How to Paint Shadow Stripes

“Shadow Stripes” are a wall painting technique where you alternate flat and glossy stripes of the same color to make a dynamic effect that changes with the room lighting. You could use the same technique to paint other patterns, such as swirls, harlequin diamonds, or other graphic patterns. Horizontal stripes seem to be popular right now. Vertical stripes seem formal, and a bit like Victorian wallpaper, in a good way.

I think it’s awesome.

I'm ruining this post by starting out with our "After" shot, just so you know what we're getting into.

I’m ruining this post by starting out with our “After” shot, just so you know what we’re getting into.

I found this technique, like so many other awesome potential projects, on Pinterest. All the walls painted using this technique looked beautiful: classy, interesting, subtle. But like so many other awesome projects on Pinterest, there was really no guarantee that it was going to turn out as I envisioned it. To make things more confusing, very few other bloggers had tried it. I could only find one other blogger who used the technique, and she wrote that she didn’t use enough differentiation in sheen to make it worth the effort. Most of the websites with instructions were by painting companies, showcasing their options to potential customers, or professional DIY sites, like HGTV, who, as we all know, isn’t staffed by real people at all, but an army of decorating gnomes with an unlimited budget.

I’m happy to announce that I’ve successfully painted our spare bedroom with vertical shadow stripes, and it looks PERFECT. As an erstwhile home blogger, I feel obligated to share our success, along with a detailed and wordy how-to, with the rest of the Internet world.

Here is my "before" picture. It doesn't show up well on camera, but the walls are a light blue. They were brighter in person. There's nothing wrong with this color, but I wanted to go with a nice, creamy eggnog color. We're going with "Cachet Cream" from Sherwin Williams.

Here is my “before” picture. It doesn’t show up well on camera, but the walls are a light blue. They were brighter in person. There’s nothing wrong with this color, but I wanted to go with a nice, creamy eggnog color. We’re going with “Cachet Cream” from Sherwin Williams.

How to Paint Shadow Stripes

First of all, this is probably a four-day project. Four full workdays, that is– not a few hours of touch-up here and there. Whatever time you think it would normally take to paint a room, mentally double that for adding the stripes.

Buying Paint and Accessories

Before you begin, go shopping for your paint color. You will be painting the entire room with the less-glossy paint, so buy enough to do a full two to four coats (depending on color and coverage) that you would need.

I suggest buying a matte paint and a semi-gloss paint. I know, I know, people rarely paint with matte paint. It’s hard to clean and flattens a room. But for this to work, you really need a big difference in sheen to get the full effect. At Sherwin Williams, my paint store of choice, matte and semi-gloss are two steps apart. Other brands may vary.

For a small room, I used about a gallon and a half of matte paint (I was painting over light blue walls and wanted full coverage) and less than half a gallon of semi-gloss. For purposes of this how-to, I’ll refer to them as matte and glossy.

Other Paint Accessories you Might Need:

You may already have these accessories, but I used them for the project, so I’m listing them here.

  • 4″ roller and cover for the narrow stripes
  • Medium 3″ angled brush for cutting in
  • Small 1″ brush for detail work (Might need two of these)
  • Drop cloth, paint tray, paint cup, stir sticks, etc.

In addition to your paint, this project will also need a lot of painter’s tape. I’ve heard really good things about Frogtape, which masks areas you don’t want painted, except apparently it’s superior to other brands because of science. Whatever. Also, the paint guy said that this brand isn’t stretchy like other brands, so if I am doing long, vertical stripes, I knew I wouldn’t accidentally stretch the tape into a curve while laying it against the wall. I also chose their tape for “delicate walls”, such as ones that have been painted in the last 24 hours, since I knew that I would need to paint right over freshly painted walls. Ha! It took me long enough to get the energy to tape after painting that this step probably wasn’t necessary.

Here are some supplies you may use: paint, brush, paint cup, drop cloth, paint tray. Not pictured: paint roller, time, a ton of painter's tape.

Here are some supplies you may use: paint, brush, paint cup, drop cloth, paint tray. Not pictured: paint roller, time, a ton of painter’s tape.

