Origins of Folk Art / Tole Painting

Tole paintings were painted items made of metal or tin. Tole means thin sheets in French.

Tole painting, folk art, farmers’ painting or peasants’ painting later became known as decorative painting. Another name for folk art was country painting or naive painting.

Folk art paintings reflected the cultures and traditions of the local community - about the people and the peoples’ art. Folk art paintings enriched the lives of the people through the practicality of the art as most of the painted items were for daily use.

The folkart artists did not need academic or formal training. Folkart was taught in a simple, systematic manner and was passed on from generation to generation.

Folkart commonly used the technique of stroke works. Later, folkart became known as decorative painting because the techniques became more sophisticated and the brushes used were more varied.

Different styles of folkart emerged from every country because of the divergent cultures and traditions. For example, the more popular folkart styles of several European countries are as follow:



Painted Tin Can

Painted Metal Watering Can

Country Style
Germany Bauernmalerei
England Narrow Canal Boat Painting
Holland Dutch Folk Painting / Hindoloopen
Norway Rosemaling
Russia Zhostovo

Folk Art paintings or decorative paintings were started by farmers to entertain themselves during winter when they could no longer till their land. Being poor, the farmers decorated their own homes and household wares by imitating the paintings or wares of the rich who could adorn their mansions with expensive works of art commissioned by the fine artists. Travelling folkart artists helped to spread folk art in the Alpine and European regions.

As far back as 15th – 16th century, folkart artists painted and decorated their items as gifts to commemorate life-cycle events from birth to wedding to mourning. For Christians, they painted items to remember occasions like baptism, first holy communion, confirmation, etc.


Art vs Craft

This is a very subjective matter.

Sometimes, I tell my students that folkart artists use short-handled brushes, but the fine artists use long-handled brushes. Folkart artists use a wider range of brushes compared to fine artists! Fine artists have limited surfaces to paint on, mainly canvas; but folkart artist paint on anything they can lay their hands on, like furniture, cabinets, curtains, bed-sheets, book covers, pots and pans, walls and ceilings, etc. Folkart artists paint on a variety of objects: big and small, from walls to finger nails!!!

I used to joke that if I run out of surfaces to paint on, I would then progress to painting on my dear husband’s skin... body art?!?! (Ha ha ha)

Most folk artist imitated works of art until they attained a certain skill level. Then they start to create their own designs and painted freehand. When this happens, they will incorporate their own emotions and personalities into the piece. These qualities make the art pieces unique and individualized.

So, is this still folk art or fine art?
Send your comments to: pauline@craft-a-craft.com

Body Art
Freehand Painting
(using Palette Knife)

Freehand Painting
(using Palette Knife)


Fabric Painting Lamb Shades


Wood Painting Toilet Seat Cover


Nail Painting



In the beginning the cavemen (and cave women ) wanted to mark the events that happened. Drawings were used as a form of communication. These drawings were done on the interior walls of the caves.

Soon people saw that these drawings were not only functional – a record of events – but such drawings also beautified their environment. The human instinct of appreciating the aesthetics resulted in these primitive drawings to evolve into an art form.

In the 4th century, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, decided to convert to Christianity. This resulted in a mushrooming of churches throughout Europe. Out of their love for God, people wanted to beautify their churches. Artists were contracted to decorate the walls of the churches. Consequently, Christianity has a strong influence on European folk art.

This is also the reason that a lot of folkart artists use meaningful symbols and colours in their paintings. For example:
  • doves – symbol of peace
  • heart – symbol of love
  • daisies and orchids – symbol of innocence
  • white – purity
  • red – passion

For more information on colours or symbols, email: pauline@craft-a-craft.com

Through the years, with the Silk Route came the Chinese influence on folk art. When the Silk Route opened, the affluent Europeans would buy Chinese wares. But the demand was always higher than the supply. In those days, the orders could only be delivered many years later. It took months for the crafts people to produce the wares and decorate them. It also took more than half a year just for merchants to ship the wares from the origins to their destinations.


Wood Painting White Daisies

Wood Painting Colourful Daisies

As demand for Chinese wares continued to increase, and the merchants were unable to keep up with the orders, the more resourceful merchants reproduced these wares. The crafts people adapted the style of the art on the Chinese wares to meet the changing local preferences of the Europeans buyers.

This brought about the Chinese influence on folk art in Europe.



