Decorative Painting Examples and Terminology PART I

Villa Livia Pompeii
Decorative painting has been around for thousands of years as seen in this famous fresco mural painting, “Villa Livia”

When decorating your home, you inevitably face the dilemma of what to do with your walls. Paint them a plain color? Wallpaper? How about doing some decorative painting such as a “faux finish” or “mural”? If you are exploring decorative painting options, you will first need to know the terms to use when consulting your interior decorator, designer, or decorative painting professional. In this article, I’ve assembled some of the most commonly used and misused terms I encounter regularly in my decorative painting business. I have defined them and provided examples of each. You will also find resources and links within each category.


Decorative Painting is the term used to describe  ALL of the painting techniques artisans use to decorate and adorn everything from walls to frames to furniture. Some well known examples of decorative painting are tole painting, faux painting, mural painting, stenciling, and ornamentation. For more information or to see  up-close examples of decorative painting, visit one of the annual trade expos that take place around the country such as the IDAL expo, the FAUX EXPO, and the OPEN DECOR SHOW. If you are a professional decorative painter, there are organizations such as IDAL and the PDPA that support and enrich the industry. There are many wonderful books, online forums, and schools for anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of decorative painting.


The correct pronunciation sounds like “foe”. Faux painting and faux finishing are terms used to describe a wide range of decorative painting techniques. The naming comes from the French word faux, meaning false, as these techniques started as a form of replicating materials such as marble and wood with paint, but have subsequently come to encompass many other decorative finishes for walls and furniture.
Wikipedia gives a brief history of faux finish as follows:

“Faux finishing has been used for millennia, from cave painting to the tombs of ancient Egypt, but what we generally think of as faux finishing in the decorative arts began with plaster and stucco finishes in Mesopotamia over 5000 years ago.

Faux painting became popular in classical times in the forms of faux marble, faux wood, and trompe l’oeil murals. Artists would apprentice for 10 years or more with a master faux painter before working on their own. Great recognition was awarded to artists who could actually trick viewers into believing their work was the real thing. Faux painting has continued to be popular throughout the ages, but experienced major resurgences in the neoclassical revival of the nineteenth century and the Art Deco styles of the 1920s. During the recent history of decorative painting, faux finishing has been mainly used in commercial and public spaces.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, faux finishing saw another major revival, as wallpaper began to fall out of fashion. At this point, faux painting became extremely popular in home environments, with high-end homes leading the trend. People are also attracted to the simplicity of changing a faux finish, as it can be easily painted over compared with the hassle of removing wallpaper.
In modern day faux finishing, there are two major materials/processes used. Glaze work involves using a translucent mixture of paint and glaze applied with a brush, roller, rag, or sponge, and often mimics textures, but it is always smooth to the touch. Plaster work can be done with tinted plasters, or washed over with earth pigments, and is generally applied with a trowel or spatula. The finished result can be either flat to the touch or textured.”

Wine Cellar with faux copper ceiling
This wine cellar features a “faux” hammered copper ceiling with “faux” leather strapping.
an example of a glazed faux finish
an example of a glazed faux finish
The Art of Faux by Pierre Finkelstein
The Art of Faux by Pierre Finkelstein is a must have book for any decorative painter!

Wikipedia defines a mural as “any piece of artwork painted or applied directly on a wall, ceiling or other large permanent surface. A particularly distinguishing characteristic of mural painting is that the architectural elements of the given space are harmoniously incorporated into the picture.” Since prehistoric times humans have felt compelled to decorate their walls with pictures and stories. Ruins from ancient civilizations in Egypt, Pompeii, China, India and Mexico all contain evidence of elaborate mural scenes. Murals held an important place in Greek, Roman and Egyptian art. During the Renaissance, cathedrals were adorned with unbelievably intricate mural scenes. The Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo is probably the most famous fresco mural example. Murals are still quite popular today and can be found in many homes as well as businesses.

This is a mural after JW Waterhouse that I recently completed for a client
This is a portion of a mural after JW Waterhouse that I recently completed for a client
Members of the International Salon of Decorative Painters work on a large mural
Members of the International Salon of Decorative Painters work on a large mural

Next up…”trompe l’oeil” trȯmp-ˈlə-ē, trōⁿp-ˈlœi\

Definition of TROMPE L’OEIL:

: a style of painting in which objects are depicted with photographically realistic detail; also : the use of similar technique in interior decorating
: a trompe l’oeil painting or effect
: something that misleads or deceives the senses : illusion
See trompe l’oeil defined for English-language learners »

Encyclopedia Brittanica explains the term in the following manner: “in painting, the representation of an object with such verisimilitude as to deceive the viewer concerning the material reality of the object.” Throughout history, artists have used techniques to create spaces that fooled the viewer into thinking they were seeing something that wasn’t really there. The practice of painting and creating effective trompe l’oeil illusions in murals requires meticulous attention to detail and correctly representing and understanding color, shadow, and perspective. The ancient Romans first used trompe l’oeil in Pompeii to decorate their living spaces. A typical trompe l’oeil mural might suggest a window or doorway leading into another room. The Romans later went on to use trompe ‘loeil methods to paint and decorate cathedrals.

Roman Cathedral Trompe L'oeil ceiling
Roman Cathedral Trompe L’oeil ceiling

Mural artists still use this technique today.

The Murals of John Pugh
The Murals of John Pugh
Botanic Garden Trompe L'oeil Mural
This is an example of one of my trompe l’oeil murals
Trompe L'oeil capital by artist Dru Blair
Trompe L’oeil capital by artist Dru Blair


gilded room
This entire room is gilded with gold leaf

Gilding is used for everything from frames and furniture to ceilings and walls. The decorative techniques of applying fine gold leaf or powder to solid surfaces such as wood, stone, or metal to give a thin coating of gold are known as gilding techniques. Gilt refers to the object, which has been gilded by gold. There are different types of gilding; water gilding, which is a technique that consists of applying loose sheets of gold on a layer of red clay (bole). The bole supplies a flexible surface that allows for polishing the gold with an agate burnisher thereby obtaining a brilliant and very smooth effect. The bole gives the gold red reflections due to transparency.

This technique of gilding requires a significant investment in materials and long practice to obtain good results. Gilding generally means gold gilding, but there are other metals, which are also used in gilding the objects. For example, in the West silver gilding is very popular but gilt-bronze is much used in China. Gilt-bronze is called Ormolu in the West. There are various types of gilding methods. Some include hand application and gluing, chemical gilding, gold plating and electroplating. Other types of gilding are parcel-gilt and full body guild. When the objects are only gilded over part of their surfaces, the process is called parcel-gilt. This type of gilding method is applied to vessels. Water gilding is most commonly used for furniture. Additionally there is oil gilding, which is more often used for ceilings and wall applications. Oil gilding has been used to highlight and ornament some of the most opulent interiors in the world. It is accomplished by applying a glue or “size” to a surface followed by delicate and meticulous application of sheets or “leaves” which are then polished.

an elaborately gilded room
an elaborate example of Gilding

Watch for the next installment of Decorative Painting Examples and Terminology which will feature Stenciling, Chinoiserie, Grottesca, and Ornamentation…

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