The O’Neil Artisans

  • The O'Neil Artisans

Exquisite hand painted Renaissance & decorative finishes on traditional and contemporary furniture, objects and jewelry.

The O’Neil Artisans are individuals who have been trained in the art of the painted finish at the Isabel O’Neil Studio Workshop in New York City. The artisans learned how to duplicate Renaissance finishes using 20th century materials and are dedicated to perpetuating the techniques used to simulate such exotic and luxurious materials as marble, tortoise shell, lapis lazuli, malachite and tigerite.

Isabel O’Neil:
The Art of the Painted Finish for Furniture and Decoration

In an interview in ANTIQUE MONTHLY shortly before her death in 1981, Isabel O’Neil, who is credited with bringing the time-honoured techniques of masters of the painted finish into the 20th century, shared some insights with writer Michael Goldman. Now that the ISABEL O’NEIL STUDIO WORKSHOP AND FOUNDATION is celebrating its 50th ANNIVERSARY, Ms. O’Neil’s own words have added meaning.

Her 1971 book, The Art of the Painted Finish for Furniture and Decoration (William Morrow and Company) had become the definitive guide to creating unique finishes that ranged from faux bois and faux marble, bamboo to malachite, to tortoise shell, lapis lazuli, and azurite.

She said that what she called “antiques of the future” were never viewed as reproductions or restorations. She called them unique artworks because they allowed her students to balance classic techniques of the past with their individual creative expression.

Isabel O’Neil came to her career with a Yale and Skidmore education in art history and art education. Early on she discovered that the knowledge of finely crafted finishes from centuries ago had nearly vanished, since craftsmen largely kept their methods secret and little was recorded.

O’Neil decided to visit places where the most important examples of painted finishes could be seen, among them Versailles and Fontainebleau in France, the Palladian villas of the Venetian countryside, and the Borghese Palace in Rome. She says she “crawled through museums” and perfected her “looking.” But mostly, she says she was forced to be enterprising and to continually improve her skills through trial, error and mostly improvisation.

Along the way she learned that the history of painted decoration on furnishings and walls went back to ancient Egypt, Greece and China. During the Renaissance the art reached its zenith, with Italian and French craftsmen leading the way, beginning with church furniture and soon decorating secular pieces such as wedding trays and storage chests. Lacquer wares were imported from the Orient and were soon imitated in Europe. The art of the painted finish continued into the Rococo, Neoclassical, Empire and other periods. It declined during the latter half of the 19th century as the machine age dawned and court patronage disappeared.

But O’Neil talked more like a painter than furniture lover. Her “hero” was Matisse she said, and she admired Josef Albers’ theory of colour.

O’Neil developed her passion for the painted finish over a decade spent painting furniture for clients of well known interior designer James Amster, before opening the Isabel O’Neil Studio Workshop for the Art of the Painted Finish, in New York in 1955.

She organized her school with an apprenticeship program similar to Renaissance guilds. And she constantly encouraged her students to “see things they have never seen before.” Apprentices could move up to Journeyman status and after years of experience and training, assist teachers and become Masters in their own right. O’Neil, though confined to a wheelchair was at her school overseeing her students’ progress until the week she died. “I don’t let any piece go out of here I’m not pleased with,” she said.
She did not think native artistic talent was a requirement to create painted finishes: “The discipline and devotion of a craftsman are supremely important. A latent and modest talent can, when channelled by the disciplines of the techniques, achieve through this craft a way of personal expression.”

One early graduate, Lydwine Petrie, went on to become a restorer at the Louvre, but O’Neil always emphasized that most of her students were not looking to paint finishes as a livelihood but strictly seeking enjoyment from achieving the expertise she so generously shared with them. Some students followed O’Neil’s lead and opened schools of their own, using techniques learned through her classes and book. Today, graduate specialists in the field, such as James Alan Smith, teach courses at the studio and generously share their own expertise.

Everyone who attends the Isabel O’Neil Studio Workshop of the Painted Finish begins with a basic course in preparing an object and basic painting and striping. This class includes some antiquing using spattering and distressing techniques. Subsequent classes include instruction in creating glazes, gilding, leafing and burnishing to simulate gold and jewel like finishes, as well as an antique patina. Oriental and European lacquer techniques are taught, including eggshell inlay. Another class works entirely with casein to imitate delicate gesso surfaces popular in Italy in the 18th century. No finishes are intended to be literal imitations, but fanciful or idealized attempts to surpass the real materials. They range from naive exaggerations to sophisticated trompe l’oeil designs.

18 different courses are offered to beginning students and seasoned artists, with day and evening sessions. For more information contact:


Classes are held at 315 East 91 Street.

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185 East 85 St #9M New York, New York 10028
Phone 212 289 2227
Fax 212 289 1778