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Italian style of Decorative Painting

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


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

The first use of painting for purely decorative purposes can be attributed to the Italians; examples of their earliest work still survive among the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The distinguishing features of the Italian style is its very loose, painterly technique, highly decorative and theatrical renderings, and translucent use of color.

In the case of marble, for instance, the goal is to achieve the impression or effect of a marble, rather than to precisely render its specific physical characteristics. While evoking a certain type of marble, an Italian-style rendering would be executed with the highest degree of spontaneity, so that the resulting finish might almost seem a product of the imagination. Despite its loose and spontaneous technique, the Italian style should not be considered amateurish, or even more accessible to amateur painters. On the contrary, it requires a great deal of expertise; because this style of finish does not exploit a realistic surface design, it must rely solely on a skillful use of color and composition to create the illusion.

Italian-style finishes are generally rendered in water-based paints, painted on light or white grounds, and executed in very few steps, often without overglazing. On close observation, brush and sponge marks and dripped paint are visible in a completed finish, but from a distance the work is convincing. The lightness of color and effect makes them well suited for large surfaces and spaces, and permits the use of brighter and more colorful palettes.

The Italian style also has an element of fun. It is said that the most accomplished Italian-style decorative painters concealed drawings of horses’ heads, birds, and other animals within the veining of their marble finishes so they could have fun at the expense of their unknowing viewers. At the Brighton Pavilion in England, for example, one of the rooms is painted with the imaginary “dragon wood,” in whose grain the drawing of a dragon’s head can barely be distinguished.

The Italian approach is still widely used by European decorative painters, primarily for its spectacular decorative effect, which is particularly effective in large rooms and with theatrical decor.