The ‘Secret’ to Anamorphic Illusions

“Cinq Cercles Concentriques” by Felice Varini, Paris 2007

Anamorphic illusions, or Anamorphosis — or whatever you prefer to call the effect when you have to view a space from a specific vantage point to properly see an image that otherwise appears distorted — dates back to the Renaissance, but has found a lot of popularity lately. I started seeing them on design inspiration sites about 6 years ago and decided to try one out…

My first anamorphic installation, in an empty room above my parents’ garage

It got noticed by the right blogs a couple years later (http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2012/07/face-reality-as-it-is-anamorphic-typography-by-thomas-quinn/) and I ended up doing several more installations over the last few years (https://thomasquinn.design/anamorphic). I get a number of people emailing me asking for advice on doing their own installation, so I decided to put together some information about the process and some advice on some of the details in executing an anamorphic illusion.

Before I reveal the simple “secret” to creating an anamorphic illusion, I wanted to acknowledge the installations where I first saw this type of work by Joseph Egan and Hunter Thomson (<--link)…and the subsequent discover of the apparent master of the technique, Felice Varini who does them on a scale and at a level of complexity I haven’t seen anyone else even get close to.

A lot of people think that there is a highly sophisticated process behind anamorphic illusions. There isn’t. The *big secret* is…

Use a projector.

There IS an alternate technique used by some that involves laser measuring tools and 3 dimensional renderings, but that is really only necessary if you need the entire project to be prefabricated or if there are other extraordinary circumstances. Every time I’ve done it I’ve just used a pretty typical projector to project my design onto the area in which I wish to create the installation and wherever the projector lens sits is where the design will look perfect when you’ve finished tracing and painting. That might be all you were looking for if you are reading this hoping to learn how this is done, but I do have some more specific tips and tricks you may want to read…

  • Don’t take a photo of the space and assume a mockup you make on the computer will be able to translate perfectly when you project it. Things tend to want to work a little differently once you get the projector up and running, so just know that any mockup you make is to be used as a rough approximation until you can actually see what the projector puts on the wall in reality.
  • Place the projector at a good average eye level when projecting your art. Since this is the single spot in which your artwork will look undistorted, you’ll want it to be easy to get your eye to that spot. Don’t make people squat down to see it and don’t make it so tall that someone of below average height doesn’t get to see it. It’s pretty easy for someone of above average height to bend their knees a bit to get to the right spot, so I recommend placing the projector lens at around the 5ft mark. Remember, you want it to be at EYE LEVEL, not the overall height of a person, so placing the lens at 5ft makes it so someone who is 5’2” or 5’3” should be able to see when standing normally. I’ve usually placed the projector on a ladder to get it up that high and stable, which leads me to…
  • Make sure the projector is stable once you start tracing/taping and that it is properly protected so that nobody will bump into it while you are working. If someone even lightly nudges the projector before you are done tracing, it can be surprisingly tough to get it back to the original spot. If you are using a folding ladder, I recommend using something like a wooden board on top of the steps to give the projector a stable surface to sit on, then duct taping it down in all directions to really get it locked in.
  • It is unlikely that you’ll have the art in the spot you want it with the projector sitting flat at 5ft off the ground. It usually starts very high, so you’ll need to angle it to point down just slightly. Find something to put under just the back feet of the project that won’t slip or move (I’ve usually used books of varying thickness. You could also put books under the ladder itself, but I usually like to duct tape the base of the ladder to the ground as another level of stability.
An early setup, before I had my technique more refined
  • Assuming you are projecting from a computer, use a program like Powerpoint or Keynote to easily use the whole screen. Make sure your computer isn’t going to constantly switch to sleep mode from inactivity (so either plug it in or just switch that in settings).
  • Make sure you are projecting you art with maximum contrast. I recommend using white art on a black background. There is no need to project in the color you are going to paint, you just want to make sure you can see it as well as possible.
  • If you are doing your installation in a space with a large degree of depth (like a hallway or multiple rooms), you likely won’t be able to have the entire projection in focus. You’ll need to either pick the most important or intricate part to be in perfect focus, or choose to have the middle ground in focus so that neither extreme is too soft. Usually this isn’t a huge issue, as even the not-perfectly-focused area is pretty easy to trace, but it can be something that is worth thinking about ahead of time.
  • You can trace your entire artwork and deal with taping for paint later, but I prefer to do as much taping as possible while the art is being projected. It’s much easier to map straight lines with a piece of masking tape than it is to try to draw it, and it also saves you that step later. Curves are the tricky part. It is much easier to just draw a curve with a pencil while the projection is up, and depending on your skill level you may just want to hand draw the curve with a pencil and then hand paint that curve later. That is what I prefer to do, but not everyone can handle hand painting a nice clean curve.
  • If you don’t feel confident painting a curve, you can tape the curve, or put tape down over the curve, trace it, pull the tape up a bit, cut the trace with scissors and stick the tape back down.
  • Use a masking tape that has good contrast with the wall/surface you are painting on. It will make it easier to get a good look at your overall art before painting, as sometimes little adjustments are needed. The projection isn’t always perfect. Depending on the distance you are projecting, there may be some slight bowing in the artwork that you’ll need to fix manually just be looking at it. Tape that is easy to see from your projection point makes this easier.
  • Use Frog Tape if possible. It’s the best masking tape I’ve found when it comes to preventing paint bleeding.
  • When you’ve got all of your tape down, it is a good idea to use something to really make sure it is bonded well to the wall. The best technique I’ve found is using an eraser (I use a white eraser since I’m usually painting on white walls) and erasing along the tape edge to stick it to the wall really well.
  • Assuming you are taping while tracing, it is ideal to do this all in one session. Turning off the projector and computer risks moving the art a bit. Depending on where you are doing this, you’d be surprised how many times I’ve done a projector session, left everything there, and come back the next day only to find a janitorial crew has moved everything. The safest bet is to do all of your tracing in one go. Depending on the artwork and the environment this could take a lot of time, so make sure you plan for that.
  • It is best to do your tracing with as few lights on as possible. If you are in a space with a lot of natural light, you may have to wait until the evening to start. Again, make sure you are prepared for the time this will take. There have been times I’ve had to start at 8 or later — because of the light or because I’ll be too much in the way of a space other people need to use — and I haven’t finished tracing and taping until 6am.
  • When you are finished tracing and taping, make sure you take one good last look while blocking the projector light to make sure you aren’t missing anything. You are then free to put the projector away. I recommend putting an X on the floor with tape to remember where that perfect viewing spot is.

