If you are new to the world of tole painting and decorative folk art, learning how to start can seem a little overwhelming! Fortunately, it is very easy to get started and can be a lot of fun!
In this tutorial, we’ll cover the basics of tole painting for beginners. This will give you a great foundation of information to work with so you can start creating beautiful decorative paintings in no time.
Here’s what we’ll cover in this beginner’s tole painting lesson:
- Choosing an Easy Project for Beginners
- Overview of Supplies and Materials
- Tips for Preparing the Surface & Paint a Base Coat
- How to Trace an Image Onto the Surface
- How to Load the Brush and Paint
- Sealing and Finishing Your Work
- Ways to Practice and Develop Your Skills
Want to learn more about what tole painting is and the history of tole painting? Our Introduction to Tole Painting post will help you learn a little bit more about the rich and interesting evolution of this craft!
Step 1: Choose an Easy Tole Painting Project for Beginners
When you are new to decorative folk art painting, it is very important to stick with a beginner project. Most projects you find will be marked with the level of difficulty. You are going to want to stick to the projects that are “easy” and “for beginners”.
As tempting as it may be to jump into the intermediate and advanced projects, start with the beginner’s projects!
There are two aspects to consider for every tole painting project you do – the surface – the object or item you plan on painting – and of course the subject – this is the type of decoration you will be painting.
Those early pioneers in tole painting would no doubt would be jealous of all the modern conveniences we have today in modern tole painting.
We can easily find and download project ideas and instructions right from the internet. We also have a lot of great items that are ready-to-paint that we can find almost anywhere, from craft stores to even thrift shops.
Choosing a Beginner-Friendly Surface
The best objects to paint on for beginners are generally plain and flat. For example, you might paint a clipboard or paint a simple design on a plain round or oval flat wood ornament.
Painting three dimensional objects are certainly an option also, although it’s best to practice on something simple your first time.
Metals and ceramics will take some surface prep before you start painting them, so I would suggest starting with something that is ready to paint. If you go to almost any craft store, you can find all sorts of wooden cut-outs that are perfect for beginners!
Many items are also made of MDF and paperboard – these are also great options, because they generally do not typically require a lot of prep work.
Beginner Friendly Subjects to Paint
Another important thing is to pick a beginner friendly subject to paint! In general, you do not want to pick anything that has too many fine details or advanced shading and highlighting techniques. You will be ready for those all in good time, but for now let’s keep it simple!
I like to stick with simple line-art style drawings in the beginning. Simple is really the best!
Here are some of our favorite beginner friendly patterns you can start with and download for free from our website.
Step 2: Gather Supplies & Materials Needed for Tole Painting
There are a lot of options for the different supplies you need for tole painting – but fortunately it doesn’t have to be complicated!
I recommend starting with acrylic paints, because this makes it super easy to get started. Acrylic paints are very forgiving – if you make a mistake you can always easily sand it off or even paint right over it.
Here are the basic supplies and tools you will need to get started:
- Acrylic Craft Paints
- Gesso, for priming the object to be painted
- Spray Sealer or Varnish
- Sandpaper and Tack Cloth
- Acrylic Paint Brushes
- Foam Paint Brushes
- Tracing Paper, Pen & Pencil
- Paper Towels
It may seem like a lot at first, but most of these supplies are actually quite simple – and some you may already have on hand at home!
Step 3: Prepare Your Surface for Painting
One of the things that is very important to do before you start painting is to prepare the surface you are painting. I recommend starting with wood items for beginners, because it is very forgiving and readily available. Many craft stores sell blank wood items ready to paint!
These instructions will cover the process for preparing wood items – of course we also have some tips for working on ceramic, metal and a number of other surfaces as well on our website.
Sanding & Priming the Surface
To prepare your surface, you are going to want to first give the wood surface a light sanding with a fine grit sandpaper. Use tack cloth to ensure you wipe away any dust or remnants from the sanding process!
Next, apply a light coat of primer. For primer, I typically use gesso. Gesso comes in a number of styles, such as white gesso, black gesso, and even clear gesso. Gesso is sold at most craft stores near the acrylic paints.
Priming the wood is very important because wood is a porous surface. If you do not first prime the surface, the paint will be absorbed into the wood. This will cause your colors to be a lot softer and muted. By applying a coat of gesso first, we can ensure beautiful, bright and vivid colors in our projects!
After the gesso is dry, you are going to want to go back and just very lightly sand the surface with a very fine sandpaper. You do not want to sand off the gesso you just painted – you just want to sand enough that it is a very smooth surface. Wipe it again with tack cloth and you are now ready to paint your base coat!
