How To Do A Half-Painted Wall

This was another popular post which came about as a result of many, many questions so I thought I would give you another chance to read it in case any of you are planning to incorporate one in your own homes. I was asked the other day what to do if you do have a dado rail but want to go higher. I think it’s perfectly possible but I would then paint the dado rail in a contrasting colour so that it looks like you deliberately went higher rather than painting it the same colour and pretending it wasn’t there. You could, if you fancied, then add a matching stripe at picture rail height to complete the look if you fancied. So blush pink walls three quarters of the way up with a dado rail and matching stripe in soft red or burnt orange. Obviously pick the colours you like but make it look like you meant it. 

I have been asked about how to do a half-painted wall so many times since revealing the show flat and as it’s a technique that is perfect for modern homes and those with low ceilings, as well as those who want to add some drama and dark paint without going all the way (as it were) I thought I would do a post on it today – with apologies to my lovely reader from the former Soviet Union who finds it distressing to see – look away now and come back in a day or two).

styled by Kate Watson-Smyth photographed by Megan Taylor
styled by Kate Watson-Smyth photographed by Megan Taylor

It is, if you like, the modern version of the feature wall. Now the thing about a feature wall is that it can look as if you couldn’t quite commit to the colour. As if you were unsure if it was the right decision to make. That is why in my former spare room (now taken over by the teenager) I painted the fire surround bright pink. Rather than paint the chimney breast in a contrasting colour – which you see so often – I kept that the same colour and did the fireplace instead. That way there was strong colour in the room but it looked like a decision had been taken, a commitment made.

pink fireplace at image by James Balston
pink fireplace at image by James Balston

A single feature wall can still work but it needs to be the right wall. If you have a wall that is mostly alcove, or a wall under the eaves, for example, that is architecturally different it can work really well in a different shade or wallpaper. I have painted the wall behind my bed a different colour to the rest of the room – it matches the bed and is also the front of the wardrobe. This can work even better if you don’t have a bedhead as the wall can then act as one and create a focal point in the room.

green feature wall by
green feature wall by

Right then, on to the point of the piece. As I mentioned above, a half-painted wall is a great idea if you have low ceilings. Painting up to the top of the wall will draw attention to the size of the room – you are outlining the ceiling – and, by default, the floor size – when you do that and highlighting the edges makes the room look smaller.

If you have a picture rail then go up to and including that and then let the white ceiling come down over the top of the walls, which will blur the edges of the room and make the ceiling look higher and the room look bigger.

styled by Kate Watson-Smyth photographed by Megan Taylor
half-painted hall walls – if I was doing this again I would paint the doors halfway up too, image by Megan Taylor

But what if you don’t have a picture or a dado rail? No need to panic. With a little care and attention it’s perfectly possible get a straight line at the height of your choice.

So what is the height? Well I would say not halfway. I think you want to aim for shoulder height – doesn’t matter how tall you are – but that sort of area – basically a bit more than halfway. This works if you are using dark in the sitting room to hide the tv for example. It works behind the sofa if you want to hang pictures that fit over both shades – again aim for roughly a third and two-thirds split – see the image below.

DFS baileys sofa styled by Kate Watson-Smyth, image by Chris Snook
DFS bailey sofa styled by Kate Watson-Smyth, image by Chris Snook

If you are doing this in a kitchen it makes sense to line up with the bottom of the cupboards as in the image below – otherwise it might look messy as there will be too many lines and heights and the whole idea was to keep it as streamlined as possible to make the space look higher and bigger.

styled by Kate Watson-Smyth photographed by Megan Taylor
styled by Kate Watson-Smyth photographed by Megan Taylor

Right, so you’ve decided on the height and let’s assume at this stage we’re going for a straight dividing line and not trying anything fancy like the image below. I asked my old mate and keeper of the knowledge of all things DIY Karen Knox, co-founder of the Interior Design Collective and Making Spaces. She has written for these pages before and knows of what she speaks.

black and yellow half painted wall by Karen Knox
black and yellow half painted wall by Karen Knox

Now, pay attention, she said sternly, here comes the science bit:

1 – Usually you paint from top to bottom because you want to do the light colour first. If, unusually, you are doing it the other way round then start at the bottom.

2 – You will need frog tape to make the lines. Karen recommends the green for walls that have been painted for a long time and yellow for more recently painted or plastered – it’s slightly less tacky.

yellow fireplace by making spaces
yellow fireplace by Karen Knox

3 – Let your first – pale coat dry for at least 48 hours before you add masking tape and start the darker colour. If you aren’t changing the light colour but are just adding a dark one then start from this point.

