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15 Creative Ideas for Painting Bookshelves

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  • This article was written by Joshua Lewis – an academic writer and keen DIY and home decor enthusiast – to ensure maximum factual accuracy and unique content.

Bookshelves are an often overlooked aesthetic in the bedroom and other rooms.

But painting them in the right way can significantly impact the theme, style, and feel of the room for the better.

So what are the best ways to paint your bookshelves?

The best bookshelf painting ideas include a simple repaint, painting the inside and outside a different color, applying an alternating pattern, using a dark wood stain, applying spray paint, splattering paint patterns, whitewashing, or adding embellishment.

The rest of this article unpacks these ideas in more detail to give you 15 inspirational ideas for painting your bookshelves in any room.

But you might be wondering what the best color to paint your bookcase or bookshelves is.

The best color to paint your bookcase or bookshelves is a dark brown color because it complements a wide range of decors and themes. However, there are many other colors that can work well depending on the look you are going for – such as white, gray, or black.

You will see further on in the article how to combine different colors to create complementary and contrasting palettes.

Now, in terms of technique, how should you go about painting your bookshelves?

The best way to paint a bookshelf is by starting in the middle of each surface (outside panels, the interior, the shelves) with a large brush, and then decreasing the size of the brush as you approach the edges for more precision – taking the shelves out beforehand is ideal.

But if you’re trying to make your cheap bookshelves look more expensive, what should you do?

The best way to make cheap bookshelves look expensive is by adding molding in conjunction with a darker color scheme – adding antique handles to any drawers can help if you are upcycling an old bookcase.

Conversely, what if you want a nice and simple DIY design to make your bookshelves look pretty?

The best way to make your bookshelves look pretty is to use two contrasting colors that tie in with the theme and palette of your room – combining a strong accent color with a more subtle secondary color can work well.

As you read through this article, you will see examples that illustrate the above points in more detail so that you can see how to bring these ideas to life in a practical manner.

Related: click here to see the 7 best and worst bedroom shelving placement ideas.

15 Creative Ways to Paint Your Bookshelves

Here are 15 ideas for painting your bookshelves to make them look more stylish:

1: Apply a Simple Repaint to Save Time and Money

Repainted Bookshelves
Repainted Bookshelves (#1: Getty Images)

When I think about my past experience in furniture renovation – particularly older furniture that I’m trying to upcycle – a fresh repaint is the simplest and most effective way to bring your bookshelves back to life with the least amount of effort and expense.

You’ll just need to make sure that you choose the right color for you – so consider the theme or style of your room and test a few first to make sure your chosen color is suitable.

How to Get The Look

Once you’ve chosen your color, remove everything from the bookshelf and place it on some spare fabric or newspaper.

Begin painting – making sure you’re getting into every crevice and surface – because it will be noticeable to visitors if you miss a spot when it comes to bookshelves.

Stick to one color, with no patterns or styles, and just give the entire bookshelf a repaint with a second coat once the first coat is dry.

This will freshen the bookshelf up and allow it to fit in nicely with the style or theme of the room.

From personal experience, I would say this is a quick and effective option, but it’s not the most imaginative, so you might want to choose from some other options on this list if you’re looking for something a bit more creative in terms of style.

But in my opinion, I think a simple repaint works nicely in any room – so it does have some great benefits compared to more complex styles.

Click here to discover how to paint your bedroom black and white in 8 steps.

2: Half-Paint the Shelves to Create Contrast

Half Painted Bookshelves
Half-Painted Bookshelves (#2: Getty Images Signature)

Half-painting a bookshelf can create a fantastic look that works well in an indie bedroom or any room where you want to draw the eye to the bookshelves.

How to Get The Look

So, what’s the half-paint method?

The half-paint method involves painting the outside of your bookshelves (the sides, top surface, legs, and front supports) with a new color and leaving the insides naturalor if you have two adjacent bookshelves you can paint each of them a different color to create contrast.

The image above shows another variation where the outer top and bottom shelves are different colors.

Since most bookshelves are wooden, this will create an effective contrasting wood effect.

But even if your shelves are not wood, there will still be the contrasting paint effect which I believe always looks effective in a room.

This style isn’t too complex or dramatic but adds more interest than the simple repaint.

