Painting your home: a beginner’s guide

It was in 2020, the pandemic year, when we had to hunker down indoors and work from home, that GB and I timidly voiced the confession: our furniture was in desperate need of an upgrade.

We were spending so much time with it – on it – that we could no longer run from this niggling truth: Working from the dining room table, you could feel the rugged bones of the chairs digging into your ass. Catching Netflix on our beloved navy blue couch, the fabric shiny from far too many scrubs, the cushions as flat as a dormitory mattress. Our bed looked misplaced, it looked like it belonged in a bachelor’s bedsitter, never mind how many decorative pillows I insisted on styling it with.

So when the time was right, we hit the ground for a full home makeover.

‘Time is right’ means that we were treading with caution in that delicate place where everything was dangling by a whisper, where something unforeseen could blow it and poof, we return to hunkering down indoors. Covid-19 by this time had been tethered somewhat, so the economy was arising from slumber; furniture shops were hanging their ‘We are open’ signs, fundis were blowing the dust off their smoothing planes, kina TACC were preparing for their annual sales.

GB and I had time in our hands and money in our pockets.

Most importantly, my mind was agile and clear, I was no longer hangover from pregnancy/childbirth hormones. I could make sober choices.

We have been on this journey of a home makeover for about three months now, we started it in May 2021. We had already budgeted for a paint job in our project plan.

The walls of our home have been in the standard landlord colour, the colour that is mistakenly referred to as ‘cream’, but which I have since learned is actually ‘soft white’.

The soft white colour is not an entirely tasteless colour, to be honest, it just gets dull after some years.

Painting our walls a different colour would tie the new look of our home in a tidy bow.

I was also curious to experience a paint job myself. I have seen stylists and homeowners do it on YouTube and the socials but they never share all the nifty details. I always leave those episodes with more questions than answers.

I am sure you do, too.

Here are all the questions I am certain you have been dying to ask about a paint job for your home, and the responses from my personal experience:

At which point of your makeover do you paint your home?
Our home makeover has been happening in phases since May – so that’s now three months.

Three months and still counting.

There is plenty more we still want to do but we have now taken a break to refill our creative wells and our pockets. We are getting fed up of doing the legwork and chasing fundis, I particularly am getting fed up of putting in so many hours curating our Pinterest boards.

We also need to get accustomed to the new items we have already bought. A makeover can sometimes overwhelm your senses – nothing is familiar anymore, everything is not where it used to be, the space feels foreign, the colours no longer evoke the same memories. You can get so overwhelmed that you develop buyer’s remorse for the new items you have brought into your home.

Give yourself time to accustom yourself with the newness of your space.

We paint our home after the main functional pieces of each space are in and we have lived with them for a couple of weeks. For the living room, the main pieces are the couches and rug. For the dining room, the reupholstered dining room chairs. Bedroom, the beds.

The colour – and styling – of the main pieces informs the colours we choose for each space.

The colours need to complement and contrast the furniture. So for our living room, for example, our blue couches inform the shade of blue I pick for the feature wall.

Where do you select the colours?
I select our colours from a colour chart, one of those charts that opens up like a fan. It has 7,000 colours in there! Can you imagine that?

Any colour you want, in any shade, is in there for your choosing. I get confused at some point, so I take a quick breather then return to the chart with fresh eyes.

Make sure to take your time and follow your heart.

The Painter had suggested I select my colours from the paint manufacturer’s colour app on my phone, but I much prefer to use the printed colour chart in my hand. Your phone’s resolution can sometimes make you see colours in shades that are not real. Pixels create an illusion.

I don’t own a colour chart myself (never mind how long I have been an amateur interior decorator and columnist) so I use the one at the hardware.

I really should buy one. And soon.

Where do you buy your paint?
I buy the paint from a regular hardware store on Ngong Road, where they also have the colour charts.

I didn’t know, most hardware stores in this town sell paint. Just look out for the ‘Dura Coat Colour Mania Centre’ or ‘Crown Paints Colour Zone’ signage. They are usually on a gaudy display, you can’t miss them.

