Botched restoration of Painting of Jesus

A Primer on Painting – From a Pretty Poor Painter

Main image is of religious work of art destroyed by amateur restorer.

A couple of facts about me:

  1. I hate painting
  2. I’m bad at painting

I’m pretty sure that those two feed off each other.

You might have noticed that my posts are often inspired by events occurring around me, and this is no exception. Being in the midst of preparing for my annual Halloween party means building props. Building is great! It’s fun, creative and it’s so satisfying watching lumber and metal turn into the objects of my imagination. Or at least, something somewhat resembling the objects of my imagination.

Unfortunately , most of these props need to be painted. While a coat of color certainly helps the items take on their final forms, I find it to be the least enjoyable part of the process. Or maybe that distinction goes to the painting preparation, which is a crucial part of the whole process.

Being people who create haunted houses and the things to populate them, painting is something that we do all the time. Big things, little things, intricate things, simple things, wooden things, metal things – they almost all end up covered in paint. It has to get done. In the hopes of helping you out with this odious task, here’s a summary of what I have figured out through trial and error – mainly error… However, like 220 Wetordry, this barely scratches the surface, but it should help with the basics.

One of my best tips for painting is to do as little as possible! Before picking up the masking tape, sandpaper or paint brush, figure out what needs to be painted and what can be skipped. Not just which objects, but which surfaces. Placing something into a corner means that you can skip painting the bottom and 2 sides! You’re halfway done before you ever started!   Are you going to place something on top of your creation, don’t paint the top. If the room is pitch black, you might not need to paint it at all.

But be sure to consider what DOES need to be painted too. If something will pop out of a box, the inside will need some paint. The bottom is visible on most things mounted to the wall, so you will need to give that some attention – but maybe the top is NOT visible. This is a very quick thought exercise and can save hours of prep and painting work for you.

The next time saving tip is actually something Robyt mentioned in our first video. Consider how well it needs to be painted. Maybe the cheap rattle can used on unprimed wood will work fine. It doesn’t get much easier than that. Haunted houses are usually dark, so poor paint jobs will often go unnoticed. Even more so if something is about to distract the guests by leaping out at them! But where people line up for their chance to be scared – there will be plenty of time to thoroughly examine your handiwork. Spending the time here to do really good painting is important – as they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression.

Also consider the lifespan of the object. If this is a prop for one season only for a small haunt, durability isn’t much of a concern. But if this will be used for years to come, you will find it pays dividends to paint it well once and know you can rely on it being ready to go, year after year.

Also try to buy things in the right color if you can. Sometimes you can find what you need in the color you need, or at least something close enough to be able to avoid painting. This is more likely to work for basic colors (white, black, brown) than radiator fluid green or powderpuff pink. Also look for pre-primed selections – you will still have to paint, but you can skip priming at least.

There also might be coverings available to help you out. Cloth can be a great substitute for paint for some objects. Wrap it tightly around the object and staple it to make it hold. The big box DIY stores (and the internet) also have lots of faux finishes that can be easily applied to objects and give very good results in almost no time. And oftentimes the look is much better than what can be done with a paintbrush and hours of precious time. There are many really good coverings out there – take advantage of them when possible.

OK, we’ve tried everything we can think of to avoid having to paint our wonderful objet d’art, but in the end we’ve decided it must be painted. Time to paint.

The first step is to prepare the object to take the paint. Most things we work with are newly created, so the surfaces are usually new. This means that the amount of sanding needed is minimal. A medium (150) or even a coarse (80-100) sanding will be enough to scratch the surface and remove any oxidation and let the paint hold well. I use a sanding block or sanding sponge for this. A pass or two across the surface is usually enough. If your object is large and flat, then a sander can help, but if it’s a new construction, I can usually scuff sand a 4×8 sheet of plywood quicker than I can locate my sander & sandpaper, and get it set up.

Flat Sanding SpongesBlock Sanding Sponges

Sanding Sponges from

Recycled or repurposed objects will often need a more thorough sanding. Loose paint chips must be removed and that usually leaves a noticeable imperfection. Sanding the edge smooth will take time but needs to be done. Dirt, grease, and oxidation must be completely removed as well. Once you have a clean, smooth surface, as long as the surface is scuffed – which is should be by this time – you can start painting. If you are applying new paint over old paint , skip the primer. If it’s bare wood or metal and you want good durability, a primer coat is needed.

Skipping a primer coat seems like an easy way to save a step – and therefore time. Often it will actually add time, at least one more coat of expensive paint and it can really hurt the quality. If you are working on new material and care what the final result looks like, take the time and prime. Not only will the top coat adhere better, the primer will usually reduce the number of coats needed; especially on natural wood like dimensional lumber and plywood. The grain and knots take a long time to cover with top coat. Primer does a great job hiding them. MDF is more forgiving because of its uniformity, but I find it’s very thirsty and loves to guzzle top coat, so I would rather slake its thirst with cheap primer. Use gray primer for dark colors and white primer for light color top coats.

Primer also helps if you have to have to cover up some very loud or very dark paint for a light colored top coat. Very loud (bright yellow or pink) or very dark colors (purple, deep brown, black etc) are notoriously difficult to cover over for a light colored top coat. Primer to the rescue!!! You’ll be glad you called in the cavalry if you run into this situation.