Click here to find out how to paint bedroom doors so they don’t stick in 6 steps.

3: Paint the Inside for a More Subtle Aesthetic

Bookcase With Just the Inside Painted
Bookcase With Just the Inside Painted (#3: Getty Images)

Another idea would be to just do the half-paint method but the other way around!

This would mean painting just the insides of the bookshelves or bookcase.

This would involve more painting as the inside of a bookshelf will take more time and paint than the outside would, but you can achieve a similar contrasting effect and it looks just as effective.

I like this method, but I do admit that I prefer the half-paint method in option two.

Because as I’ve learned from when I painted my own bookshelves using this method that once the shelves are loaded back up…you can’t see your beautiful paintwork in its entirety.

This doesn’t mean it won’t be seen and it’s definitely more of a subtle option, but I just don’t think it’s as obvious to visitors as painting the outside would be.

How to Get The Look

If your bookshelves won’t actually be packed with books and you’ll still be able to see a good amount of the back panels, this would be the perfect option.

Just make sure that when you paint the insides that you don’t get any on the outside.

This might sound obvious but trust me, it ruins the effect and just starts to look messy.

You’ll also have to make sure the outside is suitable too, so if it’s an old bookshelf which looks a bit naff on the outside, this option isn’t for you.

Click here for a 7 step guide that shows you how to paint a metal bed frame black.

4: Contrast the Inside and Outside for a Stylish Look

Bookshelves With Inner and Outer Contrast
Bookshelves With Inner and Outer Contrast (#4: Pixabay)

This is similar to the contrast achieved when you paint either the inside or outside of the bookshelf and leave the other side natural, but I think it’s more effective.

If this is done right, the added paint will enhance the style – especially if it’s contrasting.

However, as the image above shows, you can also stick to a range of similar hues to create subtle contrast that’s stylish yet not too in-your-face.

If you have a bookshelf where the inside isn’t completely covered, or if it looks old and naff on the outside, this is a simple and effective way to brighten it up.

How to Get The Look

Pick one color that matches the style or theme of your room and carefully paint the outside of your bookshelf with this color.

Once this is done, pick a color that nicely contrasts with the outside color, but doesn’t deviate too much from the theme/style of your room.

For example, if you have lots of brown furniture in your room and want your bookshelf to be similar, paint the outside brown and paint the inside a light grey.

This doesn’t deviate too much from the outside color scheme, but it provides an effective contrast that becomes noticeable in the room.

You can pick colors of your choice, but this contrasting effect works great in a room with multiple colors or themes such as minimalistic or contemporary.

This is because this style is not so basic that it blends the bookshelf in with the room, yet not so dramatic that it takes over the room.

Click here to see the best colors that go with dark wood bedroom furniture.

5: Paint the Compartments Different Colors

Multi Colored Bookshelf Compartments
Multi-Colored Bookshelf Compartments (#5: Getty Images)

This is more of a dramatic effect that works well with bright colors – but more subtle colors can work well too.

You can go beyond a simple repaint, half-paint, or contrasting paint effect and actually mix and match 3 or 4 different interior colors.

Since bookshelves have dividers that actually make the shelves, you can paint each inside section a different color to maximize the impact.

How to Get The Look

If you have more than two compartments within your bookshelf, paint each one a separate color.

In my experience, slightly different colors of a similar scheme work okay, but bright colors work better.

I would have some primary colors as my go-to, but this largely depends on the theme of your room.

If colors such as blue, red, and yellow are too bright, you can mix the colors with some white paint to diffuse them slightly.

This still provides the color, but it’s less intense.

For minimalistic themes, choose darker colors such as grey, brown, and black and use them instead, as bright colors would ruin the theme of the room.

Click here to discover how to paint your bedroom with a minimalist color palette.

6: Draw the Eye With an Alternating Pattern

Bookshelves With Alternating Pattern
Bookshelves With Alternating Pattern (#6: Getty Images)

If you want to challenge yourself and improvise your painting skills, I think you would benefit from painting an alternating pattern on your bookshelf with two contrasting paints.

You can really achieve some great looks by challenging your painting skills.