Hardware stores price the paint as advised by the manufacturer – so it doesn’t matter whether you buy your paint in Westlands or Industrial Area, the price will be the same.

It also doesn’t matter whether you buy Dura Coat or Crown paint, I am informed that they are both of premium quality.

What’s more, the sales attendant at the hardware store linked me up with a reliable painter.

(Let’s call this sales attendant, the Attendant and the painter by his real name, James.)

I know you are wondering why I didn’t paint the house myself. I didn’t because:
a) that only looks sexy on the Internet, with the homeowner wearing overalls or cut-off denim shorts, getting themselves sexily soiled while bopping to Dua Lipa
b) the job would have turned out horribly but everybody would be too polite to point this out
c) you can’t do everything yourself – learn to use your money to do the work for you, to pay people to get their hands dirty (this is a life lesson I learned from GB, a lesson he himself learned early. It explains why he has very soft hands and smooth elbows, ha-ha)

Is the paint ready-to-buy at the hardware?
No, paint is not ready-to-buy. The only colour that is ready is white paint. The base colour.

You will select your colours from the colour chart, each colour has a code. Write down the colour codes of your selection and the number of cans you want for each colour.

I choose Crown paint. My selected colour codes look like this:

AP132-3: One can
AP59-6: One can
AP52-2: Three cans
AP130-4: One can

The Attendant tells me to be absolutely sure of my selection because once he prepares the paint, there is no turning back. (Yelp!)

I check and recheck my colours until I am certain. It feels like sitting an entry exam and handing over my completed sheet to the invigilator.

The Attendant looks at my selections and says, ‘Sawa.’

He gets down to work.

He gets a can of white paint from the store that he places beneath an odd-looking computer.

This is, uhm, a colour computer, which prepares the paint. The Attendant keys in my selected codes to the computer, it mixes the colour chemicals and these chemicals are released into the can of white paint  beneath. (Is that imagery clear? I hope so. Imagine your selection of frozen yoghurt oozing out of the machine into your waiting paper cup.)

When the computer has finished releasing the paint, the Attendant removes the can, seals it shut and puts it into another ‘mixing machine’. This machine mixes the colour chemicals into the white paint. Shakes it as a mechanical hand would, up and down, round and round, left and right.

It emits a dizzying sound.

After the computer has finished mixing the paint, the Attendant dips his finger into the can and presses a finger of paint onto the lid. This will tell us which colour is which. For a moment there I think he will stick the finger into his mouth, to get a taste of the paint, ha-ha.

I also go ahead to label each can.

Dark blue: Feature walls in living room, dining room, kitchen
Grey-ish: Living room, dining room, other walls. Corridor
Light blue: Bedrooms feature walls
Light yellow: Kids room 

The whole process of preparing and mixing the paint takes about five to seven minutes per can.

I had wanted matte paint because I like the matte finish (all the family photos on our home’s gallery wall are in matte, same for the cover of my book ‘Should I?’), but I was strongly advised against buying matte paint.

I was advised to buy silk paint instead for its regular maintenance, it is very easy to wipe clean with Supa Brite and plain water.

How much did the job cost?
Days before I buy the paint, I come home with James so he can assess our space and advise me on how many cans of paint to buy per wall. We live in a three-bedroom rental apartment – we paint all but a few walls in the living spaces house.

The regular can of paint is usually a four-litre can. Professional rough estimate is a can of four-litre paint per four walls.

James also advises me to buy a small brush and two rollers – the small brush is to paint corners and skirting, the rollers are for everywhere else, because they have broad strokes and a cleaner finish than brushes.

He was also present as I select and purchase the paint. I like that. Although at some point I have to step away from him so I can have the silence to be certain of my colour selections.

Cost breakdown (In Kenya Shillings)
Silk vinyl emulsion (four-litre cans): Six cans at 2,300 each: 13,800
Rollers, two pieces at 350 each: 700
Six-inch paint brush, one piece: 400
Filler: 100
Masking tape: 100
Total for paint and accessories: 15,200
Labour charge for James and his assistant: 10,000
Total cost: 25,200

How was the painting process itself?
Surprisingly easy. Life in our household carried on as usual but with some unnoticeable upsets.