Calculating the Amount of Tape Needed:

If you are the sort that prefers to tape off ceilings, baseboards, and trim instead of cutting in by hand, then measure these lengths to make sure you have enough.

In addition, you will also need enough tape for every single stripe you paint. This may require some math.

Let’s say your room is 10’x11′, like mine.

This means that the circumference of the room is 10+10+11+11= 42′.

Since I want my stripes every 6 inches, this means that I’ll need two floor-to-ceiling strips of tape for every foot of room circumference. This means that I need 84 strips of floor-to-ceiling tape.

With 8′ ceilings, I need 84×8’=672 feet of tape.

What I’m saying is that you’ll need a lot of tape. Obviously, you’ll use your own numbers, and have to convert to yards, depending on what is marked on the package. Be sure to buy enough for the whole project.

Day 1: Paint the Room

I’m not going to tell you how to paint a room. I already wrote an article about this here. Remember: good preparation is key. Remove or tape off all hardware. Clean the walls. Protect furniture and floors. Carefully cutting in and painting corners with a brush will take much longer than rolling paint on the walls. Good luck.

Most of the first coat is done. Since we're going over blue paint, I'll want a few more coats just to make sure.

Most of the first coat is done. Since we’re going over blue paint, I’ll want a few more coats just to make sure.

Paint the heck out of that room with the matte paint. Paint the entire room and don’t even worry about the stripes. If the walls are dry enough for a second coat, go for it.

Note: I would recommend putting the can of glossy paint aside, with a large X taped over the top of it. You do NOT want to get these two paints confused.

Day 2: Paint Another Coat

You might be able to skip this step if you have really good paint coverage or can get enough coats of paint in on the first day. Since I was using a lighter paint over a slightly darker paint, I needed a second day to go back and paint over it again. Again, use the matte paint. We won’t be using the glossy until later.

Congratulations! You’ve finished painting the room. If you like, you can forget the shadow striping, call it done, and give up now. No one will ever know. I’m sure it’s beautiful.

Still with us? Ok…

Day 3: Taping the Walls

Taping the walls is definitely a whole-day endeavor. I think it took me about six hours to tape the entire room on my own. The first wall took me over two hours, but I got faster. It may go quicker with a partner.

First, decide how wide you want your stripes. I chose 6″ stripes, because they are wide enough to be calming, narrow enough to visually lengthen the room, and the math divided evenly into the room dimensions.

You are NOT going to place your tape every 6″ around the room. Remember, you want to paint every other stripe. That means that the space between two tape lines will be 6″, and the space between the next two tape lines would be 6″ minus the width of the two pieces of tape on either side.

Now, normal people probably rent a laser level to get perfectly spaced lines. That is fantastic and highly recommended. As I did not have a laser level, nor a partner to help me (Michael was at work), I had to invent another method.

I made a template to help myself out.

This highly sophisticated template is made from a 6"x6" square of cardstock, with my painter's tape carefully placed along two edges.

This highly sophisticated template is made from a 6″x6″ square of cardstock, with my painter’s tape carefully placed along two edges.

This template is a 6″ square piece of stiff cardstock, cut very precisely with a scrapbooking paper cutter, so I knew all the edges were square. I placed a length of my painting tape very carefully down opposite edges of the square, so I knew what the proper spacing was for the “narrow” (non-painted) stripes.

I started laying the tape vertically down one corner, making the rather unrealistic assumption that the walls are plumb and the corner is square. They aren’t. They never are, especially in older houses, but it doesn’t really matter.

The first piece of tape along by perfectly-plumb walls. The left-hand wall will have the first glossy stripe; the right-hand wall will have the first matte stripe.

The first piece of tape along by perfectly-plumb walls. The left-hand wall will have the first glossy stripe; the right-hand wall will have the first matte stripe.

Once this first piece of tape is laid, line up the second piece of tape so that both pieces line up with the tape on your template. I know our pictures are weirdly lit and there’s far too much yellow for the camera to handle, but hopefully they help illustrate it.

The template, lined up with the first strip of tape, tells us where the second strip of tape should go.

