins the glaze/paint mix slightly and slows drying.
- You’ll also need a paint tray, a large plastic measuring cup, masking tape and if you want to rub the paint, a few scouring pads.
Required Tools for this Project
Have the necessary tools for this DIY project lined up before you start—you’ll save time and frustration.
- Paint roller
- Paint tray
- Painters tape
Required Materials for this Project
Avoid last-minute shopping trips by having all your materials ready ahead of time. Here’s a list.
- Latex glaze
- Latex paints for sponge accents
- Low gloss paint for base