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The Art of Anamorphic Illusion

By Serena Fox

You’ve probably seen it: Street art that looks like distorted chaos as you approach it until—boom—you reach the vantage point where the art resolves into a perfect three-dimensional image that seems to float off the wall and hang, magically, in space.

That’s an anamorphic illusion, a projection art technique also known as perspective anamorphosis. It’s been around since the 15th century but is enjoying a recent revival in retail advertising, signage, and urban art.

Pegasus, #streetart exhibition, EDF Foundation, Paris. “This piece was inspired by heraldic imagery,” says Mauro Italiano, a principal of Truly Design. “It’s a classic pose that you can find 1,300 years back in coats of arms.”

One of the masters of the technique is TRULY | Urban Artists, an unconventional communication studio/artistic collective in Turin, Italy. The group of young graffiti artists turned pro in 2007 and launched Truly Design Studio, which specializes in mural art; workplace graffiti and decoration; and custom design, illustration, and branding. The group holds on to their street-art roots by maintaining a separate presence as TRULY, an urban-art collective devoted to immersive 3D graffiti and anamorphic art.

Truly’s anamorphic art take the form of complex 3D murals that incorporate into their designs walls, ceilings, beams, columns, windows, elevators—even furniture and hanging light fixtures. Sometimes Truly adds mirrors or new structural elements or plays with painted shadows on the floor. It’s clear the team enjoys playing with the viewer’s perception of reality.

Eclipse, Milan. Truly specializes in incorporating objects and irregular elements into their designs, such as the furniture, bookcase, and vases in this piece. “We prefer forcing ourselves to step outside of our boundaries,” says Mauro. “Most of the stuff we do in our commissioned projects pushes us to try something we’ve never done before, and then we take that into our creative work. You learn from both, and you take stuff from one aspect to the other. The commissioned work, if it has new research behind it, that’s an added value. And the artistic work pushes us to the next level. They feed each other.”

Create asked Truly co-founder and creative director, Mauro Italiano, to share what drives the Truly crew to work their anamorphic magic, along with tips for trying it yourself. (See “DIY: How to Create Anamorphic Art” below.)

Create: Why is anamorphic design a focus of your work?

Mauro Italiano: It all started at the National Gallery in London back in 2006. We had seen reproductions of "The Ambassadors" by Hans Holbein the Younger and knew about the anamorphic skull the artist had placed in an enigmatic way amidst the composition, but seeing it in first person was quite a turning point for us. It was probably the first painting in which someone had used the anamorphic trick to convey a powerful concept, going beyond the sheer trompe l’œil effect.

Up until then anamorphic art was pretty much all about creating optical illusions for decorative or aesthetic ends, but here it was interacting with another perspective, almost a rupture in reality, throwing in a conceptual aspect that goes beyond the portrayed situation.

Plus, the painting is so big that it got us thinking: What if we tried the same thing, but in our street environment, with our own techniques, and on an even larger scale? Which then became, “Let’s add a few more surfaces,” leading to, “What happens if we put a mirror over there?” and so forth. We love the way that anamorphic art toys with your mind and how it interacts with the surrounding three-dimensional world. It never gets boring or repetitive.

Medusa, Turin, Italy. “Medusa was perhaps our first truly big and complex anamorphic piece,” says Mauro. “We toiled for a week to complete it, got sore necks but it was totally worth it. It was torn down merely after a year, as it was painted in a former factory which was up for demolition. We don’t really mind when this happens: being graffiti artists, the ephemeral nature of our artwork is one of its defining traits, and actually motivates us to do more instead of resting on laurels.”

Create: How have you evolved as artists who started in the graffiti scene?

Mauro: We started as kids about 20 years ago, tagging and doing graffiti writing, trying not to get run over by trains. There’s always been a passion for art in all of us, and graffiti was the way to explore this in the coolest and most experimental way possible. You do stuff in a public space, you get feedback, you get the adrenaline.

Graffiti had just boomed pretty much all over Europe, and the late 1990s witnessed the way graffiti was redefined on our side of the Atlantic. Street art and extensive legal walls were starting to be a thing, and after a few years of “traditional” graffiti writing (lettering, puppets, trains) we started trying to mix in our wider interests in graphic design, illustration, and fine arts. Our formal training was at the university level; some of us studied fine arts, I studied illustration.

Griffin, Magic City Exhibition, world tour. “Griffin was a really cool project we painted for the Magic City Exhibition, a show that is currently touring the globe,” says Mauro. “We had the chance to project the setting, creating a number of volumes with which the painting interacted, as if the griffin were sitting on the volumes. It was at once cool and weird to be painting in that setting, a blank city created as a backdrop.” Click to watch the video.

This led us to experiment with different styles and techniques, which on one hand allowed us to explore and include things like anamorphic art in our mural painting, pursuing our free artistic research, and on the other hand made us versatile enough to work on bespoke commissions with flexibility and variation, encompassing things like branding and illustration.

We grew up as a graffiti crew and have been working together for 17 years as an artistic collective. Friendship is the first important bond, and that was created thanks to graffiti. That’s what teaches you to stick together; whatever crazy shit you get into, you’re watching each other’s back. If that’s the way your friendship is born, the effort is always going to be as important as the outcome. We owe all this to graffiti, as it enhances teamwork, encourages research, teaches you to adapt to whatever random setting you’re faced with, and guarantees freshness and a good dose of freestyle in your workflow. It took us time to see that this could be of value work-wise.