The template, lined up with the first strip of tape, tells us where the second strip of tape should go.

 

Move further down the wall, and line the second piece of tape up with the tape on the template again. Stick the whole thing to the wall. Eyeball it to see if it looks level. If you actually have a level, now is a good time to see if it is mostly plumb (i.e. perpendicular to the floor). Keep this up until the whole stripe is done.

Keep this up until the whole stripe is done.

Keep this up until the whole stripe is done.

If you’ve taped it right, the outer edges of the tape should be 6″ apart, or the desired width of your stripes.

This area will not be painted at all. It will stay the finish of the matte paint. In order to not get confused later, I would recommend the very helpful step of adding several “Caution” tabs of tape up and down this stripe, reminding yourself NOT to paint between these two lines.

Congratulations! You’ve finished taping your first stripe.

Since this stripe will NOT get painted, add marks with the painter's tape to remind yourself not to paint it. Believe me, these are incredibly helpful.

Since this stripe will NOT get painted, add marks with the painter’s tape to remind yourself not to paint it. Believe me, these are incredibly helpful.

For the next stripe, instead of lining up the tape with the tape on the template, you are going to line it up with the outer edge of the template. This way, there will be a full six inches between the inner edges of the tape. Line the tape up with the template at the top, and again at the bottom. You will be painting between these two lines, so do not put cautionary tape marks in the middle of it. Got it?

Congratulations! You’ve finished taping your second stripe.

Now, continue in this manner throughout the entire room, alternating “narrow” stripes (6″ from outer edge of the tape to outer edge of the tape) with “wide” stripes (6″ from inner edge of the tape to inner edge of the tape). After the room is painted properly and the tape is removed, all the stripes will be the same width.

Wall of Stripes

The stripes without the tape blobs are the full width of the template card. The stripes with the tape blobs will not be painted. One wall done; three more to go.

Note: Depending on your math and measurement accuracy, your room might not easily divide up into your selected stripe width. It’s ok to fudge some of the stripes. I’ve heard that a variation of less than 1/4″ isn’t going to be visible to the naked eye. My bedroom conveniently has windows near the corners, so any fudging in those corners will be covered up by drapes. Figure out what works for your room, and don’t sweat it.

It only took me about six to eight hours to finish taping the entire room. No problem.

Day 4: Painting the Glossy Stripes

Ok, this is probably the day that is the most fun. There are a lot of different steps involved, and they are all important. If possible, it’s best to do all the remaining steps in one day, because you don’t want to leave painted-over painter’s tape up on the wall for longer than you have to, or it could ruin your nice paint job.

Note: Each of these steps requires the previous step to be mostly dry. If you live in a drier climate like Denver, if you work around the room in a circle for each step, by the time you finish the room, the corner you started in should be dry enough to start the next step. Therefore, moving methodically around the room will help you keep track of your progress and allow you to start the next step immediately. If you live in a soggy climate, I can’t help you, and I suggest you consider moving someplace less humid.

First Step: Painting the Tape Edges Down with Matte Paint

Don’t put away that matte paint yet! Before we even start on the glossy, we are going to paint over the tape edges of the “wide” stripes. This is the Internet’s #1 tip for painting stripes. Supposedly, painting over the tape edges will “lock” the edge down, and any bleeding through that occurs will only occur with Color #1 (in our case, the matte paint). When we add Color #2 (in our case, the glossy paint), it will not seep under the tape at all, leaving a very nice, crisp line. Now, I’ve heard that Frogtape is so magical that this wouldn’t be necessary, but considering that every single stripe painting article I read emphasized how important this step is, I thought I’d better not take any chances.

To paint: Each tape line has one side on a “narrow” stripe, which will remain unpainted, and one side on a “wide” stripe, which will eventually be painted glossy. Using one of your small 1″ brushes, paint all the way down the edge of the paint on the “wide” side of each tape. Eventually, this will be painted over with glossy.

Paint down the edge of the tape with the matte paint, to prevent bleeding of the glossy paint we'll put over the top. Only paint on the "wide" stripes, not the ones with the cautionary tape blobs.