4 – Measure the height you want from the top of the skirting board and mark with a pencil. Do this all the way round and then join your marks using a spirit level. But bear in mind that houses are never 100 per cent level or straight so you will need to go by eye as well. If the floor seems way out then measure down from the ceiling as the furniture will hide much of the bottom half so make sure it looks right from the top. You won’t notice if it’s out by 1cm or so once the furniture is in and as long as the finished line is clean.

half-painted walls don't have to be horizontal, image via @theoldpiggery_
half-painted walls don’t have to be horizontal, image via @theoldpiggery_

5 – Now you should always remove the tape when the paint is still wet. So paint along the line first. Then roller, or paint the rest of the wall. Then do the line a second time. Then you can pull the tape off and finish the second coat on the rest of the wall. If you wait until the paint is dry it will form a seal with the wall and the tape so pulling it off is really difficult.

6 – When pulling the tape off don’t pull it out from the wall but along the wall. Slowly.

half painted wall featuring bisque radiator
half painted wall featuring bisque radiator

7 – There is nearly always a point where the paint might come away with the tape. This is most common on freshly-plastered walls where the new paint hasn’t properly adhered to the plaster underneath.

If you are painting on fresh walls then Karen recommends mist-coating first. This is sucked up by the plaster and provides a base for the new paint to sit on.

image by Kristofer Johnsson, styling by Pella Hedeby and Marie Ramse for Hitta Hem
image by Kristofer Johnsson, styling by Pella Hedeby and Marie Ramse for Hitta Hem

And that’s it. Easy when you know how! At least you know the right technique now and then you can experiment with stripes and triangles and other paint effects which you absolutely can do on one wall because it’s not a solid block of colour and, once again, looks like you made a considered decision.

Suddenly painting all four walls the same colour looks slightly pedestrian I fear. Let me know how you get on if any of you are tempted to try it.

Kate Watson-Smyth

The author Kate Watson-Smyth

I’m a journalist who writes about interiors mainly for The Financial Times but I have also written regularly for The Independent and The Daily Mail. My house has been in Living Etc, HeartHome and featured in The Wall Street Journal & Corriere della Sera. I also run an interior styling consultancy Mad About Your House. Welcome to my Mad House.


  1. I’m looking to do this in my spare room, would you also paint across the bedroom door as well? Or stop at the edge of the wall?

    1. Entirely up to you. I would do the door frames and skirting board and then see how you feel. You can live with it for a while and see if you want to add the door. I have seen it done both ways and both are great.

  2. I’m a lover of this look and use it a lot. It’s a bit quirky and surprising and can totally change a room’s perspective – you’ve given great examples.
    If I can add a tip to the technique: before painting your contrast or feature colour, paint a bit of the base colour along the edge of the tape first, letting it dry. Then carry-on with your new colour as Karen has said, pulling the tape back against itself while still wet. Clean lines every time.

  3. Hi Kate – I love this idea, but the room I have in mind has a whole wall of built in wardrobes. Do you think it could work by painting across the wardrobes too? They aren’t flat fronted so I wonder whether it could look a bit fussy?

  4. Yes!!! You are a mind reader, thank you Kate!

    After I saw your show flat I decided I would try the half painted wall. Earlier today I was literally thinking through the nuts and bolts of actioning it. I didn’t think of the spirit level though, silly me!, so this was wonderful.

    I have been toying with the idea of either a dark teal or a grey/blue for my bedroom. But after painting some swatches on the wall I decided I couldn’t commit to either – one would be overwhelming, the other too blah. Your show flat pictures have given me a rebellious urge to try something a bit more radical in a half wall. You can always paint over it, anyway – right? 🙂 p.s. the hot pink fireplace surround is perfection!

  5. Thanks for the how to! That last picture completely inspired how I painted my office. I did black about 4/5ths up and then a copper pink at the top. I absolutely love it.

    1. I don’t like to use too many colours in a space and I love the mix of soft grey with dark green so I wanted to use that colour on the walls. It made sense to do it behind the bed and really make a statement with it.

  6. I’m not your lovely reader from the former Soviet Union (I live in Switzerland), but I *think* I get where she/he’s coming from. Half-painted walls (even when done in the most gorgeous colour combos), give me a strong institutional/sanatorium/hospital vibe. That said, I love the last pic, with the painted shelves breaking up the effect on the blush wall.

  7. In the 1980’s my mum painted two stripes around my bedroom using masking tape and a pencil. The walls were white and the stripes were bright red and blue (gloss – due to lack of choice and picky teenager!) The stripes went up and down a little like Karen’s yellow and grey wall but with them both touching each other. Funny how trends come and go. Love reading your blogs. Opening our downstairs out so share everything with the hubby in the evening!

  8. Aah, thank you soooo much! I left a comment on your show flat post asking how it was done. Couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw an actual whole post on it. No excuses now. Thanks a million x

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