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History Of The Decorative Painter

Learn more about the history of the decorative painter with artisan Pierre Finkelstein of Pierre Finkelstein Institute of Decorative Painting.  This article covers the entire history from the prehistoric era up to the 21st century. 


Many of you already know some of the highlighted times of the “artist” in history (i.e.  Renaissance, Romanticism, Modern Art era’s).  But these next few posts focus on the highlighted times of the decorative painting “artisan”.

What is the difference between an artist and an artisan?  Well, it could sound like they’re one in the same, but there is a difference that has widened and narrowed through the ages.   

  • An artisan is a skilled tradesman who specializes in making things by hand in the field of the arts. 
  • A decorative painter is considered an artisan.  An artist has a level of expression that is not tied to a contract from a client.

Let’s go through history to show how the artisan-ship of the decorative painter has evolved.


Humans have always decorated the walls of their shelters. In prehistoric times, the first artists used just a few earth pigments bound with animal fat to paint the walls of their caves with scenes of hunting and daily life, either for ritual purposes or simply to enhance their surroundings.

In ancient Egypt, artists painted the walls of tombs and sarcophagi with a still-limited palette of earth pigments using waxes and gums as binders.

The ancient Romans invented mural painting, mixing their earth and plant-based pigments with water-based binders to paint frescoes featuring faux moldings, marbleizing, and other forms of ornamentation.

The ancient Greek palette also included primary colors, which they used to decorate their temples.


During the Middle Ages (5th to 15th century), we saw the creation of the first guilds. Guilds were a powerful associations of craftsmen designed to aid the members and provide standards in quality.  Typically, it was women who ran the guilds by doing the books and managing members. Guilds will find success up until the 19th century.


As far as content, decorative painting consisted primarily of religious iconography and scenes from courtly life adorning walls in churches and castles. The palette was still limited but continued to expand. The most common binders in use at that time were resins, gums, casein, and animal-based sizes or glues.

By the late Middle Ages, the use of fresco was on the rise, and an oil-based paint similar to the artists’ oils that are still used today had been invented, a development that is attributed to 15th-century Flemish artists Jan and Hubert van Eyck.


The Renaissance (13th to 16th century) was considered a “boom” of decorative art. The elite and churches wanted to flaunt their power and wealth with decorative painting. Therefore, artists were commissioned to create a large amount of artwork on walls and ceilings. Murals, trompe l’oeil, ornaments, grotesca, and gilding were techniques that were typically combined and commissioned to a single artist. The work was contracted and billed ahead of time, which made the artists of those days, “artisans”. The artisan guilds were at their heyday. If you were an “artisan” you we’re either an owner of an artisan shop (master) or working for one in preparations for your future (apprentice). Master artisans were very successful and learned to delegate work to their apprentices’.

As far as mediums in the Renaissance era, the binder in oil paints was further refined, related products such as driers were developed, and the palette was expanded with the development of the first chemically derived pigments. In Italy, the fresco technique reached lofty heights with the work of such luminaries as Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, as well as the Italian decorative painting masters who created some of the best examples of trompe l’oeil architectural details and ornaments. As seen below, these artists were looking for any level of free expressionism and many felt stifled by contract work.  


During the 17-19th centuries, the craft of decorative painting deserves the title as “The age of Enlightenment” as it exploded in popularity along with fantastic technological advancements that would shape the artisan trade as we know it.

As a continuum of the end of the Renaissance, the European aristocracy flaunted their wealth in sumptuous styles of decorative painting.  Masterful gilding, marbleizing, trompe l’oeil moldings, and grisaille ornaments could be seen in such magnificent residences as the Palace of Versailles.   These residences of kings, dignitaries, and churches employed a large number of decorative artisans. See also: The Palace of Versailles – Part 1, Gilding, Real Marble, Faux Marble, Real Ornament

There was an absolute fascination for the classical style.  Interiors were elaborately painted with multiple colors and intricacy that became the norm.  Since the interior rooms were decorated with more patina’s, striping, and ornate millwork, the “artists” began to transition to the easel paintings and were less utilized as “artisans” for interiors (although there were an abundance of murals on ceilings and hand-painted scenes in panels).

