Steady Wrist: Decorative Painting 101

Written by Michele Wheat


Decorative painting is a traditional folk art that has permeated societies and cultures throughout modern history. By ornamenting commonplace, functional items, practitioners embedded cultural notions of style and beauty in their society. For example, in Norway, artists painted flowers on walls and ceilings, naming their decorative art "rosemaling." Importantly, traditional folk arts have influenced contemporary art forms. For example, miniature models used in role-playing games and board games often borrow painting techniques and design inspiration from decorative painting. A steady wrist is essential to completing finely detailed sections in paintings and working with miniature-scale projects.

What Is Decorative Painting?

Decorative painting is the art or practice of ornamenting objects using a variety of painting techniques. Decorative painting enables artists and practitioners to enhance the artistic appeal of functional objects and their environments. For example, a decorative artist may paint an interior wall of a home with shapes and patterns to augment the tone of an adjacent room. A practitioner may paint simple objects, such as watch bands and other wearable items placed on the wrist, with bright, bold colors or may embellish pottery and cookware with illustrations of birds, trees, and nature scenes.

Decorative painting has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. In Europe, examples of decorative painting appear in medieval and Renaissance sacred and secular artwork, although the distinction between fine art and decorative art is often contested. Cultural expressions are infused throughout decorative paintings, and various branches of this type of art can be linked to societies and geographical areas within Europe and Asia. For example, Bauernmalerei is linked to decorative artists in Switzerland, while tole painting was developed by practitioners in France. Ultimately, decorative painting is an expression of the folk art and culture of the artists. By placing traditional folk art on functional items, decorative artists ensure that their work will permeate society while enhancing their artistic legacy.

Learning Decorative Painting

Decorative painting combines painting, design, and analysis to infuse functional items with cultural expressions. Decorative painting requires a strong understanding of colors, surfaces, spaces, and painting techniques and textures. However, learning decorative painting can be a simple and enjoyable process. For example, consider experimenting with decorative painting by selecting a simple project to complete. You might start by painting a flat object, such as a plate, a knife, or a small section of a wall, with one color or a simple color pattern. Completing the project could inspire confidence while providing a basic understanding of the rudiments of decorative painting. In addition, you might consider enrolling in a painting class to learn more about colors, design, and painting surfaces. Painting classes teach a variety of important techniques, such as ways to maintain stability in the wrist to produce consistent, reliable brush strokes.

Painting on Different Surfaces

Practitioners of decorative painting embellish many types of functional items, such as structural parts of a home like walls, floors, and ceilings. Practitioners also ornament everything from plastic storage containers to silverware. Depending on the material they're painting, artists must modify their techniques in order to ensure that the paint will adhere to the surface. For example, walls may be made out of wood, floors may be constructed from tile, and ceilings may be formed from sheetrock. Based on the types of materials present, painters must take different steps to prepare the surface for painting and may also use different types of paints and different techniques when producing decorative art on each type of surface.

During the historical development of decorative arts, cultures have specialized in producing traditional folk art on particular types of surfaces. For instance, in France, practitioners developed tole painting, the practice of producing ornamental designs on tin and wooden objects. Tole painting is remarkable for its freehand illustrations of flowers, patterns, bright colors, and culturally significant folk themes. Spreading throughout Europe and America, tole paintings can be found on family heirlooms, valuable furniture pieces, and utensils.

Steady Your Wrist: Painting Miniatures

Another common application of decorative art is in painting miniature figurines. Figurines may be made out of plastic, metal, wood, ceramics, or porcelain. Figurines may represent historical or fictional characters and are often used in role-playing activities or board games. Before painting a miniature figurine, an artist may design a color scheme for their model using the historical context of the character being modeled and their imagination. Once the color scheme is selected, artists use a variety of techniques and tools to paint a model. For example, some artists may use supports to aid in keeping the wrist of their painting hand steady as they complete fine-scale detailing. Painting miniatures is a modern application of the traditional folk art of decorative painting, requiring skill and experience for the dedicated artisan to master.