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Do you wait all year for April Fools’ Day to play annoying pranks and jokes on your friends and family?

Do you wait all year for April Fools’ Day to play annoying pranks and jokes on your friends and family? What if you could fool them year round? Well, with a few deft sweeps of a paintbrush in the hand of a talented artist, you can trick the eye of visitors to your home in the tradition of ‘trompe l’oeil’.

Literally, trompe l’oeil means ‘trick the eye’ and it is an art form that uses exquisitely realistic images to create optical illusions. Typically, the intent is to create a convincing—though unexpected—three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface.

Trompe l’oeil has been employed by artists since the Romans and Greeks were decorating, but it became significantly more sophisticated as painters developed a deeper understanding of perspective.  Well before the advent of chiropractors, artists craned their necks for months on end to create the impression of openings to the heavens and skies in the vaulted ceilings of churches and palaces using only paint.

Trompe l’oeil has also been used for centuries in the creation of theatrical sets where long corridors, winding lanes and other elements are required to provide physical depth and context to a scene.

In contemporary cities, trompe l’oeil is often employed by sophisticated graffiti and commissioned street artists to paint spectacular murals on the outsides of otherwise unremarkable architecture. We even have an example right here in Nelson … take a look at the ‘un’real windows, doors and cornices painted on the sides of the Reo’s.

Inside contemporary homes, however, the use of optical illusions is quite rare because, done properly, it is labour intensive and there are few artists able to pull it off and few homeowners able to afford it. Of course, there are commercially available wallpapers you can purchase if you really want to ‘install’ a window with a view of the Hampton Court Gardens in your dungeon-like basement, and you can still buy the ‘forest scenes’ and ‘beaches’ that were popular in offices and rec rooms during the 1970s. If you really want to be clever about it, there are paint application techniques you can learn that mimic rough stone, or peeling plaster so you can add a rustic feature without the rustic mess.

Anyone with an e-mail account has probably seen some of the viral e-mails depicting extraordinary painted illusions such as bathrooms with floors that appear to have completely dropped out to reveal the ground several storeys below; or a staff smoking room painted to look like the inside of a grave, complete with the sky up above and mourners peering down.

But, perhaps you’d prefer to start with something a little less challenging. How about a porthole in the bathroom looking out to sea, or a ‘fake’ shelf of cartoon characters in a child’s room? Perhaps you’d like an ionic column on either side of your front door … or maybe just a pretend hook with a pretend umbrella hanging from it.

Get the shadows and the wrinkles and the light in all the right places and perhaps you’ll fool your friends all year round without having to put plastic wrap on the toilet seat … although, you could probably paint that too!

You can look for my posts on the first of every month. If you have questions or comments about interior decorating and other ‘nesting’ issues, I’d love to hear from you:


Kate is an artist, designer and author. Her column appears on the Nelson Star website every two weeks. For more information head to

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