Richard Whitten: See Creative Stages for Amazing Trompe l’Oeil

Trompe l’oeil paintings by Richard Whitten lure the viewer with the illusion of space and depth. One may well imagine reaching out to grasp a striped ball or stepping through an archway to explore mysterious passageways. Then there are the attention-grabbing nonrectangular “frames.” Are these works paintings or sculptures? Those frames, however, are not frames, but a succession of painted borders on Whitten’s flat, wood-panel surfaces. They’re trompe l’oeil buffer zones between our world and inner realms. The composition compels the viewer to sort through layers of reality or, as Whitten views them, levels of consciousness.

WunderKammer, trompe l'oeil painting by Richard Whitten

Wunderkammer (Chamber of Wonders) (oil on wood panel, 66×60) by Richard Whitten

Although Richard Whitten generally works on two or three paintings at a time, he might spend years developing his concepts and compositions. Below, Whitten explains the stages of creative thought behind Thaumatrope.

Development of a Trompe l’Oeil Painting | by Richard Whitten

Because the machines depicted in my paintings are my own creations, I create sketches and drawings and also design and build models before I paint. This gives me a thorough understanding of their workings and, more importantly, allows me to observe and experiment with viewing angles, address perspective issues and determine patterns of light and shadow. These are things that help me create a sense of space around the machine.

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Sketches based on paddles - Richard Whitten

1. Richard Whitten’s exploratory sketches of paddle-and-pulley based machine

1. Sketches

The seedling for my first machine was an Etruscan paddle-shaped bronze mirror that I saw in 2005 at the Villa Giulia in Rome. I kept a drawing of it in my notebook for at least a year before thinking about what it could be in terms of a machine. I played with the idea in notebook drawings.

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Richard Whitten print of paddle-and-pulley based machine

2. Richard Whitten’s engraving of paddle-and-pulley based machine

2. Engraved print

While in Ireland in 2008, a friend helped me create an engraving of a machine with paddles loosely based on that mirror shape. At the time I toyed with a cat-and-mouse motif to explain the direction of rotation, but felt the idea was corny.

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Thaumatrope concept drawing and model by Richard Whitten

3. Richard Whitten’s concept drawings and model for Thaumatrope

3. Concept drawings and model 

By 2009, however, I decided to go with the cat-and-mouse theme in a painting. At that time, I was somewhat frustrated with how my career was going. I said to myself, if nobody’s watching, I can do whatever I want.

First came a series of freehand notebook drawings through which I explored the design of the machine. For me, that was the easy part. But the drafted design didn’t help me work out proper shadows, and I found the perspective difficult to calculate.

I then decided to build a small model—about 15 inches tall. The craftsmanship didn’t particularly concern me. For this purpose I needed only to see the spatial relations and cast shadows. Viewing the model, I realized the machine cast shadows on itself!

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Drafted drawing for Thaumatrope by Richard Whitten

4. Drafted drawing for Thaumatrope by Richard Whitten

4. Drafted drawing

Because my paintings aren’t rectangular, I needed to draft a mathematically precise drawing so that I’d be able to cut the panel to the proper shape. A tiny error in proportion, unnoticed in a small freehand drawing, can create big problems in a trompe l’oeil painting that’s five or more feet tall—and at that point it’s late in the game to change the outer shape of a panel.

Based on the drafted drawing, I also completed a small version of the painting (19½x13¾; not shown). This helped me determine whether compositional changes needed to be made, work out colors and find suitable patterns for flat areas.

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Thaumatrope, trompe l'oeil painting by Richard Whitten

5. Thaumatrope (oil on wood panel, 68-1/2×48) by Richard Whitten

5. Final trompe l’oeil painting

At last, I was ready to paint the finished version of Thaumatrope, which I completed in 2011—six years after viewing the paddle-shaped mirror. The title refers to a 19th-century toy that consists of a disk with a picture on each side. The disk is suspended from strings that, when twisted, make the disk spin. As the spinning disk gains speed, the two images seem to merge into one.

Thaumatrope and its preliminary drawing are now in the collection of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, Calif.

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Thaumatrope tabletop sculpture by Richard Whitten

6. Thaumatrope (Tabletop version) (mixed media, 16½x12¼x7½)

6. Tabletop sculpture

The development didn’t stop there, though: In 2014 I went on to create a sculpture, based on the painting, intended for public display.

All photos by David Demelim

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