Trompe L’oeil Illusion for Art and Decor

Optical illusions delight the eye.

Surprise and drama are decorating elements that delight people when they enter a room. All it takes is a touch of paint magic.

An artistic technique which offers more than a little magic is called trompe l’oeil, which is a French phrase for “fool the eye”.

Trompe l’oeil technique is an application for both fine art and decorative art. There are murals by masters of the Renaissance which are trompe l’oeil illusions but the effect goes back even further to Pompeii, where artisans painted walls to look as if they were made of marble.

Creating a trompe l’oeil illusion has its essentials.

Trompe l’oeil is part of a genre of fine art called surrealism. Illusions are often employed in surrealism but what makes it most effective is the degree to which 3-D realism has been created on a 2 dimensional surface.

For decorative purposes, believability is essential, but masterful technique is optional. The illusion must be drawn out with a fair amount of accuracy and the lighting close enough to reality to create believability. The ability to paint realistically with painstaking subtlety isn’t as important. A little bit of whimsy can be fun and desirable in some decorative applications.

Trompel’oeil illusions show well outside in public places, or inside in homes and offices. What is important is that whatever is created fits into the continuity of the space, lighting and true to the fundamentals of perspective.

The composition must be complete.

A painting with a realistic effect in it is just realism. A trompe l’oeil illusion requires that it is complete in its relationship to its surroundings. It is a 3 dimensional altering of reality on a two dimensional surface. For the mind of the viewer to rest in the illusion, it must be complete.

When colors used to create the illusion fit in with the color scheme of its surroundings, the illusion is that much better. However, what is most essential is that the composition and lighting of the mural are rendered with as much accuracy as possible.

If the illusion is photographic, somehow it loses something in translation from fantasy to reality. Photographic realism can certainly be impressive, but the fine line of what is actual and what is painted seems to work best when the piece can be viewed both ways. The viewer will appreciate being able to somehow crack the illusion. The art of Trompe l’oeil is a painting technique, not a photographic technique.

Humor is inevitable.

From the outlandish to the tongue in cheek, trompe l’oeil illusions are often humorous or satirical. Some murals are so grandiose, even though they are serious and realistic they lighten people’s mood when they see one. Astonished smiles are common among viewers.

Creating a painted illusion.

For the novice, it is best to have at least a little experience with drawing and painting. This is so that there is some familiarity with how paint works [and how it doesn’t], how it feels to use a brush, which ones work well for your project and how to draw out your composition. If you haven’t had such experience, it would be good to take a beginner’s painting class in the use of acrylics, which are the paints most often used for these projects.

Where to paint a mural.

Visibility is most essential when choosing a place to paint any mural. If you choose a hallway, for instance, the walls on either side of the viewer would be so close that it wouldn’t be fun to view it. The illusion needs some distance in order to be psychologically received. However, if you are looking down a hallway and there is a wall at the end of it, providing it is wide enough, it is a good spot for a trompe l’oeil illusion.

Wherever we see areas where we would like to have an actual 3 dimensional feature or opening like a window or a door- that is a good spot for a trompe l’oeil mural.

A trompe l’oeil door illusion.

Probably one of the best small murals to start with would be something purely architectural, like a door. Windows sometimes require painting landscapes or living things. Life is the most difficult to paint effectively for bridging the gap between the real and the imaginary.

For beginning purposes, a closed door would be easier to paint, because its lighting and linear aspects are less complex. A six panel door has areas of relief which add dimension to its surface, for example.

For those who have a bit more experience, if the door is ajar with another visible architectural feature behind it, that is fine, but you have made a real job for yourself because now you have more complex perspective and lighting to deal with. It is best for beginners to start more simply. The effect will still be delightful.

If you would like to paint an illusionary door, it doesn’t have to match your home’s architecture. It can be as whimsical a design as you wish. What would make its planning and execution much easier is to photograph an actual door or obtain a photograph of one. It should be large enough to be able to see it well, so you can gather enough visual information from it without guessing.

Simple lighting that is just overhead and directly in front of the door would be the best lighting for a mural because it is neutral. You want your door to look like it belongs to the lighting in the room as much as possible, but it isn’t a rigid rule.

Drawing and painting tips for your mural.

An art tracing projector can help if you have access to one. The photo can be projected on the wall and traced in with darker vine charcoal or a harder drawing pencil. Pencil tends to burn through paint eventually but offers a finer line than vine charcoal. Pencil lines should be done very softly. Most of the vine charcoal wipes off and leaves a subtle line. It mixes well with paint.

Drawing your mural without a tracing projector requires planning, mathematics and some simple drafting ability. You can have your photo Xeroxed to make it larger. You can mark on it with pencil or match colors from it if you wish. Your ability to translate the dimensions of the door onto your wall will take some calculating. The simpler the multiplication of your photo’s dimensions are, the easier it will be to get a ratio that blows the image up to the size you desire.

Latex all purpose paint primer would be fine to use as a base coat for a mural. Make sure you have your wall’s touch up paint on hand because you will most likely paint outside the lines.

Acrylic paint is versatile. It can be used indoors or outdoors. It dries quickly, which can sometimes be a hindrance as much as much as it is a help, and cleans up easily. It can be mixed with acrylic retarding liquid or acrylic medium to slow drying time. The more liquid the acrylics are, the easier it will be to paint with them. Water should not be the primary liquefier for the final coats of acrylic paint. A flow medium or a more liquid version of acrylic paint is available.

When mixing up your colors, know that your door will be a focal point if it is painted in bold colors that dominate rather than recede into the room’s color scheme. That is fine if you wish it to be the focal point of the room, but it will probably have a pretty strong presence without being so boldly colored. Paints will almost never be used right out of the tube because their colors are too bright.

Be aware that painting a mural is a grand challenge, but highly addicting and ultimately incredibly satisfying.


Golden Acrylics makes some of the finest acrylic paints and painting mediums on the market. They have excellent customer service and tech support. They can even tell you how their paints hold up in the outdoor climate of almost any state. They will also recommend preparations and finishes for the longevity of your artwork for both indoor and outdoor applications.

Liquitex makes quality paints and mediums as well. These companies offer a lot of information about color and the use of their paints.

Painting Murals: Images, Ideas and Techniques by Patricia Seligman [North Light Books], is an excellent book for the aspiring mural painter. There are many photos of murals and visual instruction on how to accomplish them. offers hundreds of museum quality art prints, photographs and posters. Expert framing and matting assistance is offered on their website with just a click. Decorating and Fine Art articles that help and inform customers can be found on the website.

Leagh Janell is passionate about fine art and decorating. His 30 years as a fine artist and decorative artist for a high profile clientele have afforded him some authority in those fields. At present, Mr. Janell writes for



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