History of the Decorative Painter – Part 1

artisan vs artist

These next few posts are dedicated to the history of the Decorative Painter Artisan.  This covers the first part of history which finishes at the end of the Renaissance.
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.

prehistoric caveman
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.

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

ancient romanspowdered pigments
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.
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.

artisan guilds

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.

middle ages
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.


… next part:  17th-19th centuries: The enlightenment.


  1. Very nice!!!
    I totally agree with you that they do much work.

  2. Thank you Pierre!!! Your information was very helpful when I spoke to a group of interior designers last week about decorative painting. Your article really helped me get the message across!!

  3. Precise and short. Always nice to remind where we come from!! XOXO, M.

  4. Thanks for taking the time, Pierre! Love this history-in-a-nutshell.

    See you at Salon!

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