Every country has their specific style of folk art or decorative painting.

Germany – Bauernmalerei

The folk art of Germany is Bauernmalerei (pronounced as bow-urn-mall-er-eye) is a folk art form that is associated with Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This style originates from as early as the 17th century and throughout 3 centuries, it evolved to include different regional styles such as Black Forest, Tolzer, Franconian, Rossier, Hessian and Wismut.

The people involved in the development of Bauernamalerei were the cabinet makers and farmers. The cabinet makers made the furniture and decorated them with imitation wood graining, stenciling and painting of flowers, country scenes and religious scenes.

Today, Bauernmalerei is kept alive through commissioned folk artists.



Painted Wooden Clock



England – Narrow Canal Boat Painting

The folk art of England has several names: Narrow Boat Painting, Canal Art, Canal Boat Art, Traditional British Art.

This folk art style is relatively young and evolved about 100 years ago. This distinguished style is known for its roses and castles. This style is also thought to be influenced by the Romany-Gypsy and Dutch folk art style. But its actual origin is still a mystery.

During the 19th century, the waterways or rivers were used to deliver goods to the hinterland. Narrow boats were used to transport the goods. The merchants painted their company names on the narrow boats as a form of advertisement. Narrow boats were decorated with paintings of roses and romantic landscapes that include castles. Hence the name and theme of this style of folk art – roses and castles.


Painted Letter Rack
Roses & Daisies

Painted Wooden Plate
Roses, Daisies & Castles
Designed by Anne Young

Painted Metal
Watering Can


The Netherlands/Holland – Dutch Folk Painting

Hindeloopen is one of the more popular styles of Dutch Folk Painting. Hindeloopen is a town located in the Northern part of Netherlands. It was an important busy port for trading during the 15th – 18th century. Ships from distant lands would call upon this port. This port became a meeting ground for East and West. Through the trading of decorative ware, the local crafts people married ideas from the East and West and a distinctive style of folk art evolved.

Hindeloopen is a common form of decorative painting developed by ordinary house painters in the 17th century and handed down by a few artists in the traditional apprenticeship manner. It is also believed to be influenced by the Norwegian decorative painting styles and Chinese porcelain.



Delft - An Example of Dutch Folk Art


Norway – Rosemaling

The name given to the Norwegian rustic painting is rosemailing or rose painting is. This style of decorative painting developed during the 18th and early 19th century.

This style is largely characterized by stylized roses with scrolls. There are various styles of Rosemaling. The most popular styles are:

Telemark – This style is lavish and asymmetrical, flowing with intricate shading and linework. It can also be recognized by a "C" scroll as part of the central design, with the "S" strokes built from it.

Rogaland – The Rogaland style is probably influenced by tales of Oriental trading vessels. This style features darker backgrounds and cross-hatching or lattice work. Also in Rogaland, flowers are more important than leaves and scrolls.

Hallingdal – Hallingdal Rosemaling designs are symmetrical with the main feature being a central flower. Leaves and other flowers radiate from the centre. Backgrounds are usually red, dark green, lighter blue-green and even black-green.

Valdres – The Valdres style makes lavish use of the colour gold. Flowers are gathered in a garland or in a bouquet. The distinguishing feature in such a style is the sharply S-shaped leaves.


Painted Wooden Box

Painted Wooden Tray


Russia – Zhostovo

Zhostovo is a village near Moscow which is the centre of development for a vibrant style of Russian decorative painting which goes back to the 18th century. In fact, Zhostovo folk art was added to the State Index of the Most Valuable Objects of Culture of the Russian Federation in 1993.

The main motive of Zhostovo is a bunch of flowers as the centerpiece. These bunch of flowers are usually united in bouquets, wreaths or garlands. These bunches are traditionally painted on a black or other coloured background. Sometimes the backgrounds are light ones to imitate Chippendale trays. Other times, they can be faux finished to imitate mother-of-pearl or leather.

There are other forms of Russian folk art like Khokhloma and Slavic Eggs or Psyanka.


Painted Wooden Plate
Designed by
Heather Redrick

Painted Wooden Egg

Basic Strokes

Most folk art and decorative painting started with these basic strokes:

Comma like Strokes
C & S like Strokes
Using Comma like Strokes to create a Daisy
Bauernmalerei Tulip Painting Process
Stroke Work for Lilies

For more information on strokes and techniques, email: pauline@craft-a-craft.com


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