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34 mind-bending trompe l'oeil illusions

Trompe l'oeil ('trick of the eye') is the technique of using realistic imagery to create an optical illusion of depth. Artists have been perfecting it for centuries to create stunning illustrations and fool their audiences, while businesses have used it to create eye-catching billboard advertising and video campaigns. 

We've scoured the web to find the best examples of trompe l'oeil for you to enjoy. The technique is found in pieces of art worldwide, so this is a truly global list with wildly different interpretations. Prepare your eyes, and prepare to be amazed.

If you would like to see some examples of great advertising that won't have your eyes and brain tied up in knots, check out our article that showcases awesome billboard advertising.

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01. Le Radeau de Lampedusa

Delavie created this trompe l'oeil in Paris to show the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea

Pierre Delavie created this hard hitting piece (translated as 'The Raft of Lampedusa'), in collaboration with the Bureau d'accueil et d'accompagnement des migrants (Reception and Support Office for Migrants) in 2017. This trompe l'oeil depicted a boat of refugees capsizing in the River Seine and aimed to alert Parisians to the urgency of the situation of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. The orginal image was taken by the Italian Navy in 2016.

Talking to French publication Mashable FR, Delavie explained that he was extremely touched by the events in the Mediterranean and that when he saw the image it upset him. He cut it out and kept it, then eventually recreated it on the wall of the River Seine.

02. Wasting Time

Wasting Time was the biggest 3D artwork created in Australia

Created by a pair of chalk artists, Jenny McCracken and Leon Keer, as part of Sydney's Chalk Urban Art Festival in 2014, Wasting Time was a massive 350 square metre work of surreal trompe l'oeil loveliness in which the ground was ripped open to reveal a weird subterranean scene packed with giant children, strange steampunk machinery and much more.

03. Tunnelvision

Despite tales of confused drivers, this enormous trompe l'oeil Tunnelvision has never been crashed into.

This dramatic piece is 50 ft x 75 ft and shows a craggy portal leading to a fantasy moon. Created by local artist Blue Sky, who has more work in the area, it can be found in a parking lot in downtown Columbia. The artist does regular touch ups to make sure it stays as realistic as possible but despite tales to the contrary it has not been crashed into by any confused local drivers.

04. Vindkraft

Something's not quite right here but we can't put our fingers on it

Another trompe l'oeil mural from Keer, this time working with Massina. Vindkraft was created for the Danish town of Brande to celebrate its contribution to wind energy. Siemens Wind Power, Europe's largest manufacturer of wind turbines, was founded in Brande in 1980. The mural depicts a circle of energy, with the energy needed for wind production coming from the wind powered energy – and now we're confused.

05. Quetzalcoatl

This is probably a great way of keeping marauding Aztecs out of your cable car station

Artist John Pugh is famous for his intricate trompe l'oeil murals, located on various buildings around the world. "I have found that the 'language' of life-size illusions allow me to communicate with a very large audience," says Pugh. "It seems almost universal that people take delight in being visually tricked." This one, a terrifying imagining of South American feathered serpent deity Quetzalcoatl, can be found on a cable car station in Mexico City.

06. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

The A.FRESCO workshop, led by artist Patrick Commecy, has made a name for itself and won awards in France by bringing otherwise drab walls to life with attention-grabbing trompe l'oeil murals. Its work in Cannes transformed a foot tunnel leading to the beach at La Bocca into an epic aquarium inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, complete with giant sea monsters and Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus.

07. Luz Nas Vielas

The Brazilian art collective Boa Mistura started its trompe l'oeil project, Luz Nas Vielas, in north São Paulo back in 2012. It consisted of five words – amor, beleza, orgulho, doçura and firmeza (love, pride, sweetness, beauty and strength) – painted in alleys throughout the favela. Five years later, Boa Mistura returned with two news words: Poesía and Magica (poetry and magic).

08. Des Anamorphoses

There's a lot to get your head round, here

French street art duo Ella & Pitr created this series of picture frame installations for an ad campaign for the National Dramatic Center of St. Etienne in France, featuring impossibly warped picture frames and other anamorphic treats.

09. Copenhagen Zoo

This stunning bus wrap is a sure-fire attention grabber

Bus wraps are a new – and mobile – way of sending trompe l'oeil artwork out into the world. This one, featuring a giant snake crushing a bus, will either put you off or encourage you to visit Copenhagen Zoo. Either way, it's a memorable design certain to stick in your head and generate word-of mouth enthusiasm.

