Decorating: Distressed or Broken-Colour Paint Effects

Distressed or Broken-colour Effects

The two basic methods of creating broken colour are the additive and subtractive techniques. Many effects, notably sponging, ragging and rag-rolling, can be achieved using either. Others, such as spattering, are inherently additive; while stippling, dragging and cissing, for example, are subtractive.



Additive Techniques

A glaze or wash is applied in a broken film over a dry base coat using a tool such as a sponge or rag. This is the simpler of the two methods, since the drying time of the glaze or wash is not critical. It is best to work in 60cm/2ft vertical strips, taking care not to overlap the prints. Once the glaze or wash has dried, a further one, perhaps in a different colour, can be applied on top.

Subtractive Techniques

A glaze is applied over a dry base coat and then distressed using the tool of your choice while still wet. This method is easier if two people work together — one applying the glaze and the other distressing it. Glazes are more suitable for subtractive methods because they do not dry as quickly as washes.

Base Coats

Choose the colour of the base or ground coat carefully. The background will be modified where the glaze or wash covers it, while in the broken or open areas the colour will of course show through.

Texture is a further important consideration. Matt or mid-sheen is often the best choice — gloss can be obtrusive.

Oil- or water-based ground coats can be used with either glazes or washes, depending on the effect required. Layers of glaze over oil-based paint give a rich lacquer-like finish; a glaze over emulsion (latex) will intensify colour. In the same way, a wash over an emulsion base coat can enhance a soft watercolour look or give a crisp fresh effect; putting a wash over an oil-based undercoat is also effective. In all cases, the base coat must be thoroughly dry before you set to work with your glaze or wash.


It is not necessary to seal a surface unless it will be subject to wear — for example, a door or window frame or a kitchen or bathroom wall. Use one to two coats of polyurethane, leaving 5-6 hours between each coat for the varnish to dry.

Varnish enhances and enriches colours but also tends to yellow with age. It is available in matt, mid-sheen or gloss textures; matt is the least noticeable.


Sponging involves the use of a sponge either to dab on a layer of colour (sponging on) or to lift off patches of wet glaze or wash (sponging off). The nature of the print left by the sponge is all-important, and so it is best to use a genuine marine sponge.

First do some test prints on paper. Light colours on a dilute glaze or wash will be subtle and soft; darker shades will give a bolder pattern. If you want to use two or three colours, make each layer fairly sparse and build up from light to dark. Sponging will camouflage a poor surface and can be used as a way of blending.

1. First wet sponge and wring it out. Dip into paint; test print. Dab on colour over dry base coat.

2. Leave first coat to dry. Apply second colour, overlapping prints.


Ragging is similar to sponging, and is useful for covering imperfections. It can be either additive or subtractive. Different cloths give different effects, but in most cases the result is fairly insistent and emphatic, so light colours are generally better than strong deep ones. Cloths can be used either dry or wet — wet gives a softer pattern than dry.

Apply colour using a bunched rag. Vary the direction and the way the cloth is bunched. When the cloth is saturated, change for a clean one.


Dragging is a subtractive technique. A dry brush is pulled through wet glaze to produce a fine, rather sophisticated striped effect reminiscent of fabric covering. Dragging is best employed on flat surfaces. It is as effective on woodwork, creating the suggestion of graininess, as on plaster walls. Wallpaper brushes make acceptable alternatives to dragging brushes, which can be expensive.

Glaze works better than wash for dragging. Practise beforehand on a sheet of hardboard (masonite) until you can get the lines steady. Drag through the wet glaze with a large dry brush.



Oil-based paints are highly inflammable. Paint- and solvent-soaked rags can spontaneously ignite if left bunched up in a bag or a confined space. Let them dry thoroughly before you dispose of them.



Stippling is a subtractive technique which produces a delicate, flecked texture. It is particularly effective if a pale glaze or wash is applied over a ground coat of a slightly lighter colour.

Stippling can be tiring to do over large areas. Special stippling brushes are expensive, but you can make do with alternatives: flat-faced brushes such as broomheads, scrubbing brushes, textured rollers and so on. All brushes and rollers should be cleaned regularly in order to prevent the build up of paint.

Apply glaze over base coat and, while still wet, strike the surface with a flat-faced brush, lifting off flecks of colour with the brush.

* Many broken-colour methods are messy. Protect surrounding surfaces, wear rubber gloves and keep a rag on hand to mop up spills and splashes.



Combing is much like dragging. It consists of distressing a wet surface with a comb to create various patterns. The base coat should be robust enough to withstand the combing action. The patterns produced depend on the number and size of teeth in the comb. Although decorators’ combs are commercially available, it is easy to make your own. The finish is bold and forthright and suits lengths of woodwork and floors.

Apply glaze to dry base coat. Draw comb over the wet surface to create the pattern.


Cissing is, as it were, the reverse of spattering. Apply a glaze or wash to a dry base coat. While the glaze is still wet, spatter on solvent —water, white spirit, or turpentine, depending on the type of paint used. Work on a horizontal surface.

Making a Comb

Cut out a design from a piece of rigid plastic, such as the side of an ice cream carton. Vary the spacing and size of the teeth to create.


One of the simplest of all broken-colour methods, spattering is an additive technique that involves flecking a surface with dots of colour. The pattern and texture of the finish will depend on the tool: use a stiff brush such as a stencil brush or even a toothbrush. Run your fingers over wet bristles or strike the handle of the brush to release a fine spray. Practise first until you are able to achieve a uniform effect.

* If you accidentally sponge, rag or spatter on a too-thick blob of paint, let it dry and then go over it again with a sponge or cloth dipped in the base colour so as to even out the effect.

02. June 2011 by admin
Categories: Decorating, Painting | Tags: | Comments Off on Decorating: Distressed or Broken-Colour Paint Effects


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