The Best Paint to Use on Your Picture Frames

Lamp putting a spot light on a painting of man on a table

​​A great way to up-cycle older frames is to give them a chic new color. Finding the best paint to use on picture frames can seem like an overwhelming task because there are so many different brands and types to choose from. This guide will help you narrow down what you are looking for and what type of paint fits your design ideas.

​Water Based Paint vs Oil Based Paint

Water and oil based paints each have their merits. However, when it comes to the specific task of working with frames, there is a clear winner.

Water based paint is optimal because it is easiest to work with and clean up after. Instead of oil based paint which will take longer to dry and requires paint thinner or turpentine to clean up afterwards.

While oil based paint is the more durable of the two, water based paint is the clear winner when it comes t​o painting picture frames.

Buckets of different colored paint are laid all across the floor with a white canvass

​Picking the Best Water Based Paint

When it comes to choosing a water based paint, there are a few different types that you can select from that will give you different finishes.


​This paint is the most basic of the water based paint varieties. It is very easy to work with and and has a faster drying time than most paints.

Latex paint also comes in a wide variety of color and finishes. This makes it a broad option when it comes to finding the best paint for picture frames. To help narrow down your options, figure out what type of finish would better suit your picture frames.

If you're going to be using a paint sprayer, latex paint is typically the easiest to use (and safest for your sprayer).


​This is the only finish that is latex paint only. A flat finish will give you a basic paint look that does not have any sheen or gloss that reflects on the surface once the paint dries. Flat finishes don’t clean well and is not suited for areas that will draw moisture like bathrooms tiles and kitchens counters.


​The next step up is an eggshell finish. It is great for decorative painted pieces like picture frames and your DIY farmhouse tables due to it’s low luster finish. It also will clean up a little better than the flat finish.

Sa​tin Finish

The sheen on a satin finish provides a nice luster however, it is not as bright as a gloss paint. Satin is the most popular overall finish because it cleans easily and works well on wood surfaces.

Related: ​Staining and Finishing Plywood​


The semi-gloss offers a subtle shine finish on your painted frames, so that they will stand out a little more without being too over the top. Most individuals would use semi-gloss paint on molding, doors, window seals, even decorative jars and it is safe for higher moisture areas like the bathroom.

Glossy blue and green jars are lined up against each other


The toughest finish out there, high-gloss finish is stain resistant and able to be scrubbed down. This paint is perfect for surfaces that will get daily wear and tear.

When it comes to choosing a latex finish for picture frames, you can really choose what finish look will capture what you have in mind. For a frame that sits on a table or a mirror that hangs on a wall, you really don’t need to worry with the durability or how easy it is to clean since these surfaces will not come into contact with a lot of wear and tear.

The only con with latex paint is that it isn’t as durable as oil based paint. Also, due to it’s water content, late paint can raise the grain on raw, unsealed wood frames and surfaces.

However, when you are looking for the best paint to use on picture frames, then water based paints like latex are perfect for your DIY project.

​Milk Paint

This water based paint is well known for being nontoxic and having the ability to crack, flake and give an overall distressed finish without needing to put in much effort.

Related: ​Painting Your Faux Brick Is Easier Than You Think​

It is called milk paint due to the fact that there is sometimes curdled milk that is used as one of the base ingredients. It also uses casein, which is a common protein found in milk, as an active ingredient.

When buying milk paint, it does not come in the normal liquid form. Instead you will purchase it in a powdered form which is mainly comprised of casein and lime. When you are ready to paint you will add 1 part water to 1 part of the powdered form.

This is also helpful to make sure that you are not wasting paint. Since you can choose to mix as much or as little as needed for the project. It is also really easy to mix so that if you don’t have enough, you can measure out and mix more as you are working.


The original magic of milk paint is in the organic properties of it. This paint is the perfect pairing for unsealed wood surfaces.

When milk paint is put onto an unsealed wood surface, the organic chemistry of milk paint allows it to not only stick, but it will also be soaked into the surface. This after completely drying will create an uneven and a much more durable overall finish.

When you put milk paint on an already sealed surface it tends to have the opposite effect. Instead of creating a soaking in seal, it will not grip and adhere well at all. This can create chips and flakes in the finished design, which is great if that is the level of distressing that you are aiming for.

Dark paint chipping off against a white wall

If you would like it to have a little more of a solid adhering to your sealed surface then you will want to use a bonding agent. This agent will be mixed into the first coat of milk paint that you put down and helps give it a better overall adhering property.

This step reduces the size and amount of chipping that the milk paint will give. Even with a bonding agent added, when you sand the milk paint, distressing, chipping and flaking will occur as you agitate the surface.

​Pairing with Other Paints

Since milk paint is mainly used for a distressed look, you will want to pair it with a second paint. You can use it with another milk paint or you can use milk paint over wood stain.

