Trompe l’oeil painting – fooling your senses


Trompe l’œil – tricking the eye

Trompe l’œil painting is the art of painting to confuse or trick the eye that the subject matter is real. The name comes from the french:

TROMPE = trick
and (spelled correctly), L’ŒIL = the eye.

Trompe l'oeil painting

Trompe l’œil of a violin hanging on a door.

There are many famous examples of trompe l’oeil but as a style it hasn’t the cashet of say Impressionism or Surrealism. You can see a great example of trompe l’œil at Chatsworth House located in central England in the Peak District in Derbyshire. This painting was executed by Jan van der Vaardt (1653–1727), in oils somewhere around 1674–1724. Jan van der Vaardt was a Dutch painter of portraits, landscapes and trompe-l’œil who was active in England for most of his career.

Trompe l’œil doesn’t have to be of an object. In one of the paintings below (the Walt Disney room) the window with the curtain and a view is a trompe l’oeil. On the home page I put an example of trompe l’oeil sign writing. In this case the letters seemed to hover in front of the wall. The landlord of the Golden Anchor was asked dozens of times how the letters had been fixed to the wall. He always replied “ask him – he painted it”.

Trompe work (as it is known in the business) only ever works from a small angle of view. Think of the violin above. If you were standing by side of the door it wouldn’t fool you at all.

The trompe l’oeil painter has to have a lexicon of techniques. One has to know how to paint wood grain, and study the difference between, say, mahogany and pine. Both those woods will have completely different techniques. The same goes for reproduction marble.


Three small trompe l’oeil wall paintings

Trompe l'œil shelf by supersnail

Trompe l’œil shelf – painted directly onto a wall

trompe l'oeil shelf

Trompe l’oeil shelf with pint of Guinness and books

trompe l'oeil guitar

Trompe l’oeil guitar painted on a wall

The paintings above are small trompe works. The first and third in houses, the second in a bar. They don’t take long to paint but do remember that they have to be drawn out first and then applied to the wall. The drawing out is done in my studio and then I come and transfer it to the wall and paint.


Tricky trompe l’oeil toilet seats

trompe l' oeil on furniture

Toilet seat with dictionary and camera

Trompe l'œil toilet seat

Seat with the contents of a handbag

painted toilet seat

Toilet seat with makeup, sweets and an apple core

Trompe l'oeil on toilet seat

Trompe l’œil screwdriver and secateurs

Toiletries on a loo seat

Toiletries on a loo seat

Toilet seat painted in trompe l'oeil

Trompe l’oeil toilet seat with cigarettes and coins

The above trompe l’oeil are painted directly onto toilet seats. They were painted to commission except for the “contents of a handbag” which I painted as a wedding present for some friends. With this type of painting the money is in the details. Naturally the handbag seat took much longer to execute than the remainder. I painted many of these in the 1990s. They made fun, original gifts.

To enhance the effects of the trompe l’œil I also used 3 different varnishes. The seats are varnished in high gloss and the images locally varnished with matt or satin sheen varnish. This technique helps lift the painting from the background.


Confusing corner cupboards

Decorated cupboard

Corner cupboard painted to look like a skep

Decorated corner cupboard

Parrot corner cupboard trompe l’oeil

Cat decorated corner cupboard

Cat decorated corner cupboard


Corner cupboard with rooster

Corner cupboard with rooster and chicks

Corner cupboard with ginger cat

Corner cupboard with ginger cat

Trompe l'œil book cupboard

Trompe l’œil book cupboard

The above cupboards are painted corner cupboards. The face of the cupboard is made of medium density fibre board (MDF) that I profiled to the required shape. I then painted the trompe l’œil on. In some the cupboard is obvious as in the cat cupboards, the are what they are with a cat on top. The hinges and lock holes can be seen. In the case of the parrot and the bee hive the hinges are not as easily seen and the cupboard does not retain its cupboard look. In the parrot cupboard the hinge is on the left hand side and is disguised as one of the bars of the cage.


