For a while I’ve been promising to do a review of a product called Paint On Screen. The idea behind it is that rather than buying an expensive projection screen you get the same results by painting a wall with their special paint. Actually, in some ways you get a better result. I’ve already explained in detail why I don’t believe in “real” home theater screens for front projector systems – and I stand by it. There are many practical reasons why a wall is better than a screen. Â Mainly because it is larger and more flexible. Â It is not limited to a set aspect ratio, it costs much less, and in my install it helps deliver a real movie theater experience. My screen is massive.
What I set out to do was to test their $200 product against a $30 Dunn Edwards house paint to see if theirs really is any better. The Paint On Screen products start with a silver base, which make them reflect better. Certainly it’s a more professional way to go.Â But how well does it work?
Well, the review process got complicated and the result isn’t simple either. Overall I am recommending this product, but it comes with several caveats and some advice. All of which requires some explanation and visual aids to understand. This review has been a grueling month in the making. So grab a red bull and hit the read link for all the gory details…
First, I need to give an honest disclaimer that the guys at Paint On Screen were kind enough to ship me a free sample to review. Because they were so nice I really wanted to do them right and give them the best chance I could for a positive review. But I also have to be honest. In fact, before I allowed them to send me anything I told them to “be sure your product will be better because I will report the truth if it’s not.”Â They were confident.Â So when I had problems with their original product sample I called them and they sent a different product to try. I took my time collecting data and experimented with different methods. This review covers ALL of myÂ experiencesÂ with the product and with the company. It is a complicated mess and my goal is to give any prospective buyer all the facts and options.
Second, this is all very subjective. I trust my eyes most of all. What’s important is ‘how does it look to you?’ You wouldn’t believe how long we all stared at the screen trying to figure out which side is better. This was a really tough one. Overall I believe that Paint On Screen is a good product. It is on my wall now and it’s going to stay there. But you should read this whole review before buying. And be aware that your mileage will vary based on what kind of surface you have and how good yourÂ projectorÂ is.
Last, where possible I’ve provided a lot of photos. I tried to make the photos look as much like the image does to the naked eye. Click on them to load a larger version. In some cases it’s necessary to load the larger image to see the detail I’m talking about. I also want to say that some of the comparisons were so subtle that they couldn’t be captured with a photo.Â But read on…
My Home Theater Setup
An explanation of my setup is important because the setup impacts the effectiveness of the product. The quality of the projector, the amount of ambient light, and the kind of surface you’re painting all have to be considered before selecting which product you’ll want (or not want). I have the Sony Bravia SXRD 1080P VPL HW10. Â It’s an excellent projector with an impressive (advertised) 30,000:1 contrast ratio. The screen is about 13 feet across and I sit about 18 feet from it. As for as ambient light, during most movie watching I can cut it down to almost nothing. And my wall surface has a very slight “orange peel” texture.
What I’m comparing the Paint On Screen to is something I selected from Dunn Edwards a few years ago – simply calledÂ DECEMBER (SP 4061). That product is part of a now discontinued line called “Galax-z.” Â What I looked for when I selected it was a very flat, whiter than white paint that introduced NO COLOR offset. Â Any sheen or gloss could cause hot spots. AndÂ obviouslyÂ you don’t want any color to the paint or it will discolor the picture.Â DECEMBER is flat white with no added pigments.
Test #1 – Digital Theater White
The first sample they sent was called “Digital Theater White.” We painted the right half of the wall with the sample and left the other half Dunn Edwards. And for the record, my painter is a professional painter with over 25 years experience.
Digital Theater White is a 2 on their whiteness scale which ranges from 1 to 8. It went on darker than I expected and also darker than what I had been using. My contact at Paint On Screen later said that it was the wrong selection for my particular install. Particularly my projector’s high contrast ratio doesn’t need any gray. But the results I found are still significant and should be examined.
The (obsolete?) Gray Screen
I was surprised that a product called Digital Theater White wasn’t very white. But not all screens are pure white. There is a concept in screens where you use a slight gray instead of white. It provides darker blacks and reduces the effects of ambient light. In the dark your eyes adjust and the whitest point becomes ‘white’ to your eyes. What’s important is the amount of contrast between the whitest white and the blackest black. However modern projectors now use technologies like dynamically adjusting iris’ to deliver off-the-chart contrast ratios. If you’ve got one of these projectors and can keep ambient light out (like me), you don’t need a gray screen and should opt for white.
