Oil painter Debra Teare mixes the best of conventional trompe l’oeil techniques with her own modern sensibilities to make her illusionistic pieces.
by James A. Metcalfe
2007, oil, 13 x 10.
Collection Christine E. Lynn.
For more than 3,000 years, art lovers have marveled and celebrated the talents of trompe l’oeil painters. Today trompe l’oeil is everywhere, including building facades, tabletops, product packaging, film and stage sets, and interior murals. The genre never fades from the forefront because contemporary artists won’t let it—they embrace the tenets of the style and apply their own individuality while maintaining its philosophy. The fine line between image and reality—and that ultimate temptation to “trick the eye”—still offers unique challenges to contemporary painters.
|Teare on Trompe l’Oeil’s Tenets
Debra Teare pushes the envelope a bit in her trompe l’oeil paintings, but she essentially adheres to the genre’s basic tenets, which she outlines below:
“Trompe l’eoil is an art form that evolved over many thousands of years. Initially, it was simply a way of painting that ‘fooled the eye,’ but eventually many practitioners of the art found that certain conventions enhanced the illusionistic effect they were striving for. One convention is to keep the depth of field as shallow as possible. Effects such as taping or pinning flat objects to a board make a shallow depth of field possible. Another convention is to light the scene from the left, which increases the chance that the actual lighting of the painting will correspond to the illusionistic lighting in an exhibition. Another is not breaking the picture plane—that is, not running an object or shadow out of the canvas thus preserving the illusion that the objects exist entirely in the space within the frame. One way to enhance the three-dimensional effect is to maintain a shallow depth of field. I do this by keeping my boxes or shelves as shallow as possible. Any object or texture that has a sculptural or tactile quality is likely to end up in a trompe l’oeil painting. I enjoy working within these rules, yet I feel free to break these conventions to achieve a unique effect.”
One of the most successful trompe l’oeil painters today is Debra Teare. Although it took this Utah native 15 years to find her niche, Teare knew that when she came upon it, she would “know it, feel it, and sense it immediately”—and she did.
“I was casting about for many years trying to find a focus when I came across the work of Larry Charles and the Trompe l’Oeil Society of Artists,” she recounts. “That was my galvanizing moment, and I knew instantly that trompe l’oeil painting would be my idiom. It was as though I had switched from taking nothing but black-and-white photographs to taking nothing but vibrant color photographs.” The analogy has a special resonance—prior to her discovery of trompe l’oeil, Teare rendered large photorealistic drawings in black and white for more than 15 years. Deep shadows and varied textures have long captivated the artist, and she always felt a pressing impulse to include a strong three-dimensional quality in her work. Trompe l’oeil painting met that need. “One of the reasons I love trompe l’oeil is because of my fascination with precise painting,” she says. “Despite the fact that trompe l’oeil differs from other art forms in the sense that it has a set of rules, I find its supposed limitations to be absolutely liberating.” Although Teare loves “loose, luscious painting” in other people’s work, she can’t see herself ever heading in that direction. “With that type of painting,” she reasons, “something would be lost in what I am trying to say.”
|Must Move Forward
2005, oil, 12 x 10.
Although she enjoys the discipline of the genre, Teare thinks it’s important to push trompe l’oeil into new areas. “I feel my work has a contemporary feel that is distinct,” the artist says. “My use of the box—a technique I use to isolate the piece, pushing it back into space and emphasizing the illusionist aspects of the painting—is somewhat unique, at least in the way I use it. The box also helps me create a depth of field while still maintaining the necessary illusion of three-dimensionality. I want the viewers to want to touch the objects within the box, to metaphorically feel and experience the varied textures. Then when they get close to the painting, they are amazed that it is flat.
“Traditional tromp l’oeil can look somewhat dusty and lonely to me, so I attempt to avoid that by using brighter colors and incorporating natural or living objects—a shell or butterfly, a flower or leaf—and as much color as possible,” she continues. In addition, Teare likes to tell a good story with each painting, a kind of wordless narrative that begs to be told. “If I include, for example, a photograph or a book in a particular piece, I first begin imagining how that particular object was originally used or displayed—and even possibly loved—by its owner.”
The texture of each item depicted is essential to Teare. The artist frequently begins with a simple texture she loves, and then she weaves a feeling around it. “In The Message, for example, I diligently arranged what is essentially three simple objects, then I created the exact textures that provided a kind of dimensional resonance,” the artist explains. One thing Teare insists on is that textures and colors must harmonize and complement each other. They must be lit with exact lighting to amplify the emotional content. “Light, therefore, is equally important in my work because it is the final emotional tone that unifies the piece,” says Teare. She goes to great lengths to suggest a particular type of light—be it outdoor, indoor, natural, or artificial—whatever it takes to capture the right emotional qualities. “More often than not, good lighting is the tipping point between a marginal piece and a really great painting,” she asserts.
|Mums and Daisies
2007, oil, 20½ x 9½.
