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Art students learn uses for trompe l’oeil

It’s crunch time for students, administration, staff and faculty at the University of Jamestown. Faculty have been meeting since last week, students are getting settled, first-year students are getting acquainted with the city and campus … and art supplies are flying off the shelves in town and at the bookstore.

One of the more unusual classes this fall is a combined large-format painting and scenic painting class, and none of the supplies can be purchased on campus. Students have to get them at area paint and building supply stores in town. The class has two components regardless of which department students seek credit.

The theater course teaches the student how to gauge the painting’s perspective from below the stage … in other words, a large painting that when seen from above the head (on stage), would seem correct from his or her seat in the auditorium or theater, below the stage. That’s hard to do, because the vanishing point along the horizon line is not even at an ant’s viewpoint … rather it’s more like a mole’s vantage point.

The students taking the class as theater or art credits will be doing a trompe l’oeil, which in French means to “fool the eye.” Their painting, (like the theater students works) must be a minimum of 4-by-4 feet and preferably a 4-by-6 feet or even larger. The vantage point for these works will be standing about 5 1/2 feet high and hung so the top is at 8 feet or a standard ceiling height.

Some students have opted for painting a wall or a woven canvas on their wall so they can roll it up and take it home with them once class is over. It’s always a fun class but also one that allows architecture students the option to design a work that will enlarge the visual space of a room. It’s a class I used to teach in Mississippi for homeowners wanting to learn how to add a creative component to a room in their homes, and at the same time, give the illusion of much more space.

During the ’70s I painted my entire house using trompe l’oeil style of camouflage, as a way to cover flaws and enlarge the visual appearance of a narrow hallway and increase the feeling of space by disguising walls as open spaces (through paint). This is the basis for the art class: to learn the techniques needed to make some things in a room disappear and give another view from the same space.

If anyone attended summer vacation Bible school at the Adventist Church last summer, there were examples of a Medieval castle used in performances. The wood grain, stone work, as well as windows through which landscapes were seen, are all examples of surface techniques used to portray realistic imagery. I’ve used those paintings in my East-West art history class’s Medieval feast. The 4-by-8-foot panels give the feeling of being inside a castle hall looking outside through stained glass windows.

Regular latex paint is used. Students buy four gallons of indoor flat primary colors (red, yellow and blue) plus white. They use paint rollers and trays as well as large paint brushes. They learn how to mix their colors using those three colors and if they have to use a color they cannot mix, they’re able to add acrylic to latex or paint over the latex for greater depth.

They learn how to make tools in order to grain wood as well as methods of painting textures that imitate distant atmosphere or nearby items, like silver goblets or a landscape seen through a stained glass window. The courses vary only from the perspective students approach the scene they paint. Either one would be applicable for a home setting.

Once their first painting is done by midterm, that work will be prepared for the art exhibit Nov. 10. Their second work will be their choice, allowing for a personal application of what they learned in the first half of the class. It is wonderful for them to experience a practical or technical skill using a fine art application. They’ll be able one day to use that knowledge in a home setting or on stage to help design and painting backdrops.

For the art show, it adds an exciting component of realism and application homeowners might employ themselves.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.