Artist John Pugh creates mind boggling, illusory murals that will have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief. A modern master of the tromp l’oeil technique, Pugh creates fantasy worlds on 2D surfaces that have audiences trying to walk inside or converse with the characters within them, only to walk away embarrassed and fascinated at his expert trickery. We caught up with John for some insight into his creative process.
When did you begin trompe l’oeil paintings? What first inspired you to try it out?
For the first couple years I painted surrealistic landscape murals. At a restaurant called the ‘Golden Mushroom’, I was painting a large orb world of colorful mushrooms and at the lower centre was the entrance door. I wanted to make it look like the doorway went into a giant mushroom, but the rectangular door didn’t look right.
So I camouflaged the real door’s shape, and painted new hinges and an outline that fit the giant mushroom’s stock. It was fun to watch dinner parties walk into the mushroom, and it was a big hit.
A year or so later I had an opportunity to design a mural for the front of the Art and English building at Chico State. It was a highly visible wall at the entrance to the university from downtown. I knew that I wanted to create something about ancient Greece, which is the cornerstone of our educational system. But one night while I was designing this piece I had a vivid dream of the wall breaking open, over and over again, revealing the dark mysterious temple inside. To my knowledge no one had ever painted the illusion of my wall breaking open. It was a mural that broke down the modern educational facade and flaunted the ancient academe. It was the mural that launched my career.
What is your motivation to paint in this style over others? Why do you prefer it?
Life-size illusion is a powerfulI ‘language’, it allows me to effectively communicate with a very large audience. Everybody likes the experience of being optically tricked. My artwork is designed to trick the approaching viewer first into believing that what they’re seeing is actually real. I think that if the viewer has the experience of being fooled first, only to realize that the wall is flat (not the other way around), there is a human bonding experience.
This is engagement. It’s an interaction that’s internal – a live experience. It denotes the effectiveness of bringing people further into the actual art concept and it allows for an intimate communication between the artist and the viewer.
What are some of the challenges that arise in your process?
I love this quote from a Rolling Stones song: “I’ve got my freedom, but I ain’t got much time”. I love what I do, and the more I get into it – and go deeper – I discover more devices that make the work more effective. Complex perspective, transparent glazes, pushing pigments to the limit. Once I discover ways to make the murals richer or more effective, I’m doomed to continue expanding on them. Although I get more efficient with painting murals, the new techniques take longer…and I’m not using a spray can.
There are over 28 coats of glazes on the large illusion of a glass wave in the mural ‘Mana Nalu’ in Honolulu. This mural took a year.
I do believe that no muralist should ever be an island, and having interns is so important to me . Having an art community, a team, is the lifeblood of projects like this. Sharing freely – connecting with other artists – is a vital part of my life as an artist. We all grow together not separately, the sum is much greater than a total of the parts.
Have you got any close calls or funny stories from your time working on murals?
A woman working at an office window across from ‘Academe’ (mural at Chico State) who was there from the time I set up the scaffold, painted the mural, and took down the scaffolding, called the administration and complained- “When are you going to fix that wall?”
Many viewers have tried to talk to the illusionary people, which I imagine is pretty embarrassing.
I had painted the Hawaiian children in the Honolulu mural before painting the large stairs beneath them, and paramedics in a firetruck saw the children, stopped and tried to rescue them. They got 15 feet away and realized they were illusion and they keeled over laughing.
I did a Pompeian mural for a woman in Atherton, California in which there is a “front shelf” with a wine glass on it. She called to complain – not that people were trying to pick up the glass – but trying to set the glass next to it it would fall and break into her spa.
What has been the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Don’t compare yourself with other people, or what they might have. True joy comes from within. Honor your curiosity.
What has been the greatest lesson you have learned in your time as an artist?
Don’t listen to your ego, it wants to block you, isolate you, and eventually kill you.
Listen only to the next moment to find the flow of inspiration, it will speak.
Why do you make art?
Sublime moments with infinite vistas. I can lose my individuality, experience union with ‘something’ as it flow through.
When I inspire others – connect with others – I feel purpose.
See more of John’s work on his website.