Jul 12, 2009

Introduction to Decorative painting

By Nina Owens

Decorative Painting is a general term used to describe a wide variety of visual and textural effects. It has come to include both Folk Art and Tole Painting. The term encompasses a broad range of techniques throughout history on a myriad of surfaces. It has been done in one form or another on interior or exterior architectural surfaces, furniture, or other decorative and functional objects. Modern decorative painting technique is based on a rich history of painted effect from many eras and a multitude of cultures.

Tole comes from the Old French taule which refers to iron or steel in thin sheets laminated or welded under pressure. Traditionally Tole Painting referred to painting on items made from this thin metal. Tole came to mean to paint on tin and the term Tole Painting came into popular usage. Although we paint on many types of surfaces today Decorative Painting is interchangeably known as Tole Painting.

Folk Art commonly referred to the art of ordinary people. Folk art was traditionally produced by rural and working class people in their spare time. Folk artists learned techniques often passed on from one generation to the next. The main intent of folk art is to add color and decoration to everyday items such as furniture and utensils.


Since the early ages humans have felt a desire to express themselves and their environments through artistic endeavors. Decorative painting has been practiced on every continent in a wide variety of styles.

The African folk art can be traced in the caves of the Sahara desert. The earliest forms depict the people, tools, activities of daily life and many of the familiar African animals.

Many items were decorated to reflect social status or simply for their aesthetic appeal.

China has a history of decorative painting that spans over two thousand years. Chinese art influence its neighbors, Japan, Korea and Thailand. Throughout Asia, fans, umbrellas, boxes, bowls, trays and screens were commonly decorated. Wooden pieces were coated with lacquer for strength and protection.

The Aztec and Mayans decorated the pyramids and temples with brightly painted sculptural reliefs and large frescoes of mythical animals. They created pictorial manuscripts painted on deerskin or bark paper filled with images of gods, ruler and warriors.

The Islamic style of decorative painting stretched from North Africa, Spain, Egypt, Turkey and Iran to as far as Indonesia. Strong colors were used to adorn clothing, items of daily use, houses and mosques. The carving of images or idols was forbidden by the Koran and with practice extended to painting. Since artists were not permitted to paint figures which cast shadows, they did not use shading to imply dimension. They used pure color which have a brilliant, enamel-like finish. Religious rulings encouraged painting of patterns and abstract designs. Most natural motifs are stylized rather than realistic.

The Greeks and Romans of the Mediterranean area concentrated on ceramics rather than wood or furniture items. Tiles are not only used on the floor, but also on chests, walls, fountains and window boxes.

Decorative painting was introduced to the European countries from the Middle and Far East. The French chinoiserie pieces were decorated in imitation of Chinese art. They added feathery curves and embellishments creating the fanciful style known as rococo. The French kings enjoyed displaying their wealth on the walls, furniture and furnishings of the castles. The artists of the provinces copied the Parisian style. As the art filtered down to the common people, less expensive wood was not suitable for carving, so it was simply painted with geometric designs and rosettes.

Many of the European, Slavic and Scandinavian folk art styles are well known all over the world. Bauernmalerei, developed in Bavaria, Austria and Switzerland, was originally used to enhance cheaper woods and conceal flaws. It translates as farmer painting, though most pieces were painted by traveling artisans or cabinet makers.

Swedish folk artist used linework and strokes to define flowers and leaves. Not only did they paint furniture and doors, but also room panels. These were painted on cloth or heavy paper which was attached to the wall. Biblical scenes with the figures in the local dress of the time were a favored theme to offer a pictures of the scriptures for the illiterate.

Meanwhile in Norway, Rosemaling, or rose painting developed. This style is characterized by roses and scrolls with shading and linework. It brightened the decor of homes where families spent long, dark winters. Eventually entire rooms were covered with rosemaling. There are three distinct types of roselmaling, Baroque, with symmetrical designs and bold colors, Telemark, flowing with intricate shading and linework and Rogaland, influenced by the Oriental trading vessels, with dark backgrounds and cross-hatching.

Hindeloopen was first influenced by the Norwegian styles, but soon developed its own characteristics. Chinese porcelain and chintz fabrics influenced the basic style. Designs were painted using three colors, a main color, shade color and a highlight.

Slavic folk art includes wall paintings of the Ukrain, Zhostova floral paintings and the lacquerware developed in the Volga region of Russia. Russian folk lore and fairytales were depicted on miniature lacquer pieces. Churches were filled with icons, representing religious figures.

English canalboats were decorated with roses and romantic landscapes, complete with castles and turrets. This style became known as Roses and Castles or English Canalboat. It is thought to be influenced by Romany gypsies and Dutch folk art or the japanned tinware painted in Birmingham, England.

