3D Painting: An Art Form of Trickery and Immersion

An artist placed a hand on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling and developed modern 3D painting. Meet 3 artists making 3D street art, and dive into the epic scenes they create.

If you’ve never walked through a plaza and suddenly found yourself standing over a waterfall, on a rickety bridge or atop a flying rat, you need to get out more — to 3D painting events! These anamorphic illusions, or trick art, are incredibly fun and provide an immersive art experience. You’re not just looking at the 3D painting; you get to become a part of it. Festivals take place around the world for 3D painting, there are museums dedicated to its craft, and companies even commission this art form for events. It changes a viewer’s reality and inevitably leads one to question how artists pull it off.

A Little History on 3D Painting

Every art form has its beginnings. 3D painting was influenced by 17th-century artists and relies on math (the horror!).

“3D pavement art begins with geometry. I calculate and map out the exact position of the observer in relation to the size and position of the artwork. All of the figures and objects along with architectural framework will conform to this relationship,” Kurt Wenner, who invented the art form, explains. “Sometimes the location will also influence the art if I decide to use the surrounding architecture or the surface of the pavement as a starting point for the design.”

3D painting 3D street art‘The Bower Swing’ by Kurt Wenner.

Wenner studied a type of anamorphism that existed in the 17th century, “when artists designed large works to be seen from one specific point of view.” He climbed churches’ scaffolding to see frescos up close during restorations — even touching the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling — and has “noticed that on some of the ceilings the figures were elongated to appear normal from the ground.”

“I was aware that my street paintings were subject to similar viewing circumstances because people also looked at [them] from an angle rather than straight on,” he says. “I started creating my particular perspective geometry by adjusting the proportions of the painted forms to accommodate the viewpoints of the spectators standing at the base of the work. Unlike the historical anamorphic geometry used on church ceilings, the viewings’ angles I worked with were very wide and I started to use a curvilinear fish-eye lens to document the compositions. The interface between curved (or fish-eye) geometry and anamorphic geometry is central to my invention.”

3D painting 3D street art‘Africa’ with pose by Kurt Wenner.

Wenner has created amazing works, such as Greenpeace – Million Signatures, which celebrated “the collection of a million signatures asking for further study to be done on the effects of genetically modified crops” before allowing their sale in Europe. From design to completion, it took nearly a month. And the head of the European Commission on Agriculture posed on it, addressing the protesters.

3D painting 3D street art‘Greenpeace — Million Signatures’ by Kurt Wenner.

There have been great responses to Wenner’s work. One in particular occurred before the Internet Age: “I remember a Swiss woman happily buying a photo of one of my works. She said that when she tried to explain the artwork to her husband (dead people crawling directly out of the pavement and looking real, although they were drawn in chalk), he simply did not believe her and thought she should see a doctor.”

3D painting 3D street art‘Dies Irae’ by Kurt Wenner.

Complications and Success

Katie Runde did not set out to be a 3D painter. It happened by accident when she filled in for a friend at an event.

“I had no idea what I was doing, aside from trying one vague drawing in the local school parking lot to see if there was any illusion happening at all. It only truly hit me that I was really winging this one as we were driving up to Burlington at 6 a.m., and I nearly puked with anxiety,” she recalