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The Illuminating Art of Tinsel Painting

Nov 21, 2012

by Chappell Ellison

Etsy.com handmade and vintage goods

Despite its festive name, tinsel painting has nothing to do with Christmas decorations. It involves applying transparent paint to glass, followed by a layer of shiny, metallic foil. Although it has been around for centuries, it experienced an extraordinary rise in popularity in the 19th century. A new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum showcases the country’s largest collection of tinsel paintings and asks the question: where did tinsel painting come from?

“Tinsel paintings were part of the American cultural scene as early as 1832. What is interesting is that tinsel painting was predicated on the use of tin foil — you have to have it,” explained Dr. Laurence Lerner, an art historian who recently lectured on the exhibit. “So where did people get it? We know that people were wrapping bon bons and druggists were using it to wrap cream. We also know that Colt was making an experimental cartridge for the marine corp out of foil.”

American Folk Art Museum

Artist unidentified, United States, c. 1910–1920. Reverse painting and embossed foil on glass, 7 1/2 x 8 3/4 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.4

Once foil proved to be useful for packing goods, within a few decades it was widely available in Western countries. Tinsel painting was thought to be an ideal art for women to undertake; it allowed for a small amount of creative expression, but kept women focused on domesticity, as these paintings were often made to decorate the home. Women culled discarded foil from cigarette packages and candy wrappers as materials for their works. As seen in the image below, tinsel painting continued to evolve well into the 20th century.

Tinsel paintings are multi-layered and require the artist to keep several reversals in mind. First, the work is painted on the reverse side of the glass. Details — like the stamens and veins of flowers — are painted first, while the background is painted last. After the paint dries, silver or copper foil is applied to areas where the artist desires shimmering highlights. The foil is held in place with varnish or putty, then covered with a layer of newspaper or cloth. The final layer is a cardboard backing to secure and seal the work.

Red Whiskey

Example of a more contemporary painting made with foil during the 1930s.

It’s no wonder foil paintings were popular; in the gas-lit homes of the 19th century, light cast from the lamps played marvelously over the reflective foil, creating a bewitching sheen. But beyond their appealing aesthetics, this artform shows how women made use of materials around them in interesting and creative ways.  Like so many folk arts, tinsel painting rarely makes an appearance in art history books. Yet women shaped the craft throughout the 1800s, building on a long history of floral and still life paintings and producing works that commemorated births, deaths and friendship. The result are hundreds of paintings, scattered throughout the world, that serve as cultural records of womens’ lives and interests in a specific era.

Header image information: Artist unidentified, United States, c. 1830s. Reverse painting and foil on glass with papercuts.13 1/2 x 19 1/4 in. American Folk Art Museum, gift of Susan and Laurence Lerner, 2009.13.44

1 Featured Comment

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier said 4 years ago Featured

    What stunning examples of a period art! There are myriad examples of art forms that could be culled from history waiting to be be re-presented in a more contemporary vein....this being one of them. Lost arts surviving the centuries is the ultimate in sustainable!

60 comments

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat said 4 years ago

    It never ceases to amaze me how many creative ways people amused themselves & kept busy before we all started wasting time watching TV in the evenings!

  • gilstrapdesigns

    Debra Gilstrap from gilstrapdesigns said 4 years ago

    I have never heard or read about Tinsel Paintings. Thanks for a very interesting article. I think it is so good to have a creative outlet and since the beginning of time we have been able to create some kind of creative outlet for ourselves.

  • PruAtelier

    Jeanne B from PruAtelier said 4 years ago Featured

    What stunning examples of a period art! There are myriad examples of art forms that could be culled from history waiting to be be re-presented in a more contemporary vein....this being one of them. Lost arts surviving the centuries is the ultimate in sustainable!

  • LeasaMarie

    Leasa from LeasaDesigns said 4 years ago

    Amazing work! I have never seen them in any museum or gallery!! -and I just got back from a week in Rome, yesterday - seeing everything that is beautiful!! Impressive!! Thanx for more beauty that is everywhere~

  • HansHolzkopf

    Natalie from HansHolzkopf said 4 years ago

    wow! very interesting!!

  • volkerwandering

    Jess from volkerwandering said 4 years ago

    Gorgeous!

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie said 4 years ago

    So beautiful!

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina said 4 years ago

    Beautiful work! I think it is amazing how early people thought of recycling! And a very creative way of recycling!