With the influx of immigrants to America came artisans who infused the old styles with new techniques in an effort to express the New World around them. In addition to decorating furniture and tin, the medium was soon expanded to include almost any surface imaginable. Tole and decorative painting might be more properly defined as "folk" or "craft" painting in that it incorporates different styles and cultures from around the globe, encompassing everything from the primitive to fine art. Modern tole, it could be said, is actually an artistic record of what humans find of value in their day-to-day lives.

The early Decorative Artists took their inspiration from American Folk Art of the 1800's. They also looked toward Europe for European style folk art such as:Zhostova, Bavarian Folk Art, and Rosmaling. These designs were adapted and put forth in instructional books, with color photographs of the projects, for the Decorative Art student. Folk Art is still one of the most popular styles of painting today. The color palette may follow today’s trends but the techniques are still the same as used by the early folk artists.

In the 1990's as Decorative Painting has become more stylized, the variety of techniques and styles are as varied as the artist, from the most primitive to the most exquisite.

There is a lot of confusion about the term "tole painting" vs. "decorative painting".

While it is reasonably easy to trace the definition of the word "tole" from a dictionary, it is less easy to define what the term means today. Adding to this difficulty is that this style of "decorative painting" flourishes in different "niches" around the world. (For example, Russian Folk Art, such as Zhostova, continues to be produced in it's birthplace, and Russian artists are influencing American decorative painters.) This art form has many influences from the past, from numerous countries, and is constantly evolving. As a result, it is difficult to pin it down a definition.

Decorative painting in North America has been driven by it's immigrant roots. Certain areas of the US are more heavily influenced by German or Norwegian folk art, for example. It has only been since the introduction of painting books, largely since 1970, that folk art tole and decorative painting has become more generic in the US. Prior to the 1970's, if you could find someone to teach this art form at all, you would have learned Rosemaling or Bauernmalerei or one of the Colonial based painting techniques based upon historic patterns (etc.), but rarely would you find a teacher that could teach generic decorative painting (drawing from a variety of techniques, products, surfaces and styles) as most painters learn it today.

Adding to the confusion over the term "tole" is that "toleware" is a very specific kind of decorative painted, highly varnished product -- usually made from metal.

I think that we can say that "tole painting" is a form of folk art painting based upon a teachable method of specific strokes and techniques. Those same skills are also used in other forms of folk art (decorative) painting, including specific regional techniques such as Rosemaling or Zhostova (etc.), and more recently evolved "melting pot" techniques. Tole and Decorative painting is generally done on walls, furniture or useful objects.

The term "tole painting" has evolved become interchangeable with "decorative painting" in common usage, rather than solely a reference to it's historical usage as painting on metal.


ACRYLIC - Pigment (paint) that comes in hundreds of colors and is usually pre-mixed with water. Generally they are pre-mixed and all ready to use. Some acrylics come in tubes -- sometimes pure pigment color and not pre-mixed. Acrylic paint can be cleaned up with soap and water.

BASECOAT - Apply a solid color on your background or solidly fill in a particular object or area in the design.

BASIC PALETTE -- the main colors an artist usually always works with (see "Palette)

BRUSHES - a variety of brushes are used in Tole Painting/Decorative Painting and each type of brush comes in a variety of sizes. Basic brushes include:

Round Brush
The hairs of the brush are rounded at the bottom but they come up to a point -- almost like a "droplet" of water.
This brush has long, thin bristles and this brush can be used to "line" itmes in a painting and is also useful for painting long, slender tendrils in a floral bouquet or for writing. Very graceful, delicate lines can be produced with this brush.
Flat Brush
The tips of a flat brush is just that -- flat and straight across. Flat brushes are used most effectively for shading and highlighting.
Angle Brush
Basically is a "flat" brush but the top of the bristles are cut at an angle. Also used for shading and highlighting.
Specialty brushes include:
Mop brushes (which have a very full and fluffy head on them) used to "mop" or blend paint, Fan brushes (great for painting "grass") and Deerfoot brushes (which work well for animal fur or "stippling")
CHACO PAPER - a special paper which when a pattern is placed on top of it will transfer water soluable lines onto wood or tin,etc. to provide a pattern to paint. A "stylus" is used most effectively for this type of transfer.

DRY BRUSH - Technique utilizing a "dry" brush, with no water. Achieved by dipping brush in paint, blending on a palette and then removing most of the paint from the brush using paper towel before applying the color to the surface. This technique is often used when applying "highlights".

