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Trompe Card of Decor : Decorating: This house painter's pals call her 'Vickiangelo.' Her paintings of interior surfaces use the 'trick of the eye' technique of centuries ago.

March 23, 1991|PATRICK MOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Things like this always start out small. One can imagine Pope Julius II strolling around thoughtfully in the Sistine Chapel, peering at the bare ceiling and saying, "Hmmm . . . needs a little something."

Michelangelo arrives. The pontiff says he thinks a few cherubs with trumpets would be nice. Nothing fancy, just a little color in the corners to jazz things up for Christmas.

Michelangelo suggests adding a biblical personality--Adam, say. The Pope goes for it. Up goes the scaffolding.

The work progresses. Julius is thrilled. He suggests adding a handful of notable saints and a few allegorical scriptural scenes. Short for the rent, Michelangelo shrugs and tells him it's a terrific idea.

And before either men realize it, the ceiling is packed to the eaves with famous religious folk, and the Pope and the artist are discussing spiffing up the den with a few witty Latin proverbs painted in neo-Gothic.

People can get like that when they start turning their walls and ceilings into works of art. A flower here and a vine there, and before long the thought of a flying wedge of cherubs with baseball bats and the faces of the Marx Brothers chasing around the chandelier after a phalanx of demons who look a lot like the cast of the "Today" show, all against a background of fleecy pink clouds, doesn't sound so odd. Ask Vicki Miller.

Miller, who is a lot breezier than Michelangelo, is a house painter, but she never works with anything as crude as a paint roller. A coat of Navajo white is, to her, merely an undercoat on the canvas.

Take Lorrie and Michael Sutton's house in Laguna Hills, for instance. It's a sprawling custom job in Nellie Gail Ranch, where Miller's influence is obvious from the moment the front door opens.

Above the entry hall, recessed into the high ceiling above the curving staircase, is an egg-shaped dome from which hangs a large brass lamp. The interior surface of the dome is meticulously painted with an English country scene, dominated by an old stone church with birds wheeling around the belfry.

It is as if the dome is a curved window and the scene outside is not a suburban hill above Interstate 5, but the fens of Cambridgeshire. (There is one bit of subtle cheating: The castle that is painted on the horizon was taken from a book of Irish, not English, scenes.)

The name for this technique is trompe l'oeil-- literally "trick of the eye." It is designed to create such a strong illusion of reality that a person looking at it may not realize, at first, that it is a painting. Lorrie Sutton fell in love with it.

It even shows up in the Sutton laundry room. Above the countertop where, presumably, clothes are folded, sits a cat atop a shelf, which also supports a handful of books. The entire scene is painted on the wall.

"We had a cat that ran away from home about seven years ago that I've missed," Lorrie Sutton said. "I showed Vicki pictures of it, and she brought it back again on the wall."

Even the books are personalized: Family members' names appear as the names of the authors and publishers on the books' spines.

On the facing wall is a rectangular paned window, with a latch and surrounded by tile, set into what appears to be a cracked stone wall. The window is actually the door of the ironing board cupboard. The tile, stone wall and cracks all are painted illusions.

"It's not drudgery to come in here anymore," Sutton said.

Meanwhile, paperhangers have gone hungry.

"When I saw what Vicki could do," she said, "I just wanted more and more. My husband is a little nervous about me getting carried away with it. After we did the dome, he said, 'OK, enough.' "

Well he might. Miller said a "moderately difficult" painting job that takes about eight hours will probably cost a client about $750. This includes the cost of materials and research.

Before the brakes were applied, however, the Sutton nursery was painted with small cherubs on the ceiling (one of which Sutton believes has a face that resembles her young daughter), and in a second children's bedroom the words "Once Upon a Time" and "Happily Ever After" are painted high on facing walls.

Also, the ceilings of an upstairs bathroom and two downstairs dining rooms were painted with a multicolor "clouding" technique--the paint is applied by dabbing it on with rags or sponges, then glazed--and one of the downstairs rooms was enhanced with paintings of green ivy twining over the walls and ceiling.

Still, it's the dome that is the trompe l'oeil showpiece of the house.

"At first I thought I'd just do the sky and tops of trees as if you were looking out of a dome," Sutton said, "but Vicki brought over English landscaping books to get ideas for trees, and I saw all these cathedrals and castle ruins, and I just started getting more ideas."

In fact, she said, after Miller painted the nursery more than a year ago, "the more she did, the more ideas I kept having."

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