Should I use primer before I paint?
‘Should I prime my walls first?’ I get this question a lot with my Online Color Consulting, along with, what is the best gray for my room, and, do you prefer red or white (white, in a box).
And the answer is complicated but worth exploring so that YOU can decide for yourself if you need to prime before you paint.
1. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER IF YOU HAVE FRESH DRYWALL?
YES. Drywall and drywall mud absorb paint more than previously painted surfaces (which often don’t absorb any paint). This means that your first coat of paint is absorbed INTO the drywall, making it act more like a primer and less like a coat of paint. This means that once you do your second coat of paint, it will act more like a FIRST coat. And no matter what they say, one coat of paint is NEVER cool.
Of course, this can be solved with ADDITIONAL coats of paint, but in the end, you’ll save blood, sweat and beers if you just add a coat of primer to begin with and apply two coats of paint. If a painter tells you otherwise, he’s just trying to save money and time – don’t fall for it.
And I’m a HUGE sceptic of paints that say they can ‘paint and prime’ in one, you know, those paints that apparently have ‘built-in primer‘. Primer is primer, paint is paint. Are some of these paints higher adhesion and better than ‘regular paints’? Maybe. But for my money, I’m going to bust out the bucks and buy them separately so I don’t have to second guess myself.
PRIMER IS PRIMER, PAINT IS PAINT
Red wine is red wine, white is white.
If I mix them together, I get a crappy 2 in 1 wine, which doesn’t
do justice to the original intent of EITHER. Don’t fall for 2 in 1’s.
2. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER IF YOU HAVE A LOT OF PATCHES ON YOUR WALL?
YES. Because paint absorbs into new drywall and drywall mud/filler, you can get a super blotchy look if you don’t set up a solid, consistent foundation. I don’t get carried away with priming if I have wee small patches, but if they are bigger than a twoonie…oh, this is awkward, I’m Canadian. Okay, so if they are bigger than two inches I would probably slap a bit of primer on. And not the WHOLE wall, just on the patch, feathering out the edges.
In between trial holes and anchors, I had close to 50 holes to fill on this wall (remind me not to drink whilst hanging). However, they were pinholes, so I didn’t worry about priming as they filled with a wee dab of mud. If I had larger patches, I would have primed for sure.
The Best Paint Finish for Any Surface in Your Home
3. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER BEFORE PAINTING WITH BRIGHT OR PRIMARY COLOURS?
YES! Primary colours are absolutely horrible to paint and paint over. Why? They have TONS of pigment in them, meaning that they don’t have the little googley-balls that bind together to give coverage (super technical, I know). This means that the darker and brighter your colour is, the less ‘hide’ you will get from it – resulting in a somewhat ‘translucent’ look. To get hide (the thing that covers your previous paint colour and creates a solid, consistent new colour) you have to do many…many coats of paint to build up the surface so that it covers your old finish.
Do you want a photo example? I’m not giving you one. Why? Because in the over 7000 online and 1500 local consultations I’ve done, online one person has wanted a primary colour – it’s not a common approach.
And you don’t just want to use any old primer, you’ll want to get a quality primer and have it tinted to some version of gray. The lighter your ‘new’ paint colour is, the lighter your gray tint can be. The darker and brighter your ‘new’ paint colour is, the more shaded, darker your gray should be. Trust me. This will set you up for success so that you don’t have to do a freakin’ bajillion (give or take 6-8) coats of paint.
Want to read more, check out this little story… Apartment Therapy
4. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER BEFORE PAINTING OVER BRIGHT OR PRIMARY COLOURS?
HECK YES! The same things that make bright colours a bugger to paint are the same things that make them a bugger to paint OVER. What’s the difference?
- you don’t HAVE to get your primer tinted to accommodate your new colour as long as your new colour is relatively neutral (although it’s free and sets you up for success, so may as well)
- with a high-quality primer, one coat should do – two NEVER hurts
A good example is Maggie’s room. When we moved in it was a rather bright green. Not bright enough to be day-glo, but bright enough that it would be a small pain to cover…
Maggie’s Room Before…
Maggie’s room after being primed and painted…
To see more, check this out… Little Girls Bedroom
5. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER WHEN PAINTING OVER A SHINY WALL OR TRIM?
YES! The higher sheen a surface has, the less it will absorb and the fewer things will stick to it. This means that if you apply new paint to a wall that has any sheen (satin/pearl/semi-gloss/high-gloss) the paint won’t stick. It will dry and just ‘sit’ on the surface, ready to be peeled off. The same goes if you have grease or greasy fingerprints on your wall.
This info also applies to painting surfaces like wood panelling.
6. SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER WHEN PAINTING OVER OLD OIL PAINT?
YES! Back in the day (you know, 30+ years ago), oil paint was the go-to product for walls. And while I still have clients who prefer it over latex (the 80+ crowd), most people are realizing that the quality of latex has improved so much that there’s no NEED to use oil paint.
How to tell if it’s oil paint…
- take a Q-tip or a rag (if you have white/light paint, use a darker coloured rag or cloth)
- dip it in rubbing alcohol or nail polish remover (NOT the acetone-free type)
- rub a sneaky, inconspicuous spot on the wall in a small circle for about 8-10 seconds
- if the paint comes off and gets gooey, it’s latex
- if the paint feels maybe mildly tacky, but otherwise stays put, it’s oil (and you’re screwed…just joking…kind of)
If you paint over oil with latex your paint WILL peel off, I pinky-promise. Latex paint will not stick to oil paint, therefore you need to set up a new foundation for the latex paint to stick to. Sanding is NOT enough. Using a 2 in 1 product is not enough (or better cross your fingers it works, because if it doesn’t you are hooped.)
7. SHOULD YOU USE A PRIMER WHEN PAINTING YOUR WALLS, TRIM OR CABINETS WHITE?
Again, YES. Seems strange, but white is one of the WORST colours to paint as there isn’t enough colourant to cover your old colour (read more HERE).
Ask me how I felt after doing 7 coats in my daughter’s bedroom with good quality SW paint – just ASK me if I wished I’d primed first…funny enough, the black was an EASY 2 coats.
WHEN SHOULD YOU USE PRIMER WHEN PAINTING – A SUMMARY
- when you have fresh drywall
- when you have a patch bigger than two inches OR so many small patches that your wall is more drywall filler than it is paint
- before you paint a bright colour (a colour without any black in it)
- before you paint OVER a bright colour
- if you are painting over a shiny surface
- if you are painting over oil paint
- when you’re using white paint
The 12 Best Whole Home Gray & Greige Paint Colours
The ULTIMATE GUIDE to White Paint Colours
The 8 Best Whole Home Warm Neutral Paint Colours
That’s it, that’s all! Need help? Gimme a call! Actually, email me, it’s better that way…
WRITTEN ORIGINALLY IN 2017, UPDATED IN 2021
My doors and moldings were painted by the previous condo owner with oil-based paint. I want to use latex paint. Must I first use oil-based primer over the old oil-based paint before I can paint over with water-based/latex paint?
Hi Camille, great question! The funny thing is that primer is kind of…ambidextrous in that you CAN use water based primer over oil based paint – but you’ll still want to sand the surface and wash it off to ensure good adhesion. I’ve been ‘told’ that oil based primer is hardier than water base, but I think as long as you are using a hardi product like Zinsser you should be fine.
I totally agree with everything you stated. Primer/Paint , I have been told by paint reps is just thicker paint. I am annoyed at Behr for starting this trend that consequently caused every other paint manufacturer and store to also sell because of what Behr started. The big box stores should educate the DIY customers not take quick advantage of their ignorance. Paint reps that I have spoken to – do not like primer and paint in one!! Priming is the key to a beautiful end result.
All of that is SO true Emilia. While some of those products are okay if you want a basic finish, in general, you can’t expect to get the best of both worlds – without buying both worlds!
Does this apply to trim? If I am using a warmer white over an existing bright white, I can just paint, right? Pretty please!!
Hi Christa! As long as the old paint isn’t oil and as long as it’s not too shiny… 🙂
Love, love your blog! I have a primer problem. We are building a house with many north facing rooms, and I chose Repose Gray for the entire downstairs because Misty and Passive samples were looking baby blue. When I checked on the house yesterday, I saw to my dismay that the painter had used a VERY dark gray primer for the entire house- even though I only have a dark paint color chosen for the powder room and one focus wall in the dining room (Gonna get Sherwin Willaims to match Valspar 4008-2B: Almost Charcoal.) Did he make a big mistake???
Hi Kat, I don’t think so! Primer is really the PREP coat and sets the stage for new paint to stick well and to cover the old colour. As long as he’s doing 2 coats (or sometimes even 3) of quality paint, there shouldn’t even be any primer showing/affecting the new colour 🙂 If it were me, I wouldn’t worry! That being said, I’m surprised he could get the primer very dark as usually, it will only go so far before the paint can is too full of tint!
Is lack of primer the reason that Alabaster is showing up LIGHT BLUE on my walls? It really is light blue — not just lighting. The door right next to it is white. Current color I’m painting over is your favorite, builder beige. Help! I dont want to give up on Alabaster.
Hmmmmmmm, I have a few thoughts.
#1 – exposure – is this room super north-facing?
#2 – did you mix the paint with SW or did you get a colour matched by a hardware store or other brand?
Long story short, NO, Alabaster shouldn’t read light blue at all!