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Tole Painting - Decorative Art Designs w/ Photo Gallery

Decorative art on wood, cut to look like ceramic tiles ~ painted by Patty Sypek/design by Betty Caithness

Decorative art on wood, cut to look like ceramic tiles ~ painted by Patty Sypek/design by Betty Caithness

What does “tole” mean?

The word tole means lacquered or enameled metal-ware.

What is Tole Painting?

Tole painting is a type of decorative art where designs are painted on a variety of mediums such as tin, metal, wood, glass and ceramic. Painted objects can be anything from a vintage tin coffee pot, metal or wood utensils and even larger, modern pieces such as a toy box, hope chest and furniture.

The terms “tole painting” and “decorative painting” are used interchangeably when describing a variety of techniques used to paint functional as well as decorative surfaces.


History of Tole Painting

The practice of tole painting originally referred to painting on tin and began in New England during the 18th century following the Revolutionary War (1775 – 1783).

Traveling peddlers would sell their wares to settlers with the majority product sold being tin ware. Because they were not able to afford elaborate cookware or dinnerware, settlers would then decorate these tin pieces to make them more appealing. This included purposeful tin items such as

  • serving trays
  • tea pots
  • canisters
  • document boxes

Tole Painting Today

As centuries have passed, tole painting is now more commonly referred to as “decorative art” or “decorative painting.” Resurgence of tole painting in the 1960’s and 1970’s became apparent with studios offering to train students to become “tole” or “decorative painters.”

The National Society of Tole and Decorative Painters was created in 1972. Today, it has expanded worldwide and is known as the Society of Decorative Painters.


Before we go any further, what are your current thoughts at the moment.


Example of bringing an object to "life."

Look at the plums in the picture below.

The base coat was a solid dark purple. Using a variety of techniques such as side loading and floating with contrasting colors of paint, the plums are highlighted and truly become alive.

It is possible that it may take 20 to 30 passes to get the depth of the focused object. Patience in creating the gentle color gradation is what creates the remarkable “life” effect.

Cluster of plums brought to "life" ~ painted by Patty Sypek/design by Debi Cole

Cluster of plums brought to "life" ~ painted by Patty Sypek/design by Debi Cole

Decorative Art Painting Techniques

There are many techniques that can be used within a single piece of decorative art. Here are some of the more common methods used.


Base coating is simply applying the base color of any object. For example, let's say you are going to paint an apple with a stem and leaves. You would first draw or trace the outline of your picture. Then, you apply a base coat of red to the apple and base coat of green to the leaves.

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Side loading or floating is the primary method of applying paint to give depth and life to EVERYTHING. Depth requires the gradation of color to show where shade and highlights exist.

A flat brush, sometimes called a “shader,” is dampened with water and then the excess is blotted with a paper towel. One corner of the brush is dipped into the paint and then blended into the brush using a back and forth motion. The blending motion moves the paint across the bristles.

A properly loaded brush will have full strength paint on one side diminishing gradually to pure water on the other side. It’s the gentle gradation of colors that creates this effect or depth. This takes practice . . . and more practice.


Spattering or speckling is a “spray” of small specks of paint onto a surface often done with the use of an old toothbrush and a flicking motion of a thumb on the bristles.


Dry brushing uses a brush where most of the paint has been removed. This technique can be used to highlight an object.


Stencils are used by many tole and decorative art painters.


The one-stroke method of painting decorative art has been around for centuries and remains popular today. Brushes are loaded with multiple colors of paint and applied simultaneously. This method is faster than applying each paint layer individually and provides visual depth to the piece.