How to use trompe l’oeil in interiors and exteriors spaces

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  • December 11, 2018

Another traditional artisanal technique that we use here at Pigmentti on our painted decoration projects is the effect of trompe l’oeil – the use of paint to create an illusionary scene, landscape or architectural features in an interior or exterior scheme. In this blog post, we’ll be sharing the facts behind this fascinating skill and explaining how you can use trompe l’oeil in your own home, design project, hospitality space or outside area. Be sure to drop us an email or give us a call should you have any further questions or would like us to quote for a project.

Pigmentti – Painted ornamental tempera decoration on ceiling
Pigmentti – Acanthus leaf trompe l’oeil

What is Trompe L’oeil?

Pronounced tromp loi, the Tate Modern defines the term trompe l’oeil as follows: ‘A French phrase meaning to ‘deceive the eye’ used to describe paintings that create the illusion of a real object or scene’.

The technique uses colour, shading and perspective to create realistic imagery giving the impression of classical proportion or architectural detail. The objects depicted are in a three-dimensional format – think forced perspective in architectural terms.

Trompe l’oeil can be applied to furniture, paintings, walls, ceilings, decorative items, set designs, or building facades and other effects such as marbling or faux wood patterns can also add to the overall scene. You would most commonly come across the effect with wallpapers that look like wood panelling, traditional mouldings and other architectural features.

Pigmentti – Trompe l’oeil architectural details

A Brief History of Trompe L’oeil

The term trompe-l’oeil was coined in the late 1800s but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the technique was used in a variety of instances before this, predominantly in Greek and Roman times. The desire to paint realistic images was high and the skill is even referred to in an ancient Greek story where two renowned painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius, fought to create the most realistic still life painting. The latter artist reportedly won when Zeuxis pulled back the curtains to reveal the painting, without realising they were the painting itself.

Pigmentti – Apollo and the muses with laurel motifs in gold leaf mural

In the Ancient Greek and Roman era, artists like Zeuxis and Parrhasius applied pigments to wet plaster to create life-like details and raise plain surfaces by adding false columns and other details. Some great examples of trompe l’oeil come from the remains found in Pompeii via the villas, palaces and churches and these can still be seen in the city today. The technique was used to add a sense of grandeur, give the impression of a bigger space and present better scenery. By playing with perspective and using light and shadow, domes were turned into vast skies and windowless spaces opened to imaginary vistas. The possibilities were endless.

Still life – Pompeii, c. AD 70

Another example that we will all know of is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, painted between 1508 to 1512, where renaissance artist Michelangelo used fresco to create angels and biblical figures surrounded by columns and beams. This use of fresco allowed Michelangelo to create rich colours and give a feeling of depth to his work.

Trompe l’oeil is also used in smaller paintings where artists came up with their own recipes to create the perfect medium. Paintings would normally depict letters or beautiful objects. European artists commonly used egg-based tempera applied to wood panels. Although this, like the plaster, dried very quickly and was hard to tame. Some of our favourite famous artists who used trompe l’oeil in their work include Jan Van Eyck, Leonardo da Vinci, De Scott Evans and William Harnett.

Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel, Rome
William Harnett – Mr. Hulings’ Rack Picture, oil on canvas, 1888

Using Trompe L’oeil in the Modern Home

It could be argued that we are missing a trick in this modern age by not using the illusory effect of trompe l’oeil more in our homes and hospitality projects. In a time where we can struggle for both interior and exterior space, this technique can open up rooms and create a unique point of difference from standard interior design and architecture.

Debra Teare – Persistence of Vision, oil on canvas, 2008

The beauty of the effect is that it needn’t just be applied to interior walls and can also be painted onto garden spaces to trick guests into seeing a larger space or an alternative view. Ceilings and facades are also perfect for applying the technique for a suburban and surreal view in a built up city. This is how trompe l’oeil is most commonly used in this current climate where it is now closely related to photorealism.

Pigmentti – Portofino style trompe l’oeil painted facade

A modern example of trompe l’oeil is Richard Haas’ six-story mural for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. Haas created a huge archway made of mortared stone blocks. Beyond the arch was a waterfall and sky ridden with birds, tricking passing traffic into believing there was a beach just through the building. Haas has painted many buildings in the US, adorning them with domes or other building fronts to hide work going on behind.

Richard Haas – Six-story mural for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami

Banksy is another example of trompe l’oeil created in a modern way, showing how contemporary artists use trompe l’oeil to be satirical and whimsical. The anonymous artist depicts scenes where characters interact with the wall they’re pasted upon, normally making a political statement. Obviously he has updated the medium and created the effect using paste-ups as opposed to paint. Regardless of the update in medium, this shows us how artwork can make us pause for thought and also shows how trompe l’oeil can be updated for new generations.

Banksy, London, 2006
Banksy, Bethlehem, 2005

At Pigmentti, we bring traditional values with our work and are able to create decorative scenes within homes, chapels, palaces, hotels or exterior spaces. We recently completed the restoration of a chapel where we created rosettes, columns and fake windows with the sky coming through. We can also add mouldings or columns to any space. It’s important to consider what you would like to achieve with your space.

Pigmentti – Private Italian Chapel Trompe l’Oeil

Are you after realistic ornamentation or a more artistic piece? Are you looking to make a space appear bigger, or just add a sense of decoration? Consider these things when commissioning or get in touch with us so that we can advise what is best for the space.

Contact us today for a consultation or for further information on how to incorporate trompe l’oeil, bas-relief, frescos, murals, gold leaf and verre églomisé into your designs.

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