The job takes two full days to complete. The painters would start at 9a.m. and complete at 4p.m., taking an hours’ lunch break in some kiosks outside our gate, bathroom breaks at the communal facilities for our court’s caretakers.

They don’t prime the walls or anything – the only prepping they do is to clean the very dirty ones, the ones that Muna, our kindergarten-going daughter, has sketched on with crayons and pencils. The marker-pen stains are the hardest to get rid of.

James cleans the stained and dirty walls with Supa Brite and plain water, some Vim for the disastrous ones.

We don’t drape the furniture with protective material, either. We simply push everything away from the walls and congregate them in the middle of each space being painted. It looks like a montage from one of Adele’s videos.

The painters lay cardboard boxes along the skirting, to catch any spillage.

The paint itself is mixed half-part water to half-part paint. They use our laundry buckets to mix and scoop the paint.

The paint goes from the buckets to the brush/rollers and straight up the walls. Anybody can do it. Rather, looks like anybody can do it, and yet they can’t. But if you want to do it, please, don’t let me stop you, go right ahead. And while you’re at it, grow your own crop and stitch your own clothes.

On day one, the painters paint the living room, dining room, kitchen pantry’s feature wall and corridor. Day two is the bedrooms.

Our initial plan is to only paint feature walls in the living and dining room, but we end up painting all walls. This completed the look and gave it a more intentional finish. I remember James had told me something to the effect of, ‘The unpainted walls will also beg for some paint. You will have to listen to them.’

I do.

The painters use two layers of paint for each wall. Layer one would go up on this side of the room and it was dry by the time they were finishing up with layer one on that other side of the room.

There is no nose-pinching odour from the paint, nothing to induce a migraine or nausea, just the distant whiff of chemicals.

We keep the windows open all day long.

Our concern is our baby, Njeeh, he is only 10-months old. I am happy to report that he isn’t affected in any way by the paint. We even sleep in the bedrooms on the same day the painting is completed.

What do you think of the paint job?
I am satisfied with the selection of my colours and how they complement our home’s styling.

I have one cavil though – the deep blue colour I selected for the living and dining room feature walls is too deep a shade. The spaces are now darker than they were before; feel more boxed in, as though the walls are closing in on us. There is a bubbling-under feeling of claustrophobia, never mind that there are windows adjacent to the feature walls and pendants enhancing the lighting.

We have given ourselves time to adjust to these dark walls, in about a week we will know whether to retain the colour or not.

The paint we selected is silk vinyl emulsion. I imagine it would look shiny and shady but it doesn’t. The colours I selected were pastel shades so the final look of the painted wall is a gentle matte. This makes me exhale with contentment.

I must add that James is professional. He returns on the third day so we can assess the job together, before we make final payment. He says he is on standby should we change our minds about the darker shaded walls.

I also learn that we bought excess paint, we have one unopened can left. Whatever remained from the opened cans we have sealed and stored away in a cool dry place, he-he, away from the cold floor.

We also wash and dry the brush and rollers, and store them away properly for the next paint job.

What happens when you move out?
As I mentioned, our house is a rental. We have not informed our landlord that we have painted the house. I doubt there is need to; if we tell the landlord that we have painted the walls, we may as well tell them that have bruised the walls with all the drill holes that display our photos and wall décor.

When we move out, we will undo everything we have done: We will go back to the hardware and buy white paint, the ready-to-paint unmixed white paint, then contract James anew to paint over all the walls we have coloured.

We will then paint over this white paint, we will paint the standard soft white landlord colour.

This is the colour the new tenants will see when they walk into their new home.

An edited version of this story first ran in the Daily Nation under my contributing ‘Home Styling & Décor’ column in DN2. It ran in July 2021 (I think)

 PS. I didn’t do a bang up job of documenting this whole paint job. Videos, commentary, before-and-after, the works… nada. I just have a few lousy photos I may share on IG. Sorry.

Reach the painter. James: 0721625005 (Tell him Mama Muna sent you)

Make your bed…. On second thought, don’t
Start again

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