Paint down the edge of the tape with the matte paint, to prevent bleeding of the glossy paint we’ll put over the top. Only paint on the “wide” stripes, not the ones with the cautionary tape blobs.

It doesn’t have to be a lot of paint. One layer is sufficient. You don’t even have to get obsessively close to the ceiling or trim; just get the bulk of the tape running down the wall. This is also a good time to ensure that all your tape is firmly attached to the wall; some of it might have pulled up slightly overnight. Smash it all down well.

Second Step: Cutting In and the Ceiling and Floor with Glossy Paint

NOW we can finally switch to the glossy paint! Close up your matte paint and set it aside. Tape over the top of it so you don’t accidentally use it. Store it wherever you store your half-used paints for later touch-ups.

Even if you have taped off the baseboards and ceiling, instead of relying on your mad skillz to cut in, you will still need to paint the top and bottom of each “wide” stripe with a brush. This is because the roller can only get so close to the ceiling and floor. Go around the top and bottom of the room, filling in each “wide” stripe a good six inches or foot from the ceiling and floor. Do this around any other areas that can’t be rolled, such as around doors or windows.

Cut in around the floors, ceilings, corners, trim, and hardware with glossy paint. Since we are switching to glossy, you may want a fresh brush. Since it's the same color, it doesn't have to be too perfect.

Cut in around the floors, ceilings, corners, trim, and hardware with glossy paint. Since we are switching to glossy, you may want a fresh brush. Since it’s the same color, it doesn’t have to be too perfect.

Note: I went ahead and filled in the entire stripe above the doors and windows, because it seemed easier than trying to roll it later. I also used this time to paint any of the corners or around trim pieces that the roller wouldn’t get.

The good news is that we only have to do all of this once; we’re only doing one coat of the glossy.

Third Step: Using the Paint Roller to Finish the Stripes with Glossy Paint

Almost there! This is probably the easiest step. In fact, you could probably complete this step with a brush if you prefer; the stripes are not that large. I chose to use the roller in the interest of saving some time (Ha!).

Roll paint on each “wide” stripe. If you’ve done all your taping and painting correctly up to this point, you won’t have any “Oh crap!” moments where you realize you’ve painted the tops and bottoms of different stripes.

Woo! Rolling is fun. Be careful to stay within the lines. Paint only the "wide" stripes. Overlap the tape. Make sure you get good coverage.

Woo! Rolling is fun. Be careful to stay within the lines. Paint only the “wide” stripes. Overlap the tape. Make sure you get good coverage.

The roller is narrow, but so are the strips of tape. Be sure that the roller overlaps each strip of tape, and that you fully cover the entire “wide” stripe area. If you mess up and get outside of the taped lines, pick it up with a damp paper towel immediately. Careful with the matte paint in the other stripes, though; it doesn’t like being cleaned much.

Fourth Step: Remove the Painter’s Tape!

As soon as you’ve finished rolling all the stripes, you’re done! We only need one coat of glossy for the right effect. If you are doing stripes of two different colors, you may need more coats, but that’s not what this tutorial is about.

Like every other step in this tutorial, removing the painter’s tape takes longer than expected. There’s a whole heck of a lot of tape in this room. Start with the corner where the paint is driest, and carefully peel off each strip of tape. It can help to have a partner collect the tape as you move around the room. Go ahead and remove all the tape from the trim and hardware, too.

Can you see the difference between the glossy stripe (right) and the matte stripe (left)?

Can you see the difference between the glossy stripe (right) and the matte stripe (left)?

Now, step back and enjoy the look of the room! The stripes should shimmer differently depending on the lighting. Try turning the lights on, or moving in any lamps for the space. Play with the curtains. Check the room at different times of day. This painting technique is really all about the light bouncing around the room. It’s a subtle effect, but it turned out great for me, and I hope it did for you, too.

It's not an easy effect to photograph, but hopefully you get the idea. This turned out exactly as I envisioned it.

It’s not an easy effect to photograph, but hopefully you get the idea. This turned out exactly as I envisioned it.

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