Walt Disney room trompe l’oeil

Trompe l'oeil mural

Trompe l’oeil mural

In this mural the whole room was painted in a trompe l’œil style but with cartoon figures. The doors are all shut and the window doesn’t exist, neither does the stair case down which Donald Duck is running.

This mural was painted for a child’s bedroom and took approximately 3 months to complete. The doors are completely flat and the panels do not exist but were painted on the doors in perspective.

As you can imagine, work like this does not come cheaply

Below are two details of the painting

Walt Disney mural

Walt Disney mural

Detail of Walt Disney room

Detail of Walt Disney room

Detail of Walt Disney trompe work

Detail of Walt Disney trompe work


The jungle room

The jungle room aeroplane

The jungle room. Aeroplane tail

This mural is not strictly a trompe l’œil. However there are elements in the design that are, and for that reason I have included it here.

The crashed plane was built by a carpenter friend and in actual fact is the child’s cupboards, drawers and school desk once the doors are opened.

The wood work is real and part of a 15 century house. The mural was painted in between the wooden structures.

The tail of the plane is a cupboard where school books were kept and the tail-plane is the desk. The wing with the letters G-1FC is the door to a wardrobe.

The jungle room. Aeroplane front

The jungle room. Aeroplane front


The jungle room wall

The jungle room wall

We also painted a bed for this room and made it look like broken crates with contents spilling out and with lizards and insects wandering over the surface. Unfortunately I never got photos of it.

Part of the jungle room ceiling

Part of the jungle room ceiling


Blanket boxes or toy boxes

decorated furniture

Trompe l’oeil blanket boxes with duck and rooster

trompe l' oeil furniture

Trompe l’oeil blanket boxes with rabbits

painted furniture

Trompe l’oeil blanket boxes with ducks

These trompe l’œils are painted on blanket or toy boxes. In these cases I supplied the box on which the painting is done but if you have a box that you would like decorated in a similar style to this – that’s usually ok too. Plain boxes work best. Objects that have mouldings or fielded panels limit what can be painted because the furniture’s features can frequently “break” the composition that would trick the eye.

In the case of the wooden boxes, I also included small objects on the top. The rabbit box has a couple of carrots and the duck box a piece of bread. The blue box is a wooden box but it was first finished with an antique type paint finish and traditional decoration.


Painting trompe l’œil on furniture

Trompe l' oeil furniture

Trompe l’oeil Secretaire with books and a rat

The painting on the secretaire was first started by applying a “drag spatter finish in two colours over a base coat. The panels in the door were then painted to look like shelves with books and finally gloss varnished with diamond leading painted over the top. The whole effect gives a glazed bookcase to flat wooden doors. As a bit of fun a piece of paper was then painted to look like it was hanging out of the drawer.

The child’s school desk was painted with the sort of objects that you’d expect to find in or on a child’s desk. The book included logic puzzles. I painted the answers to the puzzles on the back of the desk.

The secretaire was a commission and the client supplied the furniture in poor condition. I had to “make good” the piece before painting began. The school desk I acquired from a sale of old school furniture from an Irish school that was updating their equipment.

decorated furniture

Trompe l’oeil child’s school desk


Realistic birds – for fun

bird trompe l' oeil

Golden Pheasant garden trompe l’œil

trompe l' oeil bird

Trompe l’œil – peach faced lovebird

painting on profiled board - red lory

red lory painted on profiled board

These birds were painted for fun more than anything. They are all about life size. The golden pheasant was donated to the Irish Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to raise money for their charity. It came equipped with a stake so that the bird could be planted in a garden to appear as if it was strutting across the lawn.

The peach faced love bird was photographed attached to a branch in the garden. If you look carefully you can see the rubber bands holding to the real branch.

The red lorikeet was painted for a friend that kept loris, budgerigars and parakeets and didn’t have a red lori.