Painting

From there, it is time to paint. I’m not a painting expert, so it is probably best to turn to a painting professional for general wall painting advice if you need it, but I’ve got a couple tips:

  • Use the same paint finish as the walls you are painting on. Using a different sheen level may look weird.
  • General interior wall paint works best. Anything you’d get at Home Depot or a painting store. I once tested special sign painters paint, but it was way too glossy and was going to look weird.
  • When painting over taped areas, I prefer to do the first layer with a brush. It tends to reduce the amount of bleed when compared to a roller. After that, roll away. Depending on the color you are using, you may need a lot of layers. Just keeping painting layers until it looks nice and flat.
  • When painting on a less absorbent surface (like a window or metallic surface) that might not bond with the paint as well, use a primer. Otherwise your paint might pull up easily and will be a major headache when trying to remove any tape you’ve used.
An installation that involved multiple surface types and vinyl on the floors

Floors and other surfaces

Any surface other than a standard wall presents challenges. Floors are especially difficult because you have to plan for durability against foot traffic. You are mostly on your own in figuring this out since every project is so different, but here are some tips from what I’ve had to deal with before:

  • Get a good primer and get a good floor-specific paint. Don’t just use the color you are using on the walls. If matching these colors is important, start with finding a good floor paint and match your wall paint to the floor paint. It is harder to find a good floor paint color, and usually a paint store can mix a wall color to match the exact floor color.
  • You’ll need more time for the floor paint to dry, so make sure you plan ahead to have roughly 2 days where nobody will need to walk on the floor area you are painting. Different floor paints will vary in dry time, but I’ve found that you want to allow for more time than what the can says the dry time is. You’ll also almost certainly need to put a floor primer down first, allow time for that as well.
  • I have also executed a project where using paint on the floor was out of the question, but the client really wanted the artwork to spill onto the floor. For this we use a high durability vinyl, designed to withstand foot traffic. We put large sheets of it down, covering the entire area the artwork would be projected onto, then instead of tracing I just cut along the projection line with an exact-o knife and peeled away the unnecessary vinyl.
An installation I completed where temporary vinyl was used on the marble wall because painting was prohibited
  • Using vinyl is also sometimes necessary on walls if you are in a space where you aren’t allowed to paint the walls. I only recommend doing this if only a portion is going to require vinyl. Executing the entire effect using vinyl can be pretty difficult unless you’re artwork is very basic, and it might be best just to find somewhere you can paint the walls instead, or look into the sophisticated laser-and-rendering technique I mentioned at the beginning of this post. However, if you need to use vinyl and are going to have some areas covered in vinyl and some areas covered in paint, make sure to get the vinyl first since the colors are much more limited than paint. Then bring the vinyl to the paint store and pick out a color that matches it.

I think most of what I can pass along from my experience in anamorphic installations. My last tip would be that it always takes at least 50% longer than you think it will, so plan accordingly (and bill accordingly).

Good luck!