The decorative painting artisan began to depend on “house painting” as a trade.   Interiors walls were painted with the first house paint made of pigment and rabbit skin glue.  It was often thick and dried fast, so there were “ropey” brush marks that are indicative of these times.


Lacquer objects were first imported into Europe from China and Japan during the 16th century, and European methods of lacquering and varnishing were invented in the early 17th century.   Oil paint formulations were updated once more, and the primacy of oil painting, which was maintained by artists like Poussin, was continued into the 18th century by the likes of Chardin and Boucher. At this time, transparent watercolor and gouache first flourished as fine-arts media.


During the 19th century, decorative painting reached glorious heights.

From up until the 1820’s, the Empire style, which was popular not only in France but throughout most of Europe, was the second phase of the Neoclassicism design movement.  This style made extensive use of marbleizing, wood graining, trompe l’oeil moldings and architectural ornaments, stenciling, metal patinas, and all manner of simulated textures and patinas.  The burgeoning middle and upper classes began decorating their homes lavishly, rivaling the elegance that was once reserved for nobility.  Wealthy industrialists in Europe and the United states began buying or building palaces that they filled with decorative painting.

In America, this style was known as the Federal style which was based on Roman Empirical design.  Public buildings, stores, and restaurants were painted to impress.
This movement created such a demand for decorative painting that schools were founded and professional standards and practices were established by such prominent decorative artists like Thomas Kershaw in England.

The training was rigorous and intense.  Children started at 13 years old and trained and apprenticed for 50-60 hours a week –  minimum.  At these schools, very little emphasis was placed on murals or landscapes, but much more on woodgraining, marbleizing, glazing, striping, ornament, trompe l’oeil, gilding, and sign painting.   With this surge of training, came a wonderful distribution of books, trade magazines, and folios for the decorative painter.

This is the best part, for me – I collect any that I can get my hands on!
This demand also fostered the emergence and growth of art materials manufacturing of paints, varnishes, brushes, and other tools.  These materials were once made by individual artisan companies, but were now mass produced, with paints and varnishes sold in tubes and cans.  Advancements in paint chemistry produced new pigments such as ultramarine blue and vermillion.

In fine-art painting, the work and techniques of Academy-trained artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and David were dominant prior to the rise in the late 19th century of the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionists, including Monet, Renoir, Seurat, Pissarro, and Van Gogh.    These fine artists who were classically trained but rejected the academic dogmas of previous centuries.

These artist began to create for themselves, without a contract, and then exhibit the works.  Of course, as we know, many of these artists died poor and unappreciated while alive.  But they were such trail-blazers that in a matter of 50 years, they managed to undo 3,000 years of norms and officially became artists and not “artisans”.

If Pierre could go in a time machine to any era, he’d land himself in mid, 19th century France or New York.  What a great time for decorative painters (not so great for life expectancy, though)!


The interest in and growth of decorative painting continued into the early 20th century; most notably, the Art Deco style of the 1920’s and 30’s employed stenciling, gilding and wood graining extensively.

The first wallpaper goes back to the early Egyptian times (they called it papyrus).  But, it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that it became easily mass-produced.  Wallpaper pasting machines, silkscreen machines, and cellulose paste powder were all invented in the first half of the century.  The 1920’s was considered the “Golden Age of Wallpaper”.  (learn more about wallpaper history)
The paint roller, another critical innovation, was invented in 1940.  Norman Breakley of Toronto, Canada was the inventor, but never was able to produce it.   It was Richard Croxton Adams who held the first US Patent on the paint roller while working for Sherwin-Williams.

MID 1940’s

As post-war reconstruction began in Europe, there was very little preservation of buildings and interiors.