Apply the Base Coat
Typically you will be applying a base coat to your projects before you start painting. This is your background of the image. You will need to apply 2 coats of the base coat to ensure full coverage and a nice, even surface.
Most base coats of paint will be a solid color, at least when you first begin tole painting. You can use any color to start with as a base coat, it is just important to remember that some colors may appear different when you apply them on top of the base coat.
Once the base coat is painted on, we are going to do the same thing we did when we applied with the primer. Paint, sand, paint, sand. You should have 2 coats of paint as your base coat. This will give you a nice surface for painting the decorative designs on!
Step 4: Trace the Design Onto the Surface
Once your surface is prepped and ready to paint with a nice solid base coat, you are ready to start painting the design!
For most beginners, it is easiest to begin with a pattern or template for a project. This takes out a lot of the guess work and is a lot easier than freehand painting at first.
Tracing your pattern image onto the surface of your item is easy to do.
If you have graphite tracing paper, that is definitely a nice and easy way to do this, however I have found that a regular soft leaded graphite pencil and a ball point pen are really all you need if you do not already have graphite paper.
What I typically do is print out an image and then on the back side cover with graphite pencil. Flip it over and you can easily use a ball point pen to trace the image and transfer the graphite onto your work surface.
It may sound confusing at first, but it is actually very easy!
Learn How to Trace a Pattern Image onto a Surface Here
Step 5. Start to Paint!
In general, it is best to begin with the solid colors first. I like to start with one color, and stick to that color before switching to other colors.
It is also very helpful to make sure you paint in layers – start with the largest background areas first. Be sure that the very first layer is 100% completely dry before adding the next layers on top, or else you may risk muddy and mixed paints you do not want!
When you start painting, it’s also important to use the proper brush sizes. If you have a very small area, you will likely want to use a smaller round brush than a big giant flat wash brush.
Add More Layers and Details
Once the basic background shapes are painted in, you are ready to come in and add some depth with shading and finer details. Always be sure the first layer is dry before adding a new layer!
In most cases, you will be using smaller paint brushes for these final layers. For example, you may use a very tiny acrylic paint brush to paint in fine lines such as eyes, mouth, and nose details. You may use a brush that is slightly smaller to also add shading or highlights to your work.
Layers are a nice way to add more depth and interest to your projects – but it is not always absolutely necessary. Many designs can be done in just one or two layers, although many mixed media artists LOVE to pile on lots and lots of layers to achieve different styles.
Step 6: Seal/Varnish Your Work
Once your paint is dry and the painting is complete, a very important step is to apply a final sealer or varnish to your work.
Different artists have different preferences for types of sealers and varnishes they like to use, but I personally love to use a matte spray sealer such as the one made by Krylon.
Spray sealants have the benefit of not adding any brush strokes, though of course you can always paint the varnish or sealant on also. If you do paint the varnish, using a foam brush will help minimize the brush strokes.
You can learn more about sealing and varnishing on our site here, because it is definitely a lot of information to cover when you explore all the many different options and techniques!
Additional Resources on How to Tole Paint for Beginners
If you want to develop these skills in more detail, of course there are plenty of great resources and ways to learn more!
While an in-person class is still my favorite way to learn, sometimes classes don’t always work with our schedules or our locations. Fortunately, we have tons of online resources that will teach you step by step. We have classes that cover the basics, and classes that cover more advanced techniques and specific project ideas and designs.
We also have a huge project library! This library of tole painting patterns, folk art resources and more all have great ideas for designs and step by step tutorials for various decorative painting projects.
Practice Makes Perfect!
If you enjoy your first tole painting project, then you should definitely keep practicing in creating decorative folk art! Here are some of our suggested tutorials and resources for developing your decorative painting skills:
- Recommended Tole Painting Supplies and Tools
- Brush Stroke Basics: Practicing the 6 Main Types of Brush Strokes
- Shading and Highlighting Basics
- Decorative Paint Finishes
- How to Keep a Sketch Book and Art Journal
- Finding Ideas and Inspiration
Study Up! Some of Our Favorite Books
Of course, another great way to learn all about tole painting is through books. There are so many great books that have all sorts of different designs and ideas.
I hope you enjoy these basics on how to tole paint for beginners! Of course, what you do first is completely up to you. What matters is most is that you have fun and enjoy it!
Do you have any questions about getting started in tole painting? Share your questions in the comments section below, or join our ToleArtist Decorative Painting Facebook group for inspiration and ideas.