Over the years I’ve posted photos of old-looking walls here and here and here. And over the years, many people have emailed asking, how do you do that? Finally! I get around to painting new walls to look old, and can show you. This is the first in a series of DIYs as I transform a plain closet into a luxurious patterned Indian-Moroccan sitting nook.
Here’s what you need to paint new walls to look old:
- Several shades of paint in the main color you want – one lighter and one darker (you can even have a third color for more depth) – I use flat paint because I prefer not much shininess on “old walls” but you can use satin or other finish if you want
- One or two natural colors of paint like beige, brown or gray
- Big sea sponge
- Paint roller and paint brush
- Rubber gloves or plastic grocery bag
I’ll walk you through how I painted a white closet for our sitting nook. Although as I worked, the plans changed! That’s the thing, as you work on this, you might discover a change in plans will work better. Mostly, you need to have an idea of the final result you want. As the look on the wall develops, you might need to change the basic steps as you go, in order to achieve the result you want.
Step 1. Have a vision for your final result
Old walls can have many looks. They can be streaky, heavily mottled, softly mottled, chipped and textured:
Because my closet sitting nook will be a stenciled extravaganza with lots of patterns, I didn’t want the old walls to distract from the patterns. Those patterns are supposed to be the “stars of the show.” So I decided to create softly mottled texture like this, but in a deep teal blue color:
Step 2. Choose your paint
For the overall color of your wall, choose 2 to 3 similar colors. If you want the soft mottled effect I’m creating, a good rule of thumb is to choose colors from the same paint chip (a few shades away from each other, not right next to each other) and/or from adjacent paint chips. You want some variation in color but not too much. Of course if you want more heavily mottled walls, choose colors that are further apart.
You will also want to add in a natural color that looks like “dirt” or dust to introduce the old element. Study the photos above. The walls don’t look perfectly clean and spotless, right? So choose 1 or 2 beige, brown or gray colors. Keep in mind while choosing the natural color(s), only a small bit of the natural color(s) will peek through your top coats of paint.
To create old-lookin’ teal walls, I chose these colors:
This was my original plan, but I didn’t use one of the colors. What happened is, the Benjamin Moore colors were less green-blue than I expected. Teal blue has a lot of green in it. But it can be hard to tell from paint chips how much green really is in a blue. When you look at the paint chips under the yellowish indoor light in a store or your home, a blue paint chip can look greener than it is. Once I painted the first Benjamin Moore color on the wall, I saw it wasn’t green-blue enough — it wasn’t teal, it was leaning toward a more blue-blue coastal blue. The paint chips really did look teal in indoor light, but they deceived me. Looking at the paint chips in natural sunlight – with all indoor lights turned off – revealed their “true colors!” So I ran to Home Depot and found a Behr color with much more green in the blue. It’s teal, and I am happy.
Here’s the base coat – not “teal” enough – on the stick, compared to the Behr color in the can, chosen in natural light:
Tip: Check your paint chip colors in natural light!
Step 3. Paint your base coat
Paint the lightest of your wall colors first. You can paint this with a roller and don’t worry about being perfect. In fact very imperfect is good! Here’s my first coat:
Make sure to get good color coverage in the corners. On old walls, the corners tend to not wear away as much so they are often darker. With a brush, I painted two coats of teal in the corners to be sure they’re good and dark.
Step 4. Sponge rivers of paint down your wall
With your natural color(s), paint “rivers” of color down your walls. If you have two natural colors you can paint each color here ‘n there to your liking. Make them flow unevenly down the wall. Don’t space them apart perfectly either, and maybe leave some big open spots. You could put more river effect where the wall would naturally get more wear and dirt on it. Use a sponge to dab these rivers on the wall. Here’s my rivers:
Tip: Use the biggest sea sponge you can find. This will give you sweeping color. Don’t use tiny sponges which will give you little dabs and spots. You can find big sea sponges in beauty care aisles cheaper than the paint aisles.
Step 5. Sponge the second coat of wall color
Wash the natural paint color out of your sea sponge and let the sponge dry. Using the sea sponge again, you’ll now paint a darker shade of your wall color. While sponging this coat, go for uneven coverage. Let the lighter shade of color show through. Let the natural color rivers show through. How much you let show depends on the look you want.
Also consider, will you be seeing your wall up close? Or from far away most of the time? If you will see it up close, you’ll be able to see subtleties in the first coats peeking through. If you’ll mostly be looking at the wall from afar, you may need to create a bolder effect.
Another way to allow more of the first coats to show through is to use glaze. Adding glaze to your paint makes it a bit transparent. I’d recommend adding glaze to these additional coats. It helps to build up layers of color and allow you to still see glimpses of the colors beneath.
Here’s how this step worked out for me:
I wound up covering most of the natural color rivers. This was because I realized the first coat of paint wasn’t the teal color I really wanted. This second coat brought the greenish-blue teal, so I wound up applying this coat pretty heavily. It was a change in plans but it’s okay, this isn’t a precise process, it’s much more intuitive and “go with the flow!” My walls are also more “blotchy” than I really wanted. I might keep adding color and playing with the walls later.
EDITED TO ADD: I painted an old wall look again, a few years after these walls. Instead of using a sponge, I used a “Woolie.” See that new tutorial that shows how to use a Woolie to paint an old wall look. The Woolie made wider swaths of color instead of a blotchy effect.
Tips to get a natural old wall look:
- Really get into the corners! You’ll find you may have a tendency to avoid the corners when you’re sponge painting. Push and squish the sponge into the corners, so you don’t get an obvious stripe running down the corners. Plus on real old walls, the corners are often darker because they’re not touched and worn down as much.
- Same thing with the edges of the walls. Make sure all your colors extend to the bottom and top edges of the walls so you don’t get bare stripes there.
- To avoid small splotchy patches while sponge painting, apply the full surface of the biggest sea sponge you can find to the wall. Also watch your hands. Try to hold and apply the sea sponge with an open fist shape to make your hand as big as possible. Don’t apply the sea sponge with your fingertips which could result in a series of small splotches.
- Be sure to not get repeating patterns from the sponge on the wall. Rotate the sponge, swirl it, change it up so it doesn’t make any duplicate patterns.
- Wear rubber or latex gloves so you don’t get paint from the sponge all over your hands. I couldn’t find our box of latex gloves so I used a plastic grocery bag over my hands and that kept my hands free of paint just as well!
After following all these tips, here’s how my sitting nook walls look:
Next up for the nook: building a storage bench, making a bench cushion, making a pierced metal ceiling lantern, creating a very special hidden ceiling … and, stenciling patterns!