  • knitsandsews

    Kara M from HeirloomModern said 4 years ago

    I saw this exhibit, and it was amazing! I love seeing all the different ways individuals can express their creativity.

  • CiaraRebello

    Ciara Rebello from CiaraRebello said 4 years ago

    I love the vintage and somewhat medieval look to these (sorry if I'm way off on your stye but that is what i see and it is beautiful!)

  • neulanen

    sylvi from sylvitaimi said 4 years ago

    there are also similar pieces made with iridescent butterfly wings, preceding foil assumably.

  • valeriephoto

    Valerie from valeriestitchery said 4 years ago

    Really interesting. I imagine few of these survived because they're so fragile. It's nice that the Folk Art Museum is casting a spotlight on this art form.

  • GoldenSpiralDesigns

    Lola Ocian from GoldenSpiralDesigns said 4 years ago

    Wow, fascinating... I'd never seen these before. Gives me many ideas for my own creativity... Muahahah!

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage said 4 years ago

    Who knew? Really interesting.

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts said 4 years ago

    Oh, amazing! I have never heard of this before!

  • Parachute425

    Terry from Parachute425 said 4 years ago

    How gloriously gaudy! Love it. Thanks for the fascinating article.

  • peshka

    Peshka from Peshka said 4 years ago

    So nice!

  • RenataandJonathan

    Renata and Jonathan from RenataandJonathan said 4 years ago

    So interesting !

  • rgwriter

    Rebecca Grambo from PastAndPresence said 4 years ago

    I love learning more about various lesser known art forms. Thanks!

  • Waterrose

    Rose Waterrose from Waterrose said 4 years ago

    I have seen some of these in vintage shops and wondered what they were.

  • lapetiteposy

    Becky from sojoshop said 4 years ago

    Interesting- thanks for sharing!

  • tintabernacle

    Karen from tintabernacle said 4 years ago

    Fabulous blog post, thank you! Will definitely go to this museum next time I'm in NYC I use reverse painting techniques on vintage mirrors, come and see one in my shop! https://www.etsy.com/listing/92347015/blackbird-and-hydrangea-studies-reverse

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost said 4 years ago

    There jas been a tinsel painting of a woman in a ball gown hung in my grandparents basement for as long as I can remember, but I never knew this was a "thing" until reading this post. It has my grandfather's signature in reverse, and now I know why. The handwriting looks immature, so he must have created it as a child, or perhaps he signed his mother's work.

  • ErikaPrice

    Erika from ErikaPrice said 4 years ago

    I'd never heard of Tinsel Painting before, but what a fascinating craft! Must have been a real strain on the artists eyes in the days before electric lighting!

  • valeriemich1

    Valerie Michaud from equestrianpoodle said 4 years ago

    I love it! Thanks for sharing.

  • astarteearthart

    astarteearthart from astarteearthart said 4 years ago

    Love it!

  • bedouin

    Nicole from Crackerjackarma said 4 years ago

    I can see how the lamp lighting really would cast an amazing sparkle. These are great examples of such a unique medium.

  • RigbyandFable

    Megan Moulos from RigbyAndFable said 4 years ago

    Great article! I wonder if anyone still practices this craft today?

  • kiranofindaly

    Karen Meninno from IndalyDesigns said 4 years ago

    Wow, so beautiful. I didn't know about tinsel painting. Thanks.

  • angeliqueluff

    Angelique Luff from PaleBlueUnicorn said 4 years ago

    Fantastic idea!!

  • AlpineGypsy

    Heidi from AlpineGypsy said 4 years ago

    Wow ~ I had no idea what this was until now! I've seen few examples of this type of artwork, but thought they were lovely. I'm delighted to have read this article, thank you. Heidi

  • HandmadeIsAllAround

    HandmadeIsAllAround from iammieOWLshop said 4 years ago

    So beautiful!

  • messinabella

    messinabella from BandBEstate said 4 years ago

    very interesting!

  • ESTATENOW

    VINTAGE NOW from ESTATENOW said 4 years ago

    Love the patterns, So Beautiful, thanks for sharing...

  • KMalinka

    Natalia from KMalinkaVintage said 4 years ago

    Amazing!