The gray screen might still be right for some older projectors or in a situation where there’s more ambient light. If you’re looking into doing this just ask the guys at Paint On Screen for advice.
Side by Side Comparisons
After painting half the screen with Digital Theater White, we did some split screen tests. The results were very interesting. Check out this photo. At first glance you would think that the right side of the wall is textured and the left side isn’t. But the difference between the two sides is only the paint. Click to enlarge…
The image on the left side (whatever that thing is) appears smooth, while the right side appears rough. The flat paint on the left completely makes the texture disappear under the projected light. Even standing right up on it you can’t see the texture at all. The right half is also a little darker, although not as dark as you’d expect considering how much darker the paint was. What followed was a lot of real world tests (watching lots of moves), followed by some intense debate and deliberation.
This next image you have to view full size to see. I’ve included a very high resolution version here. The BEE face on the left is where the split is. On the right colors are dingy, this is because of the darker base on that particular product. As a side note, when my kitchen light was turned on (ambient light) the Digital Theater White side did look better. If I had a constant ambient light the gray would be an acceptable trade off to get the darker blacks.
But the real problem, which I’m showing here, is the visible wall texture. Because the Paint On Screen is more reflective, the wall texture translates into what looks like grain. If this product was used on a larger screen where the audience sat farther away from the screen, the texture in the wall wouldn’t be an issue.Â But at my viewing distance you can subtly see it.
That second issue for me was just that the gray color of the paint made everything dingy. Comparing it to my old screen the whites were appearing more blue. It’s important to note that color balance is very subjective. Stare at a green card for a minute and then look at a white wall and you’ll see a red. Your eyes adjust to color – and so do cameras.Â It is possible that the paint on the left side was just warmer in color tone and made the right side appear cooler (bluer) – although this is not my belief. The next sample DOES reflect what it looked like to me in reality – the hot spots of the explosion looks blue and dingy.
It occurred to me that maybe I just needed to get rid of the wall texture. The thought of messing with my wall at that level frightened me. What I had was working fine. As my wife put it, we now had a problem we didn’t have a few days earlier: would it look better with a smooth wall?Â So I also did 3-way test, comparing December on a textured wall, Digital Theater White on a textured wall, and Digital Theater White on a piece of smooth Masonite…
As you can see, the bottom shows that even without the wall texture, the whites would be darker than they are with the Dunn Edwards. So obviously this first product sample was not the best for my install. I spoke with the guys at Paint On Screen and they sent me a different product.
Now to be fair, I sent them these photos and they realized that they sent me the wrong product considering the quality of my projector. So the question is, does that make this first product review irrelevant? If it’s the wrong product for my projector why even talk about Digital Theater White? Several reasons: first because I had a lot of photos of it, second to discuss the issue of the gray paint, and third because the wall texture issue didn’t go away with their second product sample.Â There’s a lot to learn from those tests. The product’s response to light, it’s reflectivity, how it improves contrast, how it makes the wall texture visible – all are important things to consider.
We painted the wall back to it’s original Dunn Edwards’ December.
Test #2 – Pure MICA White
When the new product sample arrived we again painted half the screen, this time the left half. Instantly we could see that this paint is whiter than the Dunn Edwards. To be more accurate, it was whiter from direct angles and darker from the extreme side angles. This means that it reflects more of the light towards the audience and less of it towards the sides where you don’t have viewers. This is one of those things that can’t be captured in a photo. It is better seen in context, and I’ve got two samples to show. This first one shows that the image is clearly brighter from the normal viewing angle.Â Remember, to confuse things the Paint On Screen is now on the left.
Now suddenly it’s my Dunn Edwards paint the appears dingy. However, you can still see that wall texture. This next picture is again a very high res photo and to really see the issue you have click it and load the larger image. The grain is still there but not as noticeable. Is it better or isn’t it? Which side looks better to you?