Collection Christine E. Lynn
Today’s trompe l’oeil practitioners know that certain proven conventions enhance the illusionistic effect. Teare employs and observes many of them but has never been afraid to break from tradition to achieve a particular outcome. One convention of trompe l’oeil she does follow, though, is taping or pinning flat objects to a board; doing so keeps the depth of field as shallow as possible. A good example of this is Must Move Forward. “Another convention to which I adhere,” she adds, “is to light the scene from the left, thereby increasing the chance that the illusionistic lighting of the painting will correspond to the actual lighting in an exhibition. I light all of my paintings from the upper-left corner.” Shadowing is also very important, she notes. “By purposely avoiding running an object or shadow off the canvas, as I do in Must Move Forward, I preserve the illusion that the objects exist entirely in the space within the frame,” Teare explains.
Almost anything can inspire Teare to paint, but it is paramount that the subject possesses a combination of color, texture, and shadow. Two of her favorite places to find that inspiration are in gardens and antique shops. It might be an entire garden setting or a fragile, simple flower that Teare wants to preserve in a painting. Old photographs hold a particular reverence for her, and she often finds an antique object that matches the photograph perfectly in some way—and she realizes she has the seeds for a great composition.
In Textures in Tin, for example, she discovered the red kerosene can and immediately knew she had to compose a piece using the can as the focal point. Although the painting revolves around the texture of the kerosene can, she explains that she slowly developed the composition by adding a variety of textures. “I knew I needed a flower somewhere for balance,” Teare adds. “I finally decided to add the dandelion, imagining a granddaughter giving her grandpa a flower while he worked in his shop. It seemed to be the right accent both symbolically and artistically. I then included the blue bottle to add a cool hue as well as to tie into the cap of the kerosene can.” Teare, who paints only in oil, says the composition stage is when she can be most flexible. “Sometimes I think I’m composing a scene around a letter only to find that I ultimately remove the letter and the composition becomes about something completely different,” she explains. “There are times, no matter how hard I try, when I just can’t get a cherished object to work—even if that object is the inspiration for the entire piece—and I have to eliminate it.”
2005, oil, 12 x 9.
Collection the artist.
2006, oil, 23 x 18.
Collection the artist.
In addition to proper lighting, she explains that color can be a very significant contributor to the mood of the painting. “I have an aversion to color clichés, which I think keeps my work fresh,” says Teare. She likes bright colors and uses lighting to harmonize hues. Regarding color that may be dissonant or shrill but is crucial to a piece, the artist says, “I modify and harmonize the color so that the composition becomes a self-contained universe at peace with itself.”
Teare generally paints alla prima. Occasionally she uses glazes, but not as frequently as most trompe l’oeil painters. Believing that “all painting is basically getting the right color in the right place,” she never begins a piece until her composition is exactly the way she wants it. “I might start a painting at the focal point—a flower, for example—and then paint the entire flower before I proceed to other sections,” says the artist. “I premix all my colors for that section, which may total as many as 20 colors depending on the light and shadow in that area.” She uses photography as a backup because some items, such as flowers, will not last the two months it generally takes her to finish a painting. “I keep my still lifes in the box in front of my easel as I paint because photographs are often so inadequate in many respects, especially in regard to the shadows,” Teare explains.
|Textures in Tin
2006, oil, 13 x 22.
By her own admittance, Teare is very hard on brushes and uses a variety of very small (sizes 000 to 01), inexpensive synthetics. “Since I prefer to paint on a hard surface, I use birch plywood, over which I affix a finely textured canvas that I mount with acid-free glue,” she explains. “I use only Old Holland paints since they are deeply hued—plus their texture suits the way I paint.” Teare paints on a tabletop easel and uses Gamblin mediums, usually Galkyd Medium mixed with an equal portion of Gamsol. The artist likes using many colors and finds no advantage in limiting her palette. “However, I never use burnt umber and raw sienna,” she says. “I find they are simply too harsh for the effect I seek.” She mixes all her own grays, usually from complements, occasionally with Scheveningen black and other colors. Black is rarely used straight from the tube (with the exception, perhaps, of a border on the painting). The artist prefers to use complementary colors to lower the values of her mixtures. She considers raw umber an extremely useful color, especially with blues, and in general she prefers all of Old Holland’s most vibrant colors, particularly when painting flowers. Some of her favorite pigments are Old Holland cobalt green, Caribbean blue, dioxazine mauve, and Scheveningen deep blue. Two yellows she uses often are cadmium yellow deep and Scheveningen yellow medium.
2005, oil, 12 x 9.
Collection the artist.
She very carefully mixes all the exact values needed for each application of paint. “I apply the paint methodically, moving forward very slowly. I will glaze occasionally, especially in the shadows, to give a luminous glow,” she says. “Usually the complementary color of the light will accomplish this.
About the Artist
Debra Teare is a member of the Allied Artists of America and a founding member of the International Guild of Realists. She resides in Providence, Utah, where she shares a studio with her husband, Brad Teare, a painter and woodcut artist. Teare studied art at Utah State University, in Logan, and is represented by Winstanley-Roark Fine Arts, in Dennis, Massachusetts; the Atlanta Art Gallery; Principle Gallery, in Alexandria, Virginia; and Prince Gallery, in North Logan, Utah. She has participated in many regional exhibitions and recently received a merit award from the Springville Museum of Art, in Utah. Her work has been exhibited in more than 25 museum shows across the country. For more information on Teare, visit her website at www.debrateare.com.
James Metcalfe is a freelance writer residing in West Warwick, Rhode Island.