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How to Mute a Paint Color

Christine Bartsch
Mix in white as a neutral to mute intense paint color.

Picking a paint color is all fun and games until you get the can home and discover that the selected shade seems more intense than it appeared in the store. In the can, paint hues may still be deceiving until it's dried on the wall much deeper than expected. When faced with an aggressive, unwanted wall color, don’t resort to starting all over -- make it work with color-muting techniques.

Subdue with Neutrals

If you’re lucky enough to realize that your chosen color is too intense while it’s still wet in the can, mixing in a neutral is the easiest way to mute the shade. Adding a portion of black, white or gray softens the shade without altering the color too much. For small paint projects, you can do this at home with a paint stick to combine the colors right in the can. Add the neutral sparingly until you find the shade you want, then mix thoroughly to avoid neutral streaks in the paint. When you need several gallons, however, it’s best to mix up a small sample of the muted hue, then let the paint department experts and their color-matching equipment modify your big batch to ensure color consistency.

Wash Out

Watering down may be a derogatory term in many arenas, but when it comes to paint, it’s a technique that serves to mute colors when done correctly. When working with acrylic-based paint, adding water thins the paint. Add enough water and the paint becomes a wash. In artistic terms, a “wash” refers to applying paint thinly enough to allow the base coat to show through. This same technique artists use on canvas can be used when painting walls or furniture. Thinning out a too-intense color will mute it. For example, applying a thinned-out intense red as a wash on a white surface will result in a paler red or pinkish hue.

Consider an Overcoat

When you’ve already painted a project in a too-intense, hand-picked hue, the color can still be muted by applying a tinted glaze on top of the paint. This overcoat treatment has a translucency that allows the original paint color to show through. While a clear glaze by itself won’t do much to mute the wall color, it can be tinted with another color, or with an effect such as pearl or dark shading, which will mute the paint layer beneath it. Glaze, like paint, comes in a number of finishes, including glossy, satin and matte.

Tame with Texture

Another trick to mute an overpowering paint color is to add a texture. Achieve this by applying a second paint color on top of the too-intense color with a texture technique that allows the original color to shine through. Select a lighter or darker shade of the original color for a subtle effect, or go bold with a contrasting complementary color. Apply this second color sparingly with techniques such as dry brush, sponge or rag to create a textured appearance. These techniques not only mute the original hue, they add depth to the paintwork.