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Grand Illusion

Blank Walls--and Homeowners' Imaginations--Enjoy New and Vivid Life Through Trompe l'Oeil


For three years, Marlene Jurick stared at a blank wall when she looked out the French doors of her breakfast room.

Now she sees a garden window, framed just like the other exterior windows in her Tuscan-style house in the Tustin foothills. From her vantage point, she can gaze "through" the window into a serene garden. Potted plants in the foreground blend with her porch plants to subtly jar the senses.

But is it real or is it trompe l'oeil--the art form that literally means "fool the eye?"

At Jurick's house, it's art that works by confusing the viewer's senses, at least momentarily, about what's real and what isn't.

It is the same technique interior designer Lisa Danovich used at this year's Philharmonic House of Design when she decided to turn the interior of a pool house into a folly of crumbled stone and open sky. She was copying the picturesque decay in vogue in Italy in the 1800s, when ruins were created as reminders of the Palladian past.

The roots of trompe l'oeil can be traced to the murals of Pompeii and the lush garden scenes done in fresco in ancient dining rooms, Danovich said.

Renaissance painters introduced another key feature that made "modern" trompe l'oeil possible--linear perspective, which is based on the optical illusion that parallel lines seem to converge as they recede toward a vanishing point. The illusion of depth also comes from making more distant objects smaller and placing them closer together. Highlights, shadows and contrast are also important.

What's the difference between this and a mural?

True trompe l'oeil works from only one vantage point. Jurick's garden window works if you face the center of the painting. If you move to the right or left, the perspective skews.

"A mural doesn't have to get into the illusion of space at all," said Orange artist Kerri Sabine-Wolf. "Some of them are more of an artist's interpretation of scenes. But here, where you are trying to depict reality, everything has to be really specific so that it would, at a glance, appear to be real," added Sabine-Wolf, who used the technique to turn Jurick's blank exterior wall into a garden window.

Danovich's pool pavilion, with its trompe l'oeil walls and ceilings, was a design-house hit. "People just loved the experience of being in a pretend place. It was like a grown-up playhouse," said Danovich, a Mission Viejo designer who has since moved to Clinton, Wash.

Danovich worked with Aliso Viejo artist Nana Kucheki to create a pavilion in ruins that blended faux stonework with real stone and mixed fake cornices, moldings and columns with metal sconces, toga-like dressing-room draperies and rich tile work.

For a client bored with the blank space above pullout closet doors, Sabine-Wolf painted a long overhead shelf that holds a vase of hydrangeas, a birdhouse, a hat and a sleeping cat--items related to the client's life.

Whatever is on the surface becomes her canvas, said Sabine-Wolf, who has been painting on walls since she was a child. She works as a community college art teacher and as an artist through her company, the Painted Wall. She uses various techniques to paint on walls and furniture; lately she has been doing a lot of trompe l'oeil as its popularity increases.

What she does is art, not mere decoration, she emphasized.

"It's not tole painting or stenciling. A whole education is involved in knowing how to do this," Sabine-Wolf said.

Although it requires many of the same skills as conventional painting, trompe l'oeil can be a bargain for consumers compared with the cost of buying framed paintings to hang on the wall.

Painting a 2- to 3-foot-long shelf costs about $400, depending on the detail of the items on it, Sabine-Wolf said.

A 4-by-5-foot garden window can range from a basic $600 to $1,500 for an elaborate scene.

"If I did a whole oil painting this size to hang in your house, it would be several thousand dollars," Sabine-Wolf said.

Still, illusion can be addictive. Sabine-Wolf has several clients with "lifer houses," as she calls them; the owners call her every year or so to add something.

Jurick just wanted to do something about that blank wall. Then she decided she wanted to dress up her backyard gates and an architectural recess in the front of the house.

Now faux flowers trail over her gates, and a pair of birds are perpetually building a nest in the cubbyhole.

"I love anything garden-related," said Jurick, who grows roses and belongs to a garden club.

If life is an illusion, Jurick is happy with all of hers.

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