Decorative Painting and Polychroming

The transformation of an undecorated space through the addition of ornamental painting is an extremely rewarding process. When it is well done, the decoration helps to create a unified whole that tells a story of time, place, idea and vision in a way that perhaps nothing else can.

An artfully decorated church can elevate us and offer a glimpse of heaven. A theatre painted to create an atmosphere of blue sky, stars and a walled courtyard can transport us to a magical, outdoor dreamland. A stately capitol building or courthouse decorated with murals can express significant ideals and the history of a city, state or nation.

The importance of painting and decorating in human cultural history is borne out in the fact that these are ancient arts. The sophisticated mural and mosaic decoration of Pompeii, Italy demonstrates that two thousand years ago artists, working in the homes of the privileged, were creating decorative painting and trompe l’oeil murals in which painted areas depict windows or sky so convincingly that they deceive the viewer.

Decorative painting is a broad term, sometimes called faux finishing, that refers to painting techniques involving layers of color and design that enhance the architectural elements of a space and increase its ambience. These artistic techniques have been handed down from one generation to the next at CSS for more than a century.


Polychroming is a technique that can be employed to enliven an interior space. Dating as far back as the ancient Greeks and widely popular during the Victorian era, polychroming entails decoration in two or more distinct colors. Paint is used to highlight the architectural details but, depending on the color scheme chosen, to dramatically alter the decorative effect of the space. This technique is especially stunning when used to draw attention to raised elements, where the use of another color adds to the contrast already created by the difference in depth.

Commissioning Decoration and Restoration

Large-scale decorative painting projects for significant buildings require more than trade painters. Rather, they are best served by artists in the fine-arts tradition. Clients choosing to select a decorative painting studio via the bid process must exercise caution because, in its current form, the process does not serve this specialty well. The low bidder on a project may or may not provide high quality artistry and longevity of the decorative scheme, which are the two most important results clients need. 

This can be addressed through contracting via interviews and negotiated proposals (rather than bidding) or through weighted criteria in bid documents for decorative painting contractors. Important considerations include the contractor’s ability to conduct the work with experienced, permanent employees, their past performance on similar projects, and their financial and litigation history. Whatever the process that awards work to CSS, the Studio’s integrity does not waver. CSS is committed by its own high standards to using fine materials and providing the highest quality results.

Long Term Cost-Effectiveness

With a limited budget, it can be tempting to commission less than the necessary preparatory work in the hope that a more superficial treatment will suffice. However, experience has shown that clients who choose not to thoroughly address the needs of a project the first time are likely to end up spending more money for the same results over a period of decades. Thinking twice about the appropriate approach to your decorative needs beforehand may be a better choice than having to arrange and fund decorating projects a second time down the road.

Restoration of Decorative Painting

The movement to preserve and restore historic American buildings has come into the mainstream since the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. However, even in our relatively young country, restoration projects have been carried out since long before that time. CSS’s first such project may have been the 1928 restoration of the Cathedral of St. Augustine in Tucson, Arizona.

The involvement of CSS in the historic preservation movement grew during the 1960s and 1970s as Bernard E. Gruenke, Jr. became a strong proponent of historic preservation for churches and theatres. By 1975, he was a national leader in the movement to restore historic theatres and lent strength to related non-profit national organizations.

Conservation of Decorative Painting

In addition to restoration, the conservation approach, begun in Europe, has become increasingly prevalent in the decorative painting field. In many cases, particularly when the original decorative painting is in good condition, the artwork can be retained rather than repainted. A range of actions including stabilization, consolidation, exposing original designs, cleaning, infill painting to restore lost design elements, and applying protective coatings can be part of a comprehensive conservation program. A primary focus of such intervention is the reversibility of all treatments for posterity.

The Course of a Decorative Project

The Studio works with clients, architects and other specialists to determine the best approach to a decorative painting or restoration project and to set a scope of work, timeframe and budget. Artistry, authenticity, longevity and cost-effectiveness are some of the primary issues considered in the formation of decorative solutions.

Whether a historic restoration or a new decorative scheme, the process of decoration begins with the architecture. America, the melting pot, naturally is home to a wide spectrum of architecture, and each period, style, building type and organizational affiliation has appropriate decorative approaches. That does not mean there is no room for creativity, but that knowledge of styles and periods improves the results of such a project.

A Byzantine-design church for a Greek Orthodox congregation will require one approach while a Gothic Revival Catholic church will need another. A new lobby for a Baroque historic theatre will be approached differently than one for an Oriental atmospheric theatre, and so on. Work in the field is supported by research in CSS’ century-old library and archives, along with the internet, historical societies, public libraries and onsite archives local to a project.

For existing buildings and restoration projects, the initial assessment reveals critical issues such as incompatible paints, water damage, past inadequate surface preparation and interior climate issues. Because these affect the longevity of the finishes, they should be addressed prior to the commencement of the decorative restoration.

By nature, decorative painting projects are intrusive, primarily because of the scaffolding. However, CSS works closely with clients to accommodate their needs in terms of scheduling, sequence of work and access strategy. Projects are handled by an experienced project manager and conducted by crews of skilled artists, usually over a period of months. The result is a beautiful project that reflects quality and longevity and is completed on time and within budget.

CSS is privileged to carry on the traditions of decorative painting. Many projects have won national awards, including a number of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s coveted Honor Awards.

French Lick Springs Hotel

French Lick Springs Hotel

French Lick, IN

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