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French Style of Decorative Painting

Learn about the Italian style of decorative painting from Pierre Finkelstein of Pierre Finkelstein Institute of Decorative Painting.


The French style of decorative painting or “school” (which is also sometimes called the English or Belgian school) is one of two major “schools” in history that can be discerned; the other is referred to as the Italian school. Both of these styles can be used to render all types of faux finishes.  See also: The Italian Style

In contrast to the Italian approach, the French style is very precise, with an emphasis on reproducing the physical characteristics of a material almost exactly. The technique is more complex, often involving at least three steps and one or two overglazings, as well as several coats of varnish to give the completed finish depth. Typically, the basecoat is tinted to reflect the general coloration of the final finish, and water and oil media are combined, either as an initial oil-based glaze followed by a water-based glaze, or vice versa. Overall, these finishes are very detailed and tightly rendered.

The use of the term trompe l’oeil to refer to faux wood and marble is derived from this approach, because its finishes are so accurately rendered that the eye is “fooled” into thinking they are real.

The French style is perfect for matching existing finishes that can no longer be found or easily installed. For example, the baseboards in many of the rooms in the Palace of Versailles were marbleized to match the real marble of the mantels. See Also: Palace of Versailles Part 1, Gilding, Faux Marble, Real Marble, Real Ornament



At the height of decorative painting’s popularity during the 19th century, the preference for ornate decor held that rare species of wood should be painted over existing millwork and that plaster columns should be marbleized—and the work was done so well that untrained eyes would be unable to discern that it was painted.

Because of this, the French style was often employed to maintain budgets and working schedules; in fact, during the 18th century it was often easier and less costly to apply a faux finish to existing architectural details than to replace them with real materials that might take years to produce because they were milled by hand. Continuing the trend, many 19th-century restaurants, hotels, museums, and other public interiors were decorated with faux finishes—a highly productive and rewarding period for the craft as well as for many craftsmen.