10. Graffiti sculpture

Peeta's graffiti transforms flat surfaces into solid-looking sculpture

Italian street artist Peeta makes clever use of colour gradients and shadows to make his graffiti pop out of its surroundings. It's designed to look like sculpture rather than 2D art, and it's very convincing. Just to add to the confusion, he also creates actual graffiti-inspired sculptures.

11. Indoor wilderness

Daniela Benedini creates indoor murals that transport you into the great outdoors

Italian artist Daniela Benedini founded her own company in 1994, after graduating as Mastro Pittore at the Painting Academy of Brera in Milan. Specialising in interior decoration, she creates beautiful trompe l’oeil paintings, collaborating with some of the most prestigious interior designers in the world.

12. Carroll Street Bridge

Symbols gathered from thousands of residents appear in the artwork

Situated over Carroll Creek in Frederick, Maryland, this award-winning trompe l'oeil mural depicts the spirit of community. The large-scale mural project transformed a plain concrete bridge into the permanent illusion of an old, ivy-covered stone bridge.

Artist William Cochran and his assistants used permanent silicate paints to create the highly detailed illusionist painting, complete with fake niches, fountains and statues, and 3,000 unique painted stones.

13. Portland's peeling blueprint

Portland is a hub for the arts and features more than just one stunning trompe l'oeil mural

Originally painted in 1986 by Chris Denison, C. Michael Lewis, Toni Wolf, Josephine Mussomeli, Steven Priestly and Bertelle Brookings, the peeling blueprint is perhaps one of the cleverer takes on trompe l'oeil and became a local landmark before it was demolished in 2016

The mural created the illusion that there is a giant blueprint of the building peeling off of one side of it, revealing the actual building underneath and was actually painted twice. It began life as a blueprint (light blue paper with fuzzy blue lines) and was then painted again in the 1990's with a white background and sharp black lines to reflect the changes in how building plans are drawn.

Chris Denison commented on the demolishing of the muraland said, "murals don’t last forever when they are outdoors; it lasted as long as I expected it to.” 

14. Floating shapes

Trompe l'oeil: Felice Varini

Swiss-born artist Felice Varini creates mindblowing, geometric trompe l'oeil installations

Felice Varini is a Switzerland-born artist based in Paris. For over 30 years now, he's been creating remarkable geometric trompe l'oeil installations around the world. Painting primarily on architectural spaces such as buildings and walls, each of his works has a single vantage point from which a precise geometric shape appears. Genius.

15. The Crevasse

Don't. Look. Down

German street painter Edgar Mueller is a master of fun trompe l'oeil work – this crevasse piece being a perfect example. Mueller's website is filled with awe-inspiring images of incredibly detailed and realistic street paintings, which include waterfalls, trees and caves. We know this trompe l'oeil artwork isn't real but that wouldn't stop us thinking twice before standing on it.

16. House party

Ciaran Brennan got into the party spirit when he painted this trompe l'oeil on his house

Artist Ciaran Brennan (aka. Yohan) went all-out for his house party by painting this trompe l'oeil illusion of balloons spilling out on the walls outside. He comments on his piece, "I didn't get to finish it completely, I wanted to paint the inside of the house through the hole in the wall but I ended up just making it dark."

17. Roundstone St

Trompe L'Oeil: Wiltshire

This trompe l'oeil in Wiltshire is said to be the largest in the UK

Located in Roundstone St in Trowbridge, UK, this trompe l'oeil is thought to be the biggest in the country. The realistic house design, created by artist Roger Smith and Wiltshire Steeplejacks, was installed on the blank wall in October 2003 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Trowbridge Civic Society.

18. Dining table

Trompe l'oeil: dining table

Ian Carnie's dining table features a realistic place mat, cutlery and jigsaw puzzle

This dining table looks like it needs a good tidy. However, attempting that wouldn't get you very far, as the objects are in fact oil paintings. This brilliant piece was created by fine artist and interior decorator Ian Carnie, who specialises in decorative and landscape trompe l'oeil murals.

19. Great American Crossroad

Trompe l'oeil: Great American crossroad

This Great American Crosroad is one of many trompe l'oeil pieces created by artist Eric Grohe

Eric Grohe began his creative career as an illustrator and graphic designer back in 1961. Since then, his work has grown in scope and size, leading to the large-scale trompe l’oeil murals he creates today. He uses specialist German paint, which crystallises into mineral substrates and will not fade, peel or blister. Grohe has painted artwork all over the US, including this brilliant piece, titled Great American Crossroad, located in Ohio.

Next page: 15 more amazing examples of trompe l'oeil