EXTENDER - Acrylic paints dry very quickly and "extender" is used to mix in with the paint to extend the drying time. It has a very thin consistency and is manufactured by several compnies and is clear in color.

FLIP FLOAT -- (also called a reverse-float) Apply one "sideload" of color on your surface. Then flip the brush over and lay the paint side of the brush right next to the previously applied paint and paint a second line back to back with the first float.

FLOAT COLOR - (also known as "floating" or "side-loading") Wet your brush with water or Extender. Remove most of the water from your brush by touching it on a piece of paper towel. Then touch one edge of the brush against the puddle of paint on your palette and stroke back and forth with your brush until there is a soft gradation of color from the paint on one side of the brush to clear water on the other side.

GLAZING - Painting technique involving a layer of paint applied on top of a painting that is already dry. The paint is mixed with water, glazing medium or exetnder and brushed over the area. This tends to soften the color already painted on.

GOUACHE - a type of acrylic paint (usually opaque) that is similar to regular acrylic paint but has a longer "blending" time. Clean up with soap and water.

GRAPHITE - a special paper which when a pattern is placed on top of it will copy lines onto wood or tin, etc. to provide a pattern to paint. A "stylus" is used most effectively for this type of transfer.

HIGHLIGHT -- Highlight has more than one meaning in decorative painting. It is used as both a descriptive word and an action word. As a descriptive word it means, The point on an object that receives the most light. This highlight area varies on each object depending on the direction of the light source and also the shape of the object (i.e. whether it is cylindrical, round, square, etc. As an action word, it refers to the action of highlighting. In decorative painting, floating and drybrushing are the most common ways to "highlight".

PALETTE -- the colors an artist uses to paint a particular project (See "basic palette). Term also used to denote the physical place where painter's keep their paints while working on a project.

PALETTE PAPER - a special paper (usually purchased by the pad) which has a very shiny (like wax paper) surface on one side. Because the surface is water repellant, the paint does not penetrate the paper. (See "wet palette")

PITTY-PAT OR PAT BLEND: This is a process whereby you can "soften" colors next to each other to remove a stark line between colors -- or can be used to put one color on top of another (i.e. in the case of putting a "highlight" on an object.) The brush is lifted up on down onto the surface between each stroke, often in an "X" pattern.

REVERSE FLOAT -- (also called a flip-float) Apply one "sideload" of color on your surface. Then flip the brush over and lay the paint side of the brush right next to the previously applied paint and paint a second line back to back with the first float.

SHADE: The opposite of "highlight". To shade is to apply a darker color to those areas of an object or picture that is receiving less light from the light source. Shading a part of an object also appears to make that object recede or it can make an object have contour (i.e. make an object appear "rounded" for example).

STIPPLING -- Usually a "deerfoot" or round brush is used although an old, worn out flat brush work well too. Spread the hairs of the brush out on your palette and dip into some paint. Take most of the color off your brush onto a piece of paper towel and then "dab" or "tap" on the color on your piece using very light strokes perpendicular to the painted surface.

STYLUS - A tool used for transferring your traced design to a prepared surface. It looks like a small wooden handle with a pointed piece of wire at one end with a "ball" on the end of it. A stylus also can make excellent "dots" on your surface.

TRACING PAPER - a special transparent paper which painters use to copy a pattern from a book or other pattern. This tracing is then used with graphite or chaco paper in between it and the surface to be painted as a means to transfer the lines of the pattern onto the surface. Some grades of velum may be used in photocopy machines and printers. However, the most common method of transfer is to simply place the tracing paper over the piece and manually draw the lines onto the tracing paper.

WASH - a wash is a thin, watered-down layer of paint that still allows the background color to come through. A wash can be used effectively to paint a sky in a picture, for example.

WET PALETTE -- usually consists of a small, shallow tray with a tight fitting lid. A thin sponge is provided which is to be saturated with water and laid into the tray. A special "palette paper" is pre-soaked for an hour or so and then one sheet is placed on top of the wet sponge material. Place your acrylic paint colors on top of this and the moisture from the sponge beneath will keep the paint from drying out. When you are finished, place the lid tight on top of the tray and your paint will stay useable for days. This is especially useful if you are mixing colors together. You can mix enough to do your whole project and it will stay fresh inside the tray. In warm, dry weather a small spritzer spray bottle can be used to lightly spray water over the top of the palette to keep paints moist.

WET-ON-WET - painting technique applying one color is added on top of another before the first color is dry. For example an apple could be painted red and while still wet a "pitty pat" of yellow or white could be added in the spot where the "highlight" should be. These two colors could then be blended with a very soft, dry brush and it would give a very smooth blend of colors with a soft look.

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