If you’re looking to use untinted base paint on your walls, it’s helpful to learn just what a base paint is and what kind of results you can expect. The fact is, base paint doesn’t work quite the same as tinted paints, even if you’re hoping to paint your room pure white.
In this guide, you’ll learn what base paints are used for, the different types available, how to paint with untinted bases—and why you might decide to go the tinted route after all.
What Is a Base Paint & What Is It Used For?
A base paint is a paint without color pigment added. Instead, they have varying levels of white pigment. As the name implies, these serve as bases for your final paint formula, after pigment is mixed in (either by yourself or at a hardware or paint store).
Another name you’ll hear is “tintable paint,” and that means the same thing: paint that needs concentrated pigments added before it’s ready to use.
Is Base Paint the Same As Primer?
You can’t use primer and base paint interchangeably. Primer and base paint are quite different, even if they look identical at first glance.
While base paints are basically unfinished paint formulations in need of colorant, primers are ready to use as-is. They’re meant to prepare—or prime—your surface to better accept the paint.
Different Types Of Tintable Paint Bases Explained
Base paints are mostly clear (especially Base 3 and 4, explained below), even though they’ll often look like regular white paint when you open them.
It's better to think of base paints less as paints and more like the beginnings of a recipe: they're made specifically to accept colorants and aren’t finished until that step occurs.
With that in mind, some base paints are more “complete” than others, depending on how much white pigment they have. This dictates how much colorant they can accept, and therefore how rich and deep your final color will look.
Paint bases are categorized according to just how much of this white pigment is in that formula, and therefore how much colorant can be mixed into it.
Why Are There 4 Different Base Types?
You might be wondering why these 4 formulations exist, and if choosing the correct one really matters. The answer is: absolutely. Your base paint determines how light or dark your final color will be.
If you try to achieve a deep blue using a Base 1, for example, you would need so much colorant the paint formula would then become imbalanced. The adhesion would be inferior, resulting in inadequate coverage, drips, and other eyesores.
By using the proper base, you can achieve the correct color with as little colorant as possible. This dilutes it to just the right consistency for great adhesion, vibrancy, and evenness.
Can I Paint With An Untinted Base?
Simply put, yes: you can paint with an untinted base—but you probably shouldn’t.
Remember that base paints are basically incomplete paints; they were created specifically to take colorant, at which point they’re ready to use.
Painting with a base and no tint means you’re rolling, brushing, or spraying on a less-than-ideal ratio of clear components to pigments.
The result you’ll get depends on what kind of base paint you’ve used. A Base 1, which has the most white pigments of any base, might look fine—a basic white shade—but could also leave the previous color peeking through. Base 3 or 4 without tint won’t cover it much at all, since most of it will be clear.
The best scenario to successfully paint a wall with untinted base paint would be a Base 1 applied to a white wall, or perhaps over a very light pastel. Coverage still won’t be optimal, but it’ll get the job done.
What To Do If You’re Stuck Between Base Choices
Say you’ve chosen a pale blue for your bathroom or a breakfast nook, and aren’t sure whether to go with Base 1 or 2, since either could work just fine for such a light color. Or perhaps you want to put a vibrant orange in your kids’ room, but can’t decide between Base 3 and Base 4.
A great rule to follow is “when in doubt, go lighter.” This means choosing the lower base paint, at least in a small testing size, to see how you like that shade first. It’s much easier to paint a darker color over a light one if you change your mind, rather than the reverse.
DIY Guide: Tint A Base Paint By Yourself
There are two ways to customize your paint at home: mixing pre-colored paints together and adding colorant to an untinted base.
Though the former is easiest (since you don’t have to worry about balancing the formula), it’s only doable when your paints are tinted and mixed already. What if all you have is an untinted base on hand?
The first step is to make sure you have the appropriate base for the desired final color. Remember: the lighter the color, the lower the base number should be, and vice-versa.
You’ll also need concentrated pigments such as Cal-Tint in your chosen color (more on that in the next section).
- 1Use a swatch
Even if you can perfectly visualize your final result in your head, finding a corresponding swatch in a hardware store will make comparison much easier during the mixing process.