A simple contrasting pattern, such as either horizontal or vertical stripes, is a perfect way to challenge yourself and also achieve an aesthetic paint effect for your bookshelf.

It’s also a great way to add some subtle pattern aesthetics into your room if you feel that the room is lacking.

You can apply the striped effect to the entire back wall (as shown in the image above) or just the interior section.

How to Get The Look

Pick opposite colors that suit the theme of your room – since contrast is important for an alternating pattern effect to work effectively.

If you’re feeling confident, then you could paint the outside of your bookshelf.

But beware: there’s more chance that if you have any mishaps, it’ll be more obvious to visitors.

That’s why I suggest painting the inside of the shelf, as this will be more subtle and slight – where painting errors won’t be immediately obvious.

Simply paint vertical or horizontal stripes and make sure to use thin brushes when doing the side of each line.

Or, you can just use striped wallpaper on the back wall as a quick hack to avoid having to paint lines!

Click here to discover the 4 dangers of sleeping in a freshly painted room.

7: Apply a Wood Stain For a Darker Look

Bookcase With a Dark Wood Stain
Bookcase With a Dark Wood Stain (#7: Pexels)

If your room has plenty of wooden furniture in it – or if you don’t want too much color on your bookshelf – you can apply wood stain instead of bright paints.

Wood stain on its own is a great way to finish any wooden furniture, and I personally think it’s superior to varnish or oils when it comes to wood finishes.

Darker stains are more formal and suitable for most rooms, but lighter stains provide a more spacious feeling in the room and aren’t as dramatic.

So it’s down to preference what stain you use.

How to Get The Look

Once you know what stain you want, simply take a medium-sized brush, and gently apply stain to your bookshelf.

I suggest using stain on the inside of the bookshelf, but you could also apply stain to the outside if you wish.

If you’re feeling brave, you could perhaps contrast dark and light wood stains, as this would provide an effective contrast.

In my experience, the best dark wood stain is walnut, and the best light wood stain is oak.

Click here to find out how to paint a small bedroom a dark color properly.

8: Create a Burnt Wood Effect for a Natural Look

Blowtorched Wooden Bookshelves
Blowtorched Wooden Bookshelves (#8: Andrei Ureche)

If you like the idea of stain but you’d like to customize the look more, then you can create an aesthetic, more natural-looking burnt wood effect for your bookshelves by carefully blowtorching the wood.

The burnt wood effect is a common aesthetic that is prominent in woodworking projects, especially smaller, more decorative projects.

I personally have made a couple of projects in which I’ve created a faint burnt wood effect for a more natural finish, and I think it brings an entirely new feel to a project if done correctly.

You might need to practice on scrap wood first, but it’s not too difficult.

How to Get The Look

Firstly, take a small blowtorch or burner and make uneven marks across the wood, making sure you don’t get too close to the wood.

Gradually vary how close the blowtorch gets to the wood whilst burning to provide some variation in burn strength, and once done, remove any soot with a cloth.

After this, take a dark stain and gently brush it horizontally across the bookshelf, firstly on the inside panels and then on the outside surfaces.

Make sure to create a thin layer of stain so that it’s streaky and uneven, as this makes it look more natural.

Proceed to keep it light, but then switch to a smaller brush and make some sideways streaks by twisting your brush around as you go across.

This will create a basic burnt wood effect and your bookshelf will have a more natural look to it.

Click here for 20 relaxing bedroom decor ideas for small rooms.

9: Add Wooden Panels and Stain for a Rustic Effect

Rustic Bookshelves
Rustic Bookshelves (#9: Getty Images Pro)

Carrying on with the wood theme, you could add some new panels to the inside of the shelf for another pleasing wood aesthetic.

You can use additional wood panels as a decorative touch as long as there is enough surrounding paint or stain to compliment it.

Otherwise, it will just make a project look like it’s unfinished.

So, I suggest putting wooden panels on the inside of the shelves but staining the unit beforehand with a darker stain.

That will not only create a contrasting effect, but it will also emphasize the wooden panels as a decorative feature.

How to Get The Look

To achieve this look, simply take a dark stain of your choice and apply it to the bookshelf.

I suggest staining the whole bookshelf, but you could simply stain the shelves instead.