The classical style that was coveted for centuries was rejected and a new, Modern Era design and architecture began to thrive.  Interiors tended to be cleaner, simpler and without any of the elaborate architecture that was made popular in the 1920’s with the Art Deco Movement.

Houses and public spaces were built with speed and a clean design.

New materials such as formica, plastic, and sheetrock were desired and affordable.  (sheetrock was actually invented in 1916 as “Sackett Board” but didn’t really catch on until the late 40’s).

Latex house paint was first placed on the market in 1948 by Glidden.  This was a well-received product where traditional oil-based house paints of those times were a struggle to apply.  The wallpaper industry was revolutionized with the appearance of plastic resins which supplied the world with washable and durable materials.

Therefore, the decorative artisan has been replaced by the house painter and clean architecture.  They are used only for restoration of classical architecture.
After World War II the fine-artists’ classical style also declined to its lowest point, a result of the rejection of academic standards of aesthetics and traditional painting techniques in favor of innovative styles and techniques practiced by such influential artists as Picasso and Matisse.  Innovation in products such as artist acrylic paint (1946-49 formulated by Leonard Bocour and Sam Golden as Magna Paint).  Fine artists had wonderful fast-drying mediums to work with which led to a boom for the fine artist in the 1960’s.  The US saw record sales for pop and abstract art with the use of new mediums and a forming artist culture.

THE 1980’S

In the 1980’s, decorative painting experienced a slight rebirth and embraced a range of styles, including a return to classical decor – post-modernist architecture.  In the United States, the large outdoor mural was developed, then scaled down and adapted for homes, restaurants, and corporate lobbies.  (the next 2 murals are by John Pugh)

With the wide availability of digital vinyl lettering, the hand-painted sign business sharply declined, but the art of lettering has still managed to stay strong in the niche market of restoration.
The popularity of hyper-realist painting by artists such as Chuck Close opened a door for the decorative painter.

Creating a realistic painted renderings offered work for the decorative artisan who could use trompe l’oeil techniques to offer visual trickery.
Decorative painting schools were very scarce in the US, but there were still a handful in Europe who offered a degree.  In 1985, I attended the Van der Kellen Institute in Brussels, Belgium for a 6-month curriculum.

2000 to 2007

Where decorative painting schools were scarce in the 1980’s and 90’s, many began popping up, offering a wide range of products including textures, stencils, and varnishes.  Books were being written for the professional decorative artisan along with the emerging DIY market.  Two from yours truly, Recipes for Surfaces and The Art of Faux.

In the US, classes were offered (3 days to 2 weeks at a time) that taught finishes that were created by using certain product.  These schools became extremely popular and product was flying off the shelves.  Students left the short classes with extensive portfolios of multi-colored textures, hand troweled plasters, and wall glazes thus defining the “faux finish” market.  In most cities and towns,  middle-class America was flooded with faux finishers who were trained to create looks “out of a bucket”.   This became a popular career choice for those who considered themselves artistic, good at “do it yourself”, and wanting a change from a previous career.  The market quickly became flooded and caused prices to drop in order for artisans to compete with those with the same portfolio.

2007 TO TODAY:

In 2007, the real-estate market crashed and the middle-class was severely effected.  Since the middle-class and newly rich was the bread and butter of the faux finishing market, many of the newly established artisans went out of business – along with many of the product-based schools who saw such success in the previous decade.
For the past 7 years, it has been only the decorative artisan who has the more developed skill-set that has survived the brutal slump in consumer spending.  Through his arsenal of skills,  he has been able to find work with the upper-class and classic renovations to make ends meet.

Although schools are still scarce in the US and Europe, there is a heightened interest in the classic techniques that have survived the centuries of decorative artisans.  Those classic techniques are:  Marbleizing, wood graining, glazing & patina, striping, gilding, sign painting, organic texture, plaster texture, fresco, trompe l’oeil, stenciling, and murals.