There are many paints now that claim to be paint & primer in one. They seem to be fairly new to the market and I haven’t used them enough to have an opinion about whether they work as well as true primer. But they are intriguing, especially when time is short and skipping the prime coat would help you out. I will be testing them out to see if you can save a step (coat) or if you end up doing the same number of coats.

You cleaned up your creation nicely and made sure there is a good base. It is now ready to see some color! Time to go get some paint. But what to get?

Spray paint or a can of paint?

Spray paint is great for small, intricate objects or things that you need to get painted quickly. It’s faster to apply, it dries faster and can get into all kinds of tight places and there’s nothing to clean up. What’s not to love? The smell for one. Spray paint is also is much smellier than liquid paint. The price for another. While a gallon of paint can be pretty pricey, try to get the same coverage using rattle cans! You’ll need to take a second job to pay for it. A gallon of paint can cover a huge area, although it never seems to be very close to what it says on the can. So liquid paint is much more economical. It also gives a better looking finish in my opinion and finally, there are many more choices of sheen to choose from. But the single biggest advantage is the choice of colors! Not only are there hundreds (probably thousands) of standard shades available in the paint department, the color matching capabilities are fantastic these days. With rattle cans, you get to choose from what they have already available.

Oil-based or water-based paint?

To me, this is a no brainer – water-based. Oil based is such a pain to clean up, it takes flammable chemicals and it dries slowly. Water-based paints are so good these days that I can’t think of a reason not to use them in a haunted house. Even if your haunt is in the wettest location by a sea lane, I would still rather repaint with water based in 5 or 7 years than get a few extra years out of oil-based paint and have to deal with that clean up.

Thick or thin paint?

Stores don’t technically sell “thick” or “thin” paint, but I have noticed that some of the one-coat paints are so thick that it’s become a hassle to paint with them. They really do cover in one coat (usually anyway) but it’s like painting with molasses. Molasses that hardens. Molasses that hardens and shows every brush stroke. Because of their viscosity you have very little opportunity to go back and touch up while the paint is wet. The brush strokes (or stipple from the roller) doesn’t float out with many of them and you have to very purposefully go from one end to the other, never going back to where you started.   This may seem very picky, but mistakes happen, bugs land in paint and planning the perfect route for painting isn’t as obvious as it seems it should be.

Behr is what I have used for years – it’s easy to get, there are plenty of choices of color, sheen & style, but it has become so thick that I have moved away from it for painting that is visible. It usually is one coat coverage, so it’s great for props in a dark room, but not where I want a really top notch finish. Instead, I have been using Valspar when the quality really matters to me. It’s probably my painting skills, but it floats better so I can go back and touch up after a couple of minutes and it blends well. It doesn’t cover as well as Behr, but I still like the final product better. That’s just my preference. I am sure there are many other great paints out there.

Now it’s time to paint. Not quite actually! First, read the label. It doesn’t take long and it tells you when you can repaint, when it’s time to lightly handle it and when it is really dry. It will also tell you how much it will cover (although I divide that number by two).

OK, NOW it’s time to paint! Oddly enough, this is where I have the least to say because painting is all about the prep. Start by using a small brush to cut in the outline and then fill in with either a large brush or a roller. This is another reason I like the thinner paints, they let the paint merge better and look more seamless. Don’t load up the brush too much, it really just becomes a mess. I do like to drag my brush over the entire surface end to end (top to bottom usually) – I find it gives a better look if paint in sections like I often do for larger objects. A few light coats look better than one heavy coat. That’s about everything I know about applying paint.  In between coats, just wrap your brushes or rollers in cling film. Make sure it’s airtight though. I thought this was poor practice until the painter I hired for my house did it. You can get a few days out of this and it saves you cleaning up your equipment.

Household GIFs - Find & Share on GIPHY

Speaking of cleaning up, it’s actually pretty simple. Run your brush under warm water and gently rub the bristles against eachother and the water will soon run clear. But then use a little soap, get a good lather and wash the bristles again. This last step is critical to getting a really clean brush. Liquid hand soap works very well. Rinse it clean and you can relax. You can keep using that brush for years if you clean it well.

I didn’t specifically call out safety precautions here because I hope they are second nature, but of course work in a well ventilated area and when sanding, use good breathing protection. A decent respirator is about $25 at a big box store and replacing the cartridges is SO MUCH simpler and cheaper than replacing your lungs! 3M makes some very comfortable, extremely high quality respirators. Hopefully you won’t run into any lead based paint, but if you are sanding an old object before repainting, that is a possibility. If you have any concerns that the paint MIGHT contain lead, don’t sand it – it’s not worth the risk. There are cartridges specifically for this (3M 2097) but why chance it? You can cover it up with fresh paint if you must paint that object – just wash it with TSP first to get the new paint to adhere.

Half Face Respirator

Image from

That’s it, you’re done! Your wonderful creation will soon be nice and dry and ready to take its place in your theater of screams. Change out of those painting clothes and go get yourself a well-deserved beverage of your choice, you’ve earned it. While painting seems like it should be easy, my experience doesn’t really bear that out. After decades of painting many, many objects I am now getting the results I am looking for. I am not a good painter, but with enough preparation and care I can say my props are well painted.

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