If you want to pair it over a sealed or stained wood surface then make sure that you are using a protecting top coat over the wood stain before you apply the milk paint. This extra step will keep you from sanding off the wood stain when you are distressing.

However, even with a few top coats applied there is still a chance that you might accidentally sand down into the stain and show the original wood color. If this happens you can easily apply more of the paint stain to that area and then wipe it off with a cloth or paper towel.

​Chalk Paint

Not to be confused with the old black chalkboards of our schooldays, chalk paint is a colorful way to spruce up your picture frames and other surfaces without having to worry about before prep.

Once of the biggest perks that people talk about with this paint is that you do not need to sand or prime the surface before you begin to paint. Just give your picture frames a wipe down with a damp cloth to remove any dirt or dust.

Chalk paint will go on light and if you are coloring something from darker to lighter then you will need to about 3-4 coats in order to have a solid color that will cover the frame.

If you would rather have a more faded color or distressed look then you can opt to stop after 2 coats of paint. Each coat will need a few hours to completely dry before you add another coat. This allows you to pause and see how the paint is adhering so that you can decide what the best look is for your picture frame project.

​Sealing Chalk Paint

While there is limited to no prep work needed when you are using chalk paint, there is a final step that you will need to do in order to seal the chalk paint. To seal your newly painted frames, you will need to use a chalk paint wax.

Use a small amount on a rag or paper towel and rub it all around the painted frame. Let it sit for a minute and then buff it off. Repeat this step (no need to wait) to apply a second coat of wax.

The wax will not only seal it, but it will also provide your chalk painted picture frames with a nice sheen finish. Chalk paint without a seal will give you a very flat and matte finish. Since your frames will not be affected by the elements, you can opt to skip sealing them to keep the matte finish.

Related: ​Painting a Lampshade with Chalk Paint

​Features to Consider

​Now that you know more about what the best types of water based paint to use on picture frames is, you can learn more about what features these paints offer.

​Clean Up

​One of the top reasons to choose water based paint versus oil based paint, ​whether you're painting a room, or painting a picture frame, water base paint can clean up in just minutes. This is because the paint already has a percentage of water mixed in.

When it is time to clean up, you can simply run water over the brushes or rollers to remove all of the paint. It make take a few minutes under a running faucet for the water to run clean, but as long as the paint is still wet on the brush, then it will all come off.

Dirty hands with paint against a bright yellow background

Oil based paint cannot be simply cleaned with running water. You will need to use a paint thinner or mineral spirits to soak and swish the brush around in a container until the paint has all loosened.


​While you can add some distressing details with a latex based paint, there are a few better brands of water based paint that were made to give you a great base for distressed looking pieces.

Milk paint is one of the best choices due to its ability to flake, crack and soak into raw wood surfaces. Chalk paint is also great for a distressed look due to its super flat matte finish and ability to look worn when applying less coats of paint.


​Water based paint is a top choice for infrequently used furnishings​, but isn't necessarily the best choice for your glossy tub. This is because you don’t need the extreme durability of an oil based paint.

While you do want a good quality product, when it comes to items like picture frames that will not be handled or come into contact with moisture, then you have more flexibility to choose a type and finish that you like without having to worry how it will hold up.

Different colors of paint used up in a white paint pallette

​Variety of Color

​Thankfully each type of paint comes in many different brands. While the paint and finish may be the same, each brand has created their own colors.

The price of brands will vary, but when it comes to the brand name what you should mainly be focused on is the variety of colors that each offers so that you can find the perfect shade for your picture frames.


​Latex paint is one of the best priced paints on the market. It runs on average about 40% cheaper than it’s oil based counterpart.

Chalk paint is a little more pricier due to it being a special paint. You will end up paying about $40 for a quart. This does not include the additional price for the wax to seal it which can run anywhere from $20-30.

Milk Paint comes in powdered form which helps keep the price lower and allows you to ration out what you need for each of your wood projects. The average price per quart for this type of paint runs about $20.

When it comes to price, depending on where you buy and which brand, it can fluctuate but these are the average prices so that you can see when you are really getting a deal or when you are being overcharged.

​The Best Overall Paint

​When it comes down to it, latex paint is the best for your overall project. You can distress latex paint by wiping it after applying. You can also choose a variety of finishes to give your frames a pop or contrast of color.

It is also the overall cheapest option. This gives you more overall savings and a lower risk project. If you are unhappy with the color or turnout then you don’t have to worry about shelling out a lot more money to find a better color or a second color for your picture frames.

Lamp putting a spot light on a painting of man on a table


Choosing the best paint for picture frames can seem like a lot of small choices that will lead to you finding your perfect paint. However, when all else fails, you really can’t go wrong by just finding your perfect color and trying it out.

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