Origin of Symmetry, Ettore Fico Museum, Turin, Italy. “This series was a turning point in our creative process, leading us to tackle a completely abstract series for the first time,” says Mauro. “The project allowed us to explore new territories and led to many more of its kind over the years.”

We knew we wanted to work in design but had no idea that someone would actually want to commission mural pieces. We realized this potential by painting on the street and having people walk up to us and ask pricing for artwork in their home or workplace.

And now we have a studio that works for corporations and private clients alike, while we maintain a parallel career as a collective by doing our anamorphic art, which is our joint creative effort as a crew. Of course, each one of us has his own distinct style.

Anamorphix, Milan, Italy. “You need tight teamwork to pull off big anamorphic pieces in a few days,” says Mauro. “Every piece on our web site was created in less than 7 days, with two or three of us working together. It’s always a joint effort. We still enjoy doing everything first hand. But at times when we have more than one project at once, we do need to bring in collaborators or assistants to give us a hand. It’s almost always someone who originates from graffiti themselves.”

The Colour and the Shape, Ettore Fico Museum, Turin, Italy. “The architectural setting was just perfect for this piece,” says Mauro. “It was a former factory re-generated into a stunning exhibition space, which kind of symbolizes the passage from being graff artists scouting abandoned places to achieving recognition from institutional channels. Plus, it’s actually a museum! If ten years ago someone would have told me our artwork was to end up in a museum I think I could have only taken it as mockery.”

DIY: HOW TO CREATE ANAMORPHIC ART

Want to try it yourself? Here are the basic steps for creating anamorphic art, along with tips from Mauro Italiano:

1. Survey your location. Sites with multi-dimensional surfaces, such as corners, deep window ledges, beams, columns, or slanted roofs work best.

Mauro’s tip: We always start off with an in-depth survey of the location, as so to decide the best area, the vantage point, illumination, and so forth.

2. Work up your concept and artwork. For your first project, try something simple like a flat typographic treatment or straightforward geometric design. Allow the site to influence the concept: if you have a row of columns, for example, use them to your advantage.

Mauro’s tip: Our sketches start by hand and are mostly finalized and colored with Procreate and Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop CC. Alas, we’ve received comments on social media that the paintings are actually Photoshopped renders where we just changed the level to multiply or overlay, so I guess maybe we’ll have to start leaving blatant mistakes to make it more obvious that they’re hand-painted.

We do use 3D software for very complex designs. It helps to give an idea of what the finished piece will look like, which is not always so easy to picture. So when we have a project that’s hard to imagine, it’s useful to show the client the 3D render. We also use renders to help us design and construct any additional structures that have to be added to the site.

3. Set up your projector carefully. Mark the vantage point on the floor with tape and set up your projector on the mark, at average eye level (about 62 inches). You may have to use a ladder; if you do, tape the ladder to the floor and tape the projector to the ladder. Make sure the projection is level, not tilted up or down.

Mauro’s tip: Even with a very small shift in position, everything is going to mismatch. At times the use of a projector isn’t even possible, so you have to go back to the 1500s and play Leonardo and use old-school tricks, like painting a grid on the wall. At one time or another, we have resorted to every technique thought up from the Renaissance till today. Resorting to those means that nothing else worked: When we’re wearing wigs and working by candlelight, that means modern technology failed for that site.

4. Use the projection to trace your outlines. Project the image full-screen. For complex multi-colored images, try a black and white projection: the increased contrast makes it easier to see what you’re doing. Trace the outlines of your images with a pencil (or use painter’s tape for long, straight edges). Check and adjust your outlines frequently from the vantage point.

Mauro’s tip: Projection is the starting point where possible, but it’s not really what determines the execution of the piece. Even with a projector, precision isn’t guaranteed, since pixels stretch as distances get bigger. When you project against a deep space, the pixels often are so big, you can’t make out the precise contour of the design. So you use a projector to get the basic outline. If you have to paint on whatever surface, it’s something you discover as you do it, depending on surface and angle, and your vantage point.

5. Paint, step back, paint. Use whatever tools you’re most comfortable with—brush, roller, angled foam—and a lot of layers. It’s easiest to use standard interior wall paint that is either the same finish or a higher-sheen finish than the walls you’re working on. If you’re painting floors, glass, metal window edges, or irregular surfaces, you may need a primer and more specialized paints. Remember to check frequently from the vantage point as you work.

Mauro’s tip: Most of the precision work is done by hand and by eye. When you’re standing in the middle of one of these compositions, all you’re seeing is random shaky lines that have been traced while standing on your ladder almost falling down. You have to step back and take a look at what you’re doing. So it’s like this: Stand in the viewpoint, paint 10 centimeters to the left, go back to the viewpoint—it’s very analog. It gives you a good chance to work on your patience.

The technical issues are the most variable, according to your gear and setting. There is no one precise setup for all projectors nor one universally preferred material. It all depends on your surfaces, light conditions, the geometry of your design, and so forth. That’s what really makes physical art stand out from digital art: The technical and physical variables are countless, as are the techniques that we employ to overcome obstacles. Only continuous trial and error can help you tune up production. That said, we prefer acrylic paint and good old rollers.

5. Alternatives to paint. For difficult sites or areas where paint can’t be applied directly on the wall or floor, some artists lay down a durable printed vinyl instead.

Mauro’s tip: We have worked with vinyl, but only when it wasn’t possible to paint directly on the setting’s structures. You can even digitally elaborate your designs, apply the anamorphic warp and have it printed on vinyl and applied, but this is not our favorite solution as we enjoy getting our hands dirty way more. It’s a viable solution only for certain temporary commercial projects.