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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Trompe L'oeil

The Art of Trompe L'Oeil

The Art of Trompe L'OeilTrompe L’oeil Introduction

If a window wants a view or a cupboard lacks contents the time honoured tradition of trompe l’oeil can fool all into seeing the non existent. The most amazing examples take an artists talent but convincing illusions can be created using simple designs and techniques.

Origins of TrompeL'Oeil

Trompe L’oeil – literally meaning ‘to deceive the eye’ – has been used for centuries to surprise, delight and add an extra dimension to flat surfaces such as walls or floors.

The art of illusion was first practised by the ancient Greeks. It was said that the painter Zeuxis created such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them and that his rival Appleles painted draperies so real that passers by tried to lift them to see what lay beneath. The practical Romans also used trompe l’oeil, both in murals and to add architectural detail to their homes.

The art then fell into a decline until the Renaissance, when painters began to add trompe l’oeil props, like false frames on a portrait. It was also used to create perspective in murals and to create inlay work in churches, showing cupboards half open to reveal the articles within.  


Trompe L’oeil was at its most popular in Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was the heyday of the classic trompe l’oeil, when small objects like books or china were shown on shelves (complete with dust) and architraves, doors or windows complete with views were painted on blank walls.

In Europe trompe l’oeil is still popular in areas like the Italian town of Camogli, where for every real portico, window or shutter, another is made entirely of paint. The craft has also found a new role in institutions such as hospitals, where it brings fun and surprise to wards and corridors.


Basic techniques of Trompe L'Oeil


Trompe l’oeil is a visual tease which tricks the eye into seeing a painting as a three dimensional solid form.

An artistic talent and a working knowledge of perspective is needed to make a painted surface look ‘real’. However, many paint techniques such as marbling and wood graining are incorporated into trompe l’oeil, and effective results can be achieved using these in a simple way. Stencils are the best way to begin as they allow the painter to concentrate on the all important shading without having to worry about the outlines.


Stencils – Stencils provide a ready made template for creating architectural details or adding a trompe l’oeil centre piece to a frame – a fruit bowl or flowers in a vase, for example. Borders can be used as a substitute for a cornice or frieze though they may need careful shading to achieve a realistic effect.  


On a more advanced level, related designs can be used to create panels or false frames enclosing a real object, another stencilled one or a freehand trompe l’oeil view. Individual stencils, such as a ribbon used to ‘hang’ a painting from a trompe l’oeil picture rail, add a witty touch to the composition.  


Stencils make an equally effective treatment for the floor. For a tiled effect which looks equally good on a wall, the surface can be divided into squares and a pattern stencilled inside each. A central panel can be stencilled to create a ‘rug’, with a turned up corner as an added touch of realism.  


Paint techniques – Paint techniques such as marbling, wood graining and tortoise shelling deceive the eye like trompe l’oeil, while disguising inferior materials. Plaster can be painted to look like marble, softwood like mahogany and board like tortoiseshell or semi precious stone.

Paint techniques are often used within a trompe l’oeil: marbling adds character to urns, pillars and tiles; a painted handrail by the stairs can be wood grained; or a tortoiseshell picture frame mounted round a stencilled masterpiece.  


Murals – Some of the most stunning trompe l’oeils are found in murals. To make a wall appear to have a door opening into another room, or give a non existent window a wonderful view requires considerable artistic skills.

More planning and consideration of setting goes into this form of trompe l’oeil. For the deceit to be completely effective, the painting must fit into the setting exactly, so that subject matter relates to the surroundings. For example, a row of books painted on a cupboard door below a bookshelf blends in with the setting and is quite believable.  


The eye is not easily fooled, so it is essential that the objects appear to be life sized: in addition to this, the correct linear perspective is needed to give depth to a flat surface. This perspective will work fully from only one point of view, so the most obvious viewing point must be located.

Another important consideration is the use of light and shade. The designer needs to think of the light sources in the room and when the painting is most likely to be viewed so the necessary shadows can be painted in. Painting light falling onto an object is an effective way of giving it a realistic form, provided it fits in with the overall composition and positioning of the trompe l’oeil.


The materials – Acrylic paints which dry fast are often used for stencils and sometimes for murals. Acrylic colours work best when they are thinned down, rather than applied in a thick consistency. They should be painted on with a stubby stencil brush to prevent runs. Special stencil crayons and paints are also available.

Water based paint (emulsion) can also be used for trompe l’oeil effects and is useful as a colour wash when thinned. Standard paint brushes can be used for large surfaces and artists brushes are useful for adding finer details.  


Glaze mix – 60% scumble glaze, 20% eggshell paint, 20% white spirit – is a good mix for decorative paint techniques.

A range of specialized brushes is needed for the different techniques, from badger hair softening brushes for blurring the effect to graining brushes for wood grain and lining fitches for marbling.  


Preparing the surface – Walls should be clean or freshly painted and as smooth as possible. The paint chosen for the walls should be the same as the paint to be used for the design; use emulsion for designs in water colour paints and eggshell for walls when oils or scumble glazes are to be used. Doors and furniture need to be sanded, cleaned and painted with egg shell finish. Paint finishes such as sponging, dragging and combing make an effective, soft background for may trompe l’oeil designs.  


Creating perspective – Any vista needs a ‘vanishing point’, the spot where lines drawn from perpendicular points meet at the horizon. To create depth you need to find the diagonal vanishing point, by drawing a triangle bisected by a vertical line. The horizontal line is drawn across the triangle about a fifth of the way up. A diagonal line can then be drawn from the left hand corner of the triangle to bisect the centre point. When this line is continued it will give a guide for positioning elements in the design such as trees, urns or arches.  


Applying the design – After preliminary sketches, a design is drawn up in details. A grid is drawn over the design and each square is numbered. This is the increased in size and transferred to the wall by using a spirit level and chalked string to draw the horizontal and vertical lines, keeping the same proportions as the diagram.

Each part of the picture is then transferred to the wall, square by square, until the design is complete. The mural is painted one colour, not one section, at a time to prevent smudging, and can be outlined for greater definition if required.


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