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Fool's Paradise : Trompe l'oeil paints a pleasant deception where plain walls once stood. It's a trick that ends in a smile.

August 05, 1995|KATHY BRYANT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The fun of trompe l'oeil-- a painting that tricks the eye--is discovering that you've been fooled. That drape in the corner, that niche on the wall or that scene out the window isn't real. It's just a masterfully painted illusion.

We've all seen ceilings with painted clouds or windows that look out onto apparently open spaces. These paintings are used by artists to expand the look of areas that may be closed in or small. Bathrooms, small bedrooms and dining rooms are often the areas chosen for trompe l'oeil because of their tight space.

Trompe l'oeil is an architectural reference used to add a sense of dimension to a room, explains Leah Vasquez, an artist in Laguna Beach who specializes in site-specific art. "You have to think of the whole room. It isn't like a realistic painting you just hang on the wall. It is part of the wall, the architecture and the place."

Trompe l'oeil differs from realism or representationalism in that, at first glance, you think what you see is real because it isn't surrounded by a frame and it fits logically into its surroundings.

"It isn't just a picture of a cup. It's supposed to fool the eye so well that at first glance you think you can pick the cup up. It's deception," Vasquez says.

Trompe l'oeil has a long history.

The ancient Egyptians painted ceilings to look like skies. From Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were preserved because of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79, we know that the Greeks and Romans often painted walls to imitate marble, alabaster and other stones.

During the Renaissance in Europe, artists learned about perspective and incorporated trompe l'oeil in their work. Sometimes it was used in small churches where the weight of marble would have been too heavy for a wall.

Sometimes, as in the court of Marie Antoinette, the expense of the trompe l'oeil surpassed the real thing.

Baroque and rococo artists also painted realistic murals.

"People can now appreciate paintings that were done in the centuries before photography, when the sense of illusion and absolute accuracy was important as documentation of place and events," Vasquez says. "A lot of that becomes archival today since we can see what the people ate, where they lived. . . . It's great fun and historically revealing."

Trompe l'oeil was popular in the United States during the Federalist period and is found in both the White House and Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. The walls of the Marmion House parlor in Virginia were painted in 1770 to simulate marble; because marble was not readily available, this made the room appear grand.

"Trompe l'oeil isn't just decorative, realistic painting," Vasquez says. "It takes a tremendous amount of time, skill and thought to create, with great attention paid to the scale and to the illusion, as well as to references to time, place and the relationships between people. It can be a very effective tool in the home."

To give an idea of how time-intensive trompe l'oeil is, it took Vasquez two weeks to paint a little table with embroidered cutwork linen and a string of pearls.

Vasquez painted a postcard on the floor of a small bathroom. It looks as if it were accidentally dropped on the floor. "The card has my signature and is addressed to my clients, who travel," Vasquez says.

In a small, L-shaped powder room, Vasquez painted the inside door to mimic the view you have looking out of the room and into the entryway. She painted a gate, eucalyptus trees and plants. "You have an indoor/outdoor view in this small space that gives a sense of dimension, so you don't feel as if you are closed in," she says.

Working with the owners and an interior designer, Vasquez painted trompe l'oeil drapery in the powder room that seems to hang at random on the painted walls.

In a very small space, there are glazed walls, the trompe l'oeil door and drapery, a corner sink of hammered brass and carnelian marble. "It is a very opulent little room," Vasquez says. "It is like going into a little jewel box."

A trompe l'oeil artist pays attention to light and lighting. Ambient light increases the painting's illusion, and tricks can be accomplished with artificial lighting; when a light is turned on, it can seem to illuminate a faux chandelier or kerosene lamp.

Vasquez painted a mouse on the wall of a wine cellar; it looks as if it is darting into a hole in the wall. "When you open the cellar door, a light comes on immediately, so it really looks as if the mouse is scurrying away," she says.

Artist Mary Ann Ford, owner of Costa Mesa's Painted Creations, has transformed a bathroom into a mini-jungle by painting it with palm trees and exotic birds--plus the owners' three dachshunds in the corner.

One of her most striking works is a bedroom wall that is a scene out of the Serengeti. The owners of the house wanted a safari look for the master bedroom, so Ford studied pictures of the Serengeti and painted Mt. Kilimanjaro, a watering hole, trees and animals.

To complete the look, the owners used bamboo poles to tent the ceiling with cotton duck material. They draped the fabric on both sides of the mural so that it looks like the painting is the view from the "tent." They added plants along the baseboard to further the illusion of the outdoors.

"With trompe l'oeil, one has to guard against cliches like perpetuating angels on ceilings," Vasquez says. "Fooling the eye is one way to make a home more interesting. It also gives one a great appreciation of art, to watch the artist at work in your home and to include art as part of the everyday living or working environment."

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