Zips Florist building-Before starting work on the Trompe-l'oeil

Trompe-l'oeil, the very word itself is somewhat intimidating. How do you pronounce it, let alone spell it! The word Trompe-l'oeil is French for "deceive the eye" and refers to an art technique involving realistic imagery in order to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. In 2011, I was commissioned to design and complete a Trompe-l'oeil mural on the entire front of a florist business in Decatur, Illinois. The owner, Dawn Gates, wanted a Tuscan feel to the mural design and after several preliminary sketches and modifications, a final design was approved.  The design called for 3 "cutaway" views, several exposed brick areas, vines, topiaries and two Signs for the business itself.  The site itself needed some basic mortar repair before any paint could be applied.

Before starting this project, I needed some materials and equipment. The building dimemsions were 25' tall by 75' wide but the only scissor lift available to rent would only extend to 20'. Needless to say we went ahead and rented the lift because working from a ladder is not an acceptable alternative. We chose to rent the lift from a local source for a special rate of only $500 for 30 days. I then acquired the necessary paints, drop cloths, brushes, etc. for the job. I always use a high quality exterior semi gloss paint for my murals. Some of my murals have withstood the weather elements for over 20 years , but I always include a three year maintenance plan just in case of fading or wear. A few of the most valuable supplies I gathered was music, ear phones and a big cooler filled with ice and refreshments. It was July and the heat on top of the scissor lift was exhausting.  I also prepared the scissor lift with a canopy to help reduce the effects of the sun bearing down on me. This building had two existing roll out awnings that had to be removed as well as an arbor, several potted plants, a giant wreath and old signage. I like to remove everything possible that may hinder new work from taking place.  So, after several hours of struggling to remove the antique awnings, I called my son-in-law to assist in their ultimate demise. Just a note, I usually prefer to work alone on my mural projects because a lot of my art is spontaneous and happens rather quickly and people tend to get in your way sometimes.

Stubborn awning

After two days of building preparation that included removal of existing obstacles (awnings, arbor, plants, etc.) and repairing some minor mortar issues, the building was ready for paint. Ready for paintI chose to prime the entire building with an undercoat that would compliment the finished design, work with the top coat and therefore make my job a whole lot easier. I applied the primer with an inexpensive power paint sprayer taking normal precautions to cover exposed areas such as windows, doors, and neighboring buildings. The undercoat primer went on rather quickly and made a dramatic difference in the appearance of the building. The overall size of the building was 70' wide by 25' feet tall and it helped to have a scissor lift and plenty of room to manuever it where I needed it to go. It took less than two gallons of primer paint to completely cover the front. It should be noted that the primer was not applied to areas that would later be used as cutaway areas or direct sign work as these areas would receive several coats of paint.

primer coat


By this time I was pretty confident that the project was going to turn out pretty much as I planned. Sometimes you never know how a mural will end up. Now that the primer was on, it was time to add the top coat or finishing coat to the still wet primer. This would take a little more time than the primer did because it would need to be applied by using a 3" paint brush. The technique of dry brushing the top coat is especially useful in creating a texture look and actually uses very little paint to achieve this goal. Dipping just the top portion of the brush in the paint and then dragging the brush over the edge of the paint can to remove excess paint is essential in this process. With very little paint on the brush you would make an X type motion over the area making sure to apply light motions as you go. This technique covers a small area at a time and you should be aware of blending your brush strokes to new areas as you move along. Although this top layer took awhile to complete (4 hours), it was very satisfying to do and made a subtle but significant change to the mural.

background details

Now the fun part begins. The blocked out areas that I had created before priming the building would now be highlighted and color added to them to make them pop. You would be surprised how adding the sky blue color and a few white areas for clouds can make your mural jump out at you.  The cutaway window areas along with the exposed brick areas were now background painted and ready for detail work later on. As I said, Ideas come pretty fast and sometimes create small changes in the mural that are both unexpected and appreciated. When you step back and look at a mural, you may see something in your mind that would look fantastic on the mural, but you may also see problems that need corrected or removed altogether. For example, I created a vase with flowers but then painted over it after stepping back to take a look at it from a distance. The block areas such as archways, cutaway windows, exposed bricks, and shadow boxes were now complete and ready for detail work.

The "devil is in the details" refers to a catch or mysterious element hidden in the details. I enjoy the finishing details of a project because it allows me to add those little details that some people overlook the first time they see my work.  On this Trompe-l'oeil I included a couple personal details that only a few people would recognize such as the shadow figure of the owner, Dawn Gates standing in the doorway and her tom cat precariously perched in one of the upper windows. I was tempted to add a picture of myself breaking through the wall, as I sometimes do on my wall murals but decided against it in one of those rare moments of clarity.

artistic liberties

Details, details, details. They take up the majority of your time but are essential to create a Trompe-l'oeil or any wall mural. Do not rush this process. Take your time and let the ideas bounce around your head like lottery balls. Some of the smallest details that required a double take included butterflies, birds, and even some bumblebees. The finished mural featured columns of granite, stone archways, wrought iron gates, exposed bricks, open windows with a sky view, shadows, topiary trees, and much more. I even used real solar powered coach lights to add to the true Trompe-l'oeil feeling. Shadows are one of the primary effects that your mural must have but make sure they are appropriate to the design and are all faced in the same direction. Imagine the sun in one location and how the resulting shadows would fall. The use of shadows are crucial to a successful Trompe-l'oeil. This mural project could have been a work in progress over several months, as new ideas could always be incorporated into the design but due to an upcoming street festival, it only took 30 days to complete. Imagine if you will, a month of extremely hot days, sometimes working while balanced precariously on top of a scissor lift or laying on the hard pavement doing detail work at the bottom of the building. In the end, a good design, a little bit of paint and a lot of work transformed an outdated and blah building facade into an eye catching fresh design that invited customers to come in.

door details