What Is Chalk Paint? Plus, How Do You Use It?

The original inventor Annie Sloan gives us her best tips and techniques for creating an antique finish on furniture.

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Annie Sloan "Oxford Navy" blue chalk-painted dresser
Photo: Courtesy of Annie Sloan

One positive to come out of being at home this year is there is more time for crafting and tackling projects that have long been on your to-do list. Perhaps you've refurbished an old armoire, touched up an entryway bench at the end of the hall, or livened up your home décor with stenciled designs. No matter the project, you've likely used the original chalk paint by Annie Sloan, or one of several adaptations by other retailers. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the product. So, where did it come from, and how exactly can you use it?

How Chalk Paint Was Created

In 1990, British color expert Annie Sloan was trying to balance having creative time as an artist and being a mom of three boys under the age of 10. "I would try to paint something and then have to go pick up the kids," says Sloan. She grew tired of having to hunt down multiple paints for different projects, and was often too busy to do so. "I wanted one paint that would do it all; that was water-based, flexible, and quick drying so I could get everything done," she recalls. "That's when I made my own paint. There was loads of experimenting while designing the paint. I'm not a scientist, but I tried to think of ways that farmers in early America made their plain wood houses look smarter, and what paint they used in Sweden, made from things like milk and eggs and glue. I found it fascinating," says Sloan. She was already familiar with textures and what she needed, and then she found a family-owned paint factory, and the rest, so to speak, is history.

Chalk paint stands out from other paints because it requires no preparation like sanding or priming. The paint can be applied to almost any surface, indoors or outdoors: floors, ceilings, walls, furniture, glass, metal, wood, concrete, plaster, and even fabric. "I think what drives most people to these projects is wanting your house to be beautiful, and this paint allows you to do that," says Sloan. At the time of its release, this paint was a bit revolutionary because everyone could use it, novice or professional, transforming paint from a specialist trade to an enjoyable pastime for anyone.

Techniques and Tips for Applying Chalk Paint

The beauty is in its simplicity. "Just start painting," says Sloan. "There are no rules. You don't have to sand or prime. If the surface is oily, maybe wipe it down with water." The paint is rather thick, so she advises using it in coats sparingly. "Paint in different directions if you don't want brush marks, and two thin coats should be perfect," she says. "When it's dry, which should take about two hours, probably less, you can either lacquer or wax it. The wax gives you a lovely finish, and the lacquer is more like varnish." She says there are lots of finishes and textures you can try, but they aren't necessary to achieve a nice look.

As far as choosing a color; there are 44 of them in the palette created by Sloan. While this may be a smaller selection than some retailers, the colors are inspired by 18th and 20th century design, and can be mixed to make any color of your imagination. That's, in part, because Sloan enjoys playing with color. "I think people are afraid of color," she says, referencing the trend toward beiges and whites in home design. In her garden room, the walls wear a dark charcoal tone, but in other rooms, there are softer pale blues and creams. If the neutrals are your comfort zone, Sloan recommends adding a pop of color like you would in a wearable ensemble. "Have a blue chair or paint a line around the room in another color. Paint the inside of a cupboard red. A little color is a little joy," she says. For more ideas, check out Sloan's technique and tips webpage or one of her many color recipe books.

Project Suggestions

"People find painting very therapeutic, especially now while people are anxious and don't know what will happen in the future," says Sloan. "It's joyful for them to paint." If you want to dive into a painting project, but don't know where to start, check out Annie Sloan's inspiration. There's also her bookazine Colourist, which houses beautiful examples of painting projects that could be living in your home.

Sloan's advice? "Take a piece of furniture you think is really useful, like an old-fashioned nightstand. These are usually made from pine or other materials like rattan that turn yellow and orange with age," she explains. "Take something useful that you want to update and start painting." Some other unique project ideas could be painting an old fireplace screen, frames and mirrors, plaques for the front door and holiday décor, or wicker baskets.

Working with local communities is very important to Sloan, so her chalk paint is only available in local independent businesses called stockists, as opposed to big box stores. (Lower-priced variations of chalk paint are available at Home Depot in the Behr collection, Recolor Paints by Lowes, and Target's Magnolia Home by Joanna Gaines, but they are called chalky paint, chalked paint, or chalk-style paint because "chalk paint" was copyrighted by Sloan.) Search for your local stockist to get specifics on paint mixing or painting techniques.

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