Friday, April 29, 2016

What is a "trompe-l'oeil"?

For the first time, we're offering a still life painting workshop focusing specifically on trompe-l'oeil, co-taught by instructors Sally Fama Cochrane and Devin Cecil-Wishing. Here, Sally answers the tricky question of what makes a painting a "trompe-l'oeil."

"Fish Allergy" by Sally Fama Cochrane
“Trompe-l’oeil” means “fool the eye,” and is commonly defined as an “illusionistic” painting. But as realist painters, we want the objects in every still life or figure painting to look real. So, what distinguishes a “trompe-l’oeil” from any other realistic painting?

"Sand Dollar" by Devin Cecil-Wishing
The difference lies in where the illusion begins. Ever since the Renaissance and the invention of perspective, the surface of the canvas functioned as an invisible “window” through which the viewer could see into another world: just beyond that window was a convincingly illusionistic three-dimensional space with people and objects inhabiting it. 

Trompe-l’oeil paintings, however, bring that illusionistic space one step closer to the viewer, by creating the illusion that objects in the painting are part of the viewer’s world. By breaking this assumed boundary between the viewer’s world of material objects and the painted world of objects, the trompe-l’oeil forces those painted objects to seem even more real.

"Scurvy" by Sally Fama Cochrane
As an example of how a trompe-l’oeil can push an object into the viewer’s world, take my painting, “Scurvy.” The red rusty wall with teeth hanging on it is the painted surface separating us from the implied space beyond it, inside the porthole with the lemons. But by painting the open porthole door -- extending into the world of the viewer -- the reality of the rest of the painted world (the lemons, limes and teeth) becomes even more immediate, as if the viewer could reach in and open the door and the lemons and limes would tumble out.

"Trompe-L'Oeil" by Devin Cecil-Wishing
Trompe-l’oeil paintings can also thrust the entire illusion into the viewer's space. Take for example Devin’s painting “Trompe-L’oeil.” Here, since we accept a frame as a typical boundary between our world and a painted world, all of the objects within this painted frame or shadowbox appear even more immediately real than in a typically-composed still life. The detail of the pencil pointing outward, toward us, further emphasizes this effect.

"Soy allergy" by Sally Fama Cochrane

This power of the trompe-l’oeil to inhabit the viewer’s world makes the objects not just “realistic,” but so real that you feel like you could touch them. Trompe-l’oeil paintings expand the visual to the tactile. This power is what led me to employ it as a compositional device for my series on food allergies.  

"Milk allergy" by Sally Fama Cochrane
The tactile quality of these paintings echoes the immediate, personal, and sensory relationship we have with food and highlights the paradox of not being able to touch a particular food allergen (the way you can't actually touch the objects in the paintings). 

Come learn the techniques to make your own personalized illusions in our 5-day Trompe-L'Oeil Still Life Painting workshop June 20-24, 2016. For more information and to sign up, click here.

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