What is Trompe L’oeil? The Art of Illusion

Road Trip, oil on panel, by Dennis Crayon

If you love art, you’ve surely come across the term trompe l’oeil. It’s often defined simply by explaining that the words are French for “fool the eye,” but that doesn’t really tell the whole story.

With trompe l’oeil artist Dennis Crayon in the solo gallery this month, it’s the perfect time to explain what the technique is, how it works, and share some examples:

Trompe l’oeil vs. photorealism

Both trompe l’oeil and photorealism both involve depicting something as realistically as possible, but there are a few differences:

  • Trompe l’oeil is intended to fool the eye into thinking something is really there, so the subject matter is limited to objects that could conceivably be on a wall. Playing cards, window scenes, and recognizable materials like wood and marble are common subjects. In photorealism, the subject could be anything.
  • The two techniques have different goals: a trompe l’oeil artist wants to trick the viewer with the illusion of three-dimensionality. (Look at the shadows and folds painting at the top of this post.) Photorealism aims simply to recreate an image as realistically as possible, in two dimensions.
  • Photorealism is inspired by photography, so the compositions are closer to what a camera would see than what the eye sees. Trompe l’oeil is a tradition that goes way, way back before photography existed.

Nicholas, graphite, by Wendy Donahoe, winner of best in show in December 2012.

So, the above drawing by Wendy Donahoe could be described as photorealistic, but not trompe l’oeil. For one, because it’s monochrome, it doesn’t try to fool the eye the way a drawing or painting in color could. The composition is that of a classic portrait, as well: the figure is posing within the frame, not attempting to climb out of it.

How do they do it?

There are many tricks and techniques painters can use to fool the viewer.

This painting by Art League instructor Patrick Kirwin uses the texture of wood and attention to the details of light to create an illusion that would be at home in a carnival.

Art League instructor Patrick Kirwin shows how he uses things like a turkey feather and plastic bag to paint marble in these videos. (Kirwin is known for painting murals, a common setting for trompe l’oeil because there’s no frame to give away the illusion.)

Crayon, this month’s solo artist, explained some of his process in our 2013 Q&A interview. He starts with a photograph and plans out the composition in Photoshop before starting the painting.

“R is for Rose” by Dennis Crayon was awarded second prize in the “Flora & Fauna” exhibit.

Regardless of the approach, a smooth surface is an essential starting point. Crayon paints and sands many layers of gesso (a white, paint-like material) onto his panels before he starts painting.

Off the wall

Trompe l’oeil isn’t limited to painting, either.

Ghost Clock, bleached Honduras mahogany, by Wendell Castle.

In Wendell Castle’s famous Ghost Clock sculpture, what appears to be a clock draped in cloth is in fact a single piece of wood, partially bleached to complete the illusion.

In other settings, trompe l’oeil can provoke a stronger reaction. For example, these life-size security guard sculptures can make museum visitors jump. And you’ve probably seen photos of crowd-gathering trompe l’oeil sidewalk chalk artworks. Instead of popping out from the wall, these illusions rise up out of the ground, and they need to be viewed from just the right angle.

Dennis Crayon, “That Which Was Once Whole”

How to fool your eye

Now that you’ve learned what trompe l’oeil means, it’s time to see it in action! Dennis Crayon’s “That Which Was Once Whole” is on view at The Art League through January 2, 2017.

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