Once done, let it dry and then cut down some light wood panels (such as pine or oak) so that they measure a couple of inches across and are either ½” or 1” thick.

Then, using some wood glue, vertically place these panels onto the back of the bookshelf.

I think this is a great idea for wooden furniture, as it really does bring out the natural feel of the wood whilst remaining decorative and effective.

Click here for a 7 step guide to building a wardrobe out of plywood.

10: Use Spray Paint For a Quick Fix

Spray Painted Bookshelves
Spray Painted Bookshelves (#10: Getty Images)

If you don’t want to spend all day doing up your bookshelf, or if you’re looking for a quick way to paint your bookshelves, then spray paint is the way forward!

Not only is it quick, but you can actually get really creative with spray paint too, so it’s been a personal favorite of mine in past woodworking projects.

How to Get The Look

 You can spray-paint your entire bookshelf if you like, but I suggest actually taking your shelves out and spray painting the rest, as this has proved to be a really effective feature in my experience.

Or you could also vary how close you get to the bookshelf whilst you’re applying the spray paint all over, as this will create light and dark patches which could also look good on your bookshelf.

If you want to mix and match spray paints you can, but this isn’t very formal in my opinion, and only works in brighter rooms.

The choice is yours, but spray paint provides some durability and creativity that you can use to decorate your bookshelf in whatever arty way you see fit.

Click here to see how to build a loft bed for adults in 7 steps.

11: Splatter the Shelf With Paint to Create an Artistic Aesthetic

Paint Spattered Bookshelves
Paint Spattered Bookshelves (#11: Getty Images Pro)

This is probably the easiest option of the lot, and you might think it sounds odd at first, but bear with me!

The splatter approach is what I simply call the art of grabbing a few brushes, putting out a few different colored paint trays (maybe 3 or 4 different colors), and simply throwing the paint onto a piece of furniture.

How to Get The Look

Now this might seem messy, I mean you’re just throwing paint everywhere, right?

Whilst this is true, there’s an art to doing this, and it’s actually an entirely separate design feature in itself.

Unpainted pieces of furniture can benefit nicely from splashed paint, but it is a very specific aesthetic – so it’s not going to work in all room types.

I haven’t seen it much in my experience with painting and woodworking, but I do know for a fact that in brighter rooms with more dramatic colors (green, blue, red, etc) this works perfectly.

It would be perfect for a child’s room, and you could even get them involved in it too, so it’s fun all-round.

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12: Combine Wallpaper and Paint to Create a Unique Look

Painted Bookshelves On Wallpaper Design
Painted Bookshelves On Wallpaper Design (#12: Getty Images)

Considering the piece of furniture, using wallpaper might seem like a strange choice, but there have been plenty of people – including myself – who have used wallpaper as a decorative feature for past furniture pieces.

This typically involves just taking a sheet or two and only applying wallpaper to a section of the furniture rather than the whole thing, and that’s why it’s perfect for bookshelves.

On top of that, you have such a variety of wallpaper available – so you can pick the one that jumps out to you the most, or that will fit your room the best.

How to Get The Look

Once you’ve picked a suitable wallpaper, simply cut it down to the right size and place it on the bookshelf wherever you like.

I suggest placing the wallpaper on the inside and not on the shelf panels themselves, as this creates an effective background for your bookshelf.

Putting it on the outside wouldn’t be as effective in my opinion, so instead apply a paint which will blend nicely with the theme of your room.

This means that the bookshelf still fits in the room and is the right color scheme on the outside, but it has a more decorative, creative interior.

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13: Whitewash for a Clean and Fresh Look

Whitewashed Bookshelf Design
Whitewashed Bookshelf Design (#13: Getty Images Pro)

Plenty of wooden furniture pieces in the homes of people I know have been whitewashed, and it just brings a more natural look than basic white paint, as well as making it look fresher too.

It would be perfect for older bookshelves that you wish to re-do or renovate, but it would work on a new one too.

How to Get The Look

If you have dark colors in your room, this wouldn’t be that effective, but if you have lighter colors or an undramatic theme/style then whitewashing is a great solution.

You can do this by mixing water-based paint with water at a 1:2 ratio – or you can add more water depending on the thickness of the white paint you wish to have.

Add a few cups of limewash and some salt, and you’re good to go.