Again the debate and deliberation. We watched lots of movies and sometimes couldn’t even tell that there was two different paints.Â Paint On Screen’s Pure MICA White is brighter than the Dunn Edwards’ December. The difference is subtle but real. In most shots you can’t see it. Where it really shows is any time the screen is bright – or in animated scenes like Bee Movie where you have large areas of one color. In these scenes the Paint On Screen was brighter – all while leaving the blacks the same.Â However the texture still showed through.
The Drywall Skim Coat
I just couldn’t leave that wall texture issue alone. I scheduled a drywall guy to come give the wall a skim coat – parts and materials were $200. Then we painted an undercoat and 2 coats of Paint On Screen’s Pure MICA White. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to check the skim coat before the paint went on. Nor was I able to do a side by side comparison of Dunn Edwards to Paint On Screen on the smooth wall.Â However, we know from all the other photos and tests that the Pure MICA White is better on a wall without any texture.
Here’s the problem: it’s IMPOSSIBLE to get a completely perfect smooth wall. There will be some defects, some curves, some scratches, some bumps. That’s why houses generally have textured walls. The texture hides the imperfections in the wall. How smooth the skimcoat gets will depend on how experienced your drywall guy is and how much time he puts into it. My drywall guy did a good job, but there were a few defects left behind that I wasn’t there to catch. This next photo shows some of those defects. I imagine he did this by sanding it too much. Note that the photo was enhanced to highlight the scratches:
With 2 coats of Paint On Screen I could still see some streaks in the paint (which is different than the above photo). In shots where the camera was panning or when your eye would follow an object, you could see something on the wall panning by. Examining the paint job we found that even though my very professional painter applied it evenly, it wasn’t even enough. It seems to be difficult to get on evenly. Ideally we would spray it on, but that would be very impractical inside a furnished house. So I had him apply one more think coat and he took special care to get it as even as possible. The result is that now the streaks are gone and the image appears smooth. I also no longer see the imperfections that are shown in the above photo.
Conclusion – My End Result
At the end of the day I feel that my screen is now brighter than it was before, and the blacks are still black. I estimate that the white’s are probably about 5 to 10 percent brighter.Â It also seems that ambient light isn’t as much as an issue as it was before, although we didn’t do any specific tests on ambient light. Here’s a picture of the end result. It’s impossible to show the difference in a photo without the split screen, but I couldn’t leave you without a final photo…
Another thing that I didn’t talk much about is the silver flakes in the paint. This is really what makes the paint more special than house paint. It gives the screen a sparkle and glow at a sub-pixel level. If you get right up to the screen you can see it.Â Again, a picture doesn’t do it justice.Â I tried to take a photo of it but it can only been seen with your eye.
Do I Recommend Paint On Screen?
The simple answer is yes, overall I do recommend Paint On Screen. If you’re spending 3 or 4 grand on a projector, another $200 to $400 on a screen is very reasonable – especially to get a 13 foot screen. But the recommendation comes with a lot of advice and caveats.
- If you’re going to use Paint On Screen be prepared to paint, test, and paint again.Â A $200 gallon is approximately enough to paint a 16′ x 9′ area 5 times. So there should enough to experiment.
- If you already spent every single dime you have on the projector, just go get the flattest whitest paint you can find an use that for now.
- If you’re building a home theater room from scratch (Larry!) you should be able to get a good drywall guy in there for a few hundred. Get the wall as smooth as humanly possible and get some Paint On Screen. Examine the wall before painting (my mistake). In a custom built home theater room you should be able to control light and therefore will want the Pure MICA White. (but consult with the company for the best product for you)
- If you can spray it – spray it!
- If your wall does have a slight texture you might want to leave it be (meaning don’t skim coat it) and roll right over that. The Pure MICA White didn’t show the texture as much as the Digital Theater White.Â Depending on how far you sit from the screen you might not be able to see it at all.
- Advice for the painter: Brush edge it first, then go as close to the edge as you can with the roller.Â It is difficult to get an even coat. It might take 3 coats to get a good finish.
- If you fix a drip with a brush you’ll see it. Because of the silver particles in the paint, brushing seems to align them differently which makes the light reflect different.Â You’ll see it.