  • priscillapaisley

    priscillapaisley said 4 years ago

    I enjoyed doing tinsel painting with my high school craft classes in the 1980's. One would be able to find paintings in antique shops and estate sales. I had a beautiful large night winter snow scene painting that I purchased at an auction. Trace your predrawn design onto picture frame glass using a crow quill pen using India Ink. When dry fill in the background with acrylic ink. Allow the paint to dry and fill in the colored areas using "stained glass" paint. It is a set of paints that resembles stained glass. I do not know if that type of paint is still produced. My friend created beautiful roses using this technique. Try it, it is magical.

  • EnterpriseAmericana

    Enterprise Americana from EnterpriseAmericana said 4 years ago

    Something else for me to be on the look out for. This was a wonderful article. Beautiful work too.

  • mattyhandmadecrafts

    Matejka Max from NattyMatty said 4 years ago

    Incredible!

  • shuqi

    Emily Lim from shuqi said 4 years ago

    Wow, so so amazing. The work is so detail and perfect:) Congratz:)

  • AsLuckWouldHaveIt

    AsLuckWouldHaveIt from AsLuckWouldHaveIt said 4 years ago

    Inspiring & informative article! Thank you for sharing this!

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from JKWaltonCollages said 4 years ago

    A wonderful example of people using the materials they had to hand to express their artistic and creative expression.

  • LittleWrenPottery

    Victoria Baker from LittleWrenPottery said 4 years ago

    I'd never heard of this before I can imagine the effect to be quite dazzling like glitter!

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette said 4 years ago

    Thanks for introducing me to this method and another interesting article.

  • focusoninteriors123

    Linda Spivack from focusoninteriors123 said 4 years ago

    Thanks for including my peacock...it was a true find...I knew it was old and special, but when I got it home and looked close, it is amazing. The painting on the glass is enhanced by the foil type paper under it, making the peacock feathers look real. Great blog!

  • thevicagirl

    VaLon Frandsen from thevicagirl said 4 years ago

    Sweet, I had no idea!

  • vevela2012

    emma zhang from vevela2012 said 4 years ago

    Great design,thank you!! there are many more beautiful bracelets,welcome to choose and buy,you can have a look here: https://www.etsy.com/listing/114083850/bracelet-the-hunger-games-pretty-vintage

  • PrayerNotes

    Prayer Notes by Cynthia from PrayerNotes said 4 years ago

    Wow! I learn something new, every day, on etsy. Thank you, for introducing this particular art to me. Great article! ~cynthia

  • kbazaar2012

    keren shafran from KBazaar said 4 years ago

    wow! very interesting!! Who knew?.....

  • lizhutnick

    Liz Hutnick from LizHutnick said 4 years ago

    I've never heard of tinsel paintings before this. Thanks! :)

  • AlfredRedmond1

    Alfred Redmond from LogoWizard said 4 years ago

    I love it! Thanks for sharing.

  • unastigsdottir

    Una Stigsdottir from Unaberries said 4 years ago

    Nice effect.

  • TayFox

    Taylor Hollander from GoGoHypnotica said 4 years ago

    Love this thank you for sharing its beautiful

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa said 4 years ago

    I think this style would lend itself well to modern/abstract painting very nicely.

  • frisby2

    lo frisby from RelentlessAuthentic said 4 years ago

    this is so cool! I want to give this a try now :)

  • LaAlicia

    La Alicia from LaAlicia said 4 years ago

    WOW!!

  • SusanMKennedyDesigns

    SusanMKennedyDesigns said 4 years ago

    My Mother had an art teacher in the late 70's that taught a class in this style.She made a small one for my Dad as a gift....the subject was their sailboat. She left have a few more, never framed. I should finish them. A friend of mine collects the tinsel paintings signed "J Jensen" Have tried to find info on her/him but no luck. You can find examples of them on E bay. They are charming. Thanks for the article.

  • artistaq8

    Artista from Artistakw said 4 years ago

    Nice post! :)

  • RECCIEatETSY

    Clarice Booth from RECCIEatETSY said 4 years ago

    So pretty... Years ago, while traveling, I bought a reverse painting that had the "shimmery" spots on it. It was a beautiful landscape with a castle on a hill. Unfortunately, it broke before I could get home. Even though it did not survive I am glad to finally know something about how it was created. Blessings,

  • annmarieturner

    Ann Marie Turner said 4 years ago

    I have two paintings from this period that my Grandmothers mother painted. Would like to know what you think about them.

  • annmarieturner

    Ann Marie Turner said 4 years ago

    That was Grandmothers, Grandmother!!!

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