You could also buy some from a store.

Personally, I would whitewash the entire bookshelf or at least the outside, perhaps leaving the inside panels a darker color to provide an effective contrast.

Whitewashing has a bit of a knack to it, so make sure to practice on some spare wood or surfaces first.

This way, you can get the practice in without the risk of ruining your bookshelf.

Click here to learn how to build your own space-saving Murphy bed in 7 steps.

14: Create Your Own Pattern to Make it More Personal

Custom Bookshelf Design
Custom Bookshelf Design (#14: Getty Images Signature)

If none of these options are jumping out to you, then I think it would be better to make the design more personal and take the creativity into your own hands.

Consider your favorite patterns or designs that you might have seen or that might have inspired you, and simply have a go with some paint to reflect that onto your bookshelf.

This really brings out the creative aspect to bookshelves and makes it more personal to you, so you can’t go wrong with it.

If you don’t like the pattern you have, simply paint over it and start again!

How to Get The Look

If you’re going to paint your bookshelf to match your own custom pattern, then I would start on the inside so that it’s less visible to visitors.

Once you know you’re happy, I suggest putting most of your patterns on the outside of the bookshelf because, in my experience, a personal pattern or design is more effective when it’s at its most obvious.

Your custom patterns could be as simple as a repeated sequence of different patterns, or it could even be some drawings or shapes that are unique to you or your room.

For some inspiration, there are a couple of patterns above.

Find out how much a space-saving Murphy bed costs here.

15: Embellish With Designs to Add Detail and Elegance

Embellished Hexagonal Bookshelf Design
Embellished Hexagonal Bookshelf Design (#15: Nuktdphotos)

If you can’t think of a custom design for your entire bookshelf, don’t worry!

You can easily embellish a bookshelf with a few designs to make it stand out.

In my opinion, small decorative features are actually better off being subtle and in such a way that it’s not overdone/taking over the bookshelf.

There are no rules here so you can do whatever you like – you don’t even need to use paint!

For example, the above picture shows how alternating the wood grain can create a stylish look.

How to Get The Look

Open up your creative side and practice drawing a few decorative features on paper, and you could even use a stencil to get them onto your bookshelf.

If not, once you have your designs all you need to do is use some paint to get them onto the bookshelf, so just make sure to do this with a smaller brush and it shouldn’t be too tricky.

I suggest placing a couple of patterns inside the shelf, and then a few on the sides – just don’t overdo it otherwise it will stop being subtle and will easily take over the room.

Up next: how to decorate a small bedroom in 8 steps.


Image Attribution and Licencing

All images used with permission under the terms of Canva’s One Design Use License Agreement – individual attribution as follows:

Main image: ‘Creative Bookshelf Design With Armchair by asbe (Getty Images Signature).

Image #1: ‘Bookcases With Paintings on Top’ by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz (Getty Images).

Image #2: ‘Colorful Bookshelves’ by clu (Getty Images Signature).

Image #3: ‘Empty Bookcase’ by borzywoj (Getty Images).

Image #4: ‘MinimalistWooden Book Shelves’ by Free-Photos (Pixabay).

Image #5: ‘Living Room With Colorful Sofa and Bookcase’ by archideaphoto (Getty Images).

Image #6: ‘Three Square Yellow Shelves on a Striped Wall’ by Alexey Shipilov (Getty Images).

Image #7: ‘Interior of Room With Bookshelves and Table’ by Max Valhtbovych (Pexels).

Image #8: ‘Old Dirty Wood Texture’ by Andrei Ureche.

Image #9: ‘Mock Up Poster, Bookshelf on White Wooden Wall’ by RakicN (Getty Images).

Image #10: ‘Empty Bookshelves’ by Eurobanks (Getty Images).

Image #11: ‘Paint Splatter’ by BradCalkins (Getty Images Pro).

Image #12: ‘Bookcase Wallpaper Background’ by Otakeja (Getty Images).

Image #13: ‘Shelf’ by Robertsrob (Getty Images Pro).

Image #14: ‘Creative Bookshelf Design With Armchair’ by asbe (Getty Images Pro).

Image #15: ‘Wooden Honeycomb Bookshelf’ by Nuktdphotos.

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