- 2Set up your work area
Lay out drop cloths or newspaper where you plan to tint your base paint. Open the base, mix thoroughly, and get your colorants ready. You might want to wear gloves for this, as colorants are highly concentrated and will stain skin.
- 3Add colorants conservatively and slowly
It only takes a little pigment concentration to tint an entire gallon of base paint. What’s more, the wrong ratio of colors is easier to correct when you go slowly. Mix the paint thoroughly after each addition.
- 4Paint several test swatches
Once your tinted base reaches the neighborhood of shades you’re after, start putting some on the walls to judge its accuracy. It’s best to let each swatch dry entirely before you evaluate. Consider training a fan on the wall so this process takes less time.
- 5Finally, paint your tinted base on the wall
When mixed correctly, using a DIY-tinted base is no different than using store-mixed paints.
Tinting Tips: Helpful Notes About Color Science
Keep in mind that color science is intuitive in some ways, but not quite as straightforward as “red and blue make purple” when it comes to paint mixing. Paints actually use several colors, mostly primaries, to achieve a specific final result.
There are under- and overtones to consider, not just the main color. For example, grays can be cool or warm. Similarly, purple can be bluer or redder depending on the look you’re after.
Every color in the color wheel can be achieved with primaries. Because of this, it might be better to purchase a set of primary colorants rather than secondary or tertiary shades—even if those are your desired final colors.
When mixing paints and tints, you’ll quickly find unexpected combinations produce beautiful results. Adding a little red colorant to a green-tinted base, for example, can make that green closer to what you’d find in nature–a slightly warm, inviting shade similar to leaves, rather than a lime color.
You can also build upon existing combinations to create grays, blacks, and muted versions of those colors, as well as warmer or cooler tones. Blue and orange can make a great brown base for navy tones or cool charcoal grays.
Painting With Untinted Base FAQs
Does paint need to be tinted white?
For the best coverage possible, you should tint your base paint with colorant. Even though it’s already got white pigments in it, they aren’t quite enough to give you the white shade you’re hoping for.
However, it’s important to note that many white paints aren’t actually mixed with white colorants. Rather, they use tiny amounts of other colors to lightly tint the existing white pigments in that base.
As an example, a warm, slightly beige-white would be the result of a little red or yellow (or both). Cooler tones of white would have some blue mixed in.
Can’t you just tint white paint for the same result?
Technically, yes: you can colorize basic white paint by adding some colorant, just as you would do with base paints.
The result will be a very light pastel color, however, since white paint is really just a Base 1 with colorants already added. Therefore, its formula doesn’t have as much “room” left to accept but so much additional colorant.
What is the difference between base and layer paint?
Essentially, base paint is thicker than layer paint. While you might use 2-3 layers of tinted base paints to get the color and coverage you want, layer paints will require many more coats for a comparable result.
Layer paints are typically used when you want the previous color to show through—like adding a green wash to a blue surface
What happens if you add too much tint to paint?
Adding too much colorant to your base paint will result in a too-deep color at best and an imbalanced paint formulation at worst. This will render the paint unusable since it will be too difficult to apply evenly (and won’t adhere to the surface nearly as well).
How do I know what paint base to use?
The base you use should be dictated by the kind of color you want. The richer or darker the color, the higher base paint you’ll need. Light (or “white”) bases, such as Base 1 or Base 2, will suit whites and pastels.
Base 3 is meant for medium tones. Lastly, Base 4 is best for darker or very rich colors.
Can I use untinted base paint on trim?
Yes, you can paint trim with base paints and see great results. This is because trim is a much smaller area than an entire wall and is usually white to begin with.
While a Base 1 is preferable since it has the most white pigment in it, you’ll also see success with Base 2 paints, especially if you’re just doing a quick “refresh” coat on your trim work.
What should I do if I use base paint without tint by mistake?
Rest assured, your surface isn’t ruined. Simply let the base paint dry, then apply your tinted paint as usual.
While it’s possible to use base paint without any tint added, it’s generally not advisable. Base paints are formulated to take colorants, so applying them without those pigment concentrations can result in poor coverage and adhesion.
If you do decide to paint with an untinted base, you’ll see the best results using a White Base 1 on a wall that’s already white, or a very light pastel.