“I didn’t know it was called that! I had no idea it even had a name!”
– Every Person Ever, when first learning about tole painting
When I talk to most people about tole painting and decorative tole art, one of the questions I’m asked all the time is “What’s tole painting?”
No doubt, if you are reading this you very well may have the exact same question. What is tole? What does that mean? How is this different from other types of art, DIY home decor or painting? Is it something I can learn and do easily?
These are all excellent questions, and we’ll cover the answers to all of them. And spoiler alert: yes, it IS something you can learn to do very easily – even if you have ZERO painting or drawing skills.
If you’re like most people I’ve met, you have no idea what tole painting is, even though it is something you likely encounter all the time in your day to day life.
Tole painting is really simple – and actually very common. And, just like most people, you probably could recognize it when you see it in an instant – you just don’t know it actually has a name.
So, to give tole painting it’s proper due, we are going to explain all about what tole painting is, the history of this decorative art form, share some examples of how the craft has evolved through the centuries, and of course share resources on how you can get started if it is something you think you might like to try.
By the time you finish reading this article you too will be able to impress your friends by saying, “Oh, look at that! What a beautiful example of tole art!”
Better yet, if you decide to give this creative art form a try, your friends will be most impressed by your newly found creative art skills – even if you currently cannot paint or draw to save your life.
Tole painting is really that simple, and everybody you meet will be saying things like, “Wow! I can’t believe you made that!”
Ready? Let’s dive on deep into the world of tole art.
What is Tole Painting? Tole Folk Art Defined
In its simplest form, tole painting is a type of decorative folk art. Tole art is a beautiful art form that can be found world wide in many different countries and cultures!
Here is our official Tole Painting Definition:
Tole Painting is a type of decorative painting, often using one-stroke brush techniques to create folk art designs on common household objects.
While many types of art can cross into the world of tole art, the most common style of art you will see is folk art.
Folk art, unlike fine art, is generally decorative and consists of very simple painting techniques – something so simple even “common folk” could easily paint it. You did not need to go to years of fine art school to be able to add decorative touches to items – you simply needed to learn the basics of one-stroke painting techniques.
This is why tole painting is also sometimes called “one stroke” painting, because the method of painting is super simple. It is easy to paint items with just one simple stroke of the paint brush. A leaf could be done in just one stroke – and so could the petals on the flowers!
So yes, even if you don’t have any skills for drawing or have never used paint before, you could very likely get started in tole painting.
Tole Art Means Decorative Painting Everything!
Another important characteristic of tole art to note from our definition is these designs are typically is painted on some type of common object. For example, this could be a serving tray, or a tea kettle, or even a chair or desk.
Still, there really is no limit on what types of things can be painted decoratively. You likely have tole painted items all throughout your house. If you don’t, I guarantee you have friends or family members who do.
The word Tole is actually derived from French and Latin origins. It comes from the words which mean “sheet iron” and “table”.
Much of the early tole art was done on tins and metal objects, although this of course has evolved to painting everything – from wood to ceramic and glass to even plastic.
So, when we think of tole painting, we generally think of decorative items that are hand painted. This could be a vase, or a sign you hang in your kitchen or even a heirloom Christmas decoration your family passes along from generation to generation.
The History of Tole Art
Decorative Tole Painting also has a very interesting and rich history.
The craft first came to America with late 18th century German and English settlers. Many tin items during this period were considered to be “inferior” products and “poor man’s silver”.
Many of the earliest tole painters as a result are actually the families of tinsmiths. They would often paint decorative designs on the tin to give it a higher perceived value. While the husbands and sons worked in making the metal, the wives and daughters were often the artists responsible for painting designs on these pieces.
As times changed, toleware became more and more popular, especially with the onset of the Victorian period. During the Victorian era, everything was very ornate and decorated. It is mostly likely this time where the popularity of tole painting on non-tin items such as wooden furniture really became popular.
Today, any sort of decorative folk art painting often falls under the umbrella of tole art. Wood is a very common and popular material amongst decorative folk artists, and it is likely today’s artists have a multitude of influences from a number of different time periods, art styles, and cultures worldwide.
Like most creative arts, there are often ebbs and flows with its popularity through various periods in history. With the scarcity from the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, tole painting did not disappear, but it was not nearly as common as many people needed to focus their entire attention on survival, tough economic times and war relief efforts.
Fortunately, sometime in the 1960’s around the same time our post-war baby boomers came into the world, crafty housewives everywhere began to revitalize the craft of decorative painting. It peaked all the way through the 70s until the 90s.
Today, in the 21st century, we can still find examples of tole painting everywhere. And as many people find a lot of fun and enjoyment in non-digital arts, many people of all ages enjoy the fun of simple decorative painting.
Examples of Decorative Folk Art & Tole Painting
When I explain what tole painting is to most people, I find the easiest thing to do is to show them some examples, and so of course it makes sense we share some beautiful examples in this post as well.
This beautiful hand painted mug shown above is a great example of what types of looks can be achieved with simple one-stroke painting techniques.
Of course, garden themes are always popular.
Many designs are very simple to get started with – you do not need any special types of painting skills. While a little bit of practice certainly helps, many people are surprised how easy it can be to get started and paint designs that look professional even when you are a complete beginner!
How to Get Started With Tole Art
Getting started with tole art is easy, and on our website we have tons of resources to get you creating in no time!
You don’t need a lot of fancy or expensive supplies to get started, and we have tons of free easy-to-create patterns and templates you can use to begin.
Start Your First Tole Art Project Here
Learn What Types of Supplies to Use For Decorative Painting Here
Browse the Tole Art Learning Library Here
I hope this introduction to what is tole painting is helpful for you – and I hope it encourages you to explore our website to learn more! It can be a lot of fun and is a great way to express your creativity while personalizing your own space with different types of items.
Do you have any questions about tole painting? We’re always happy to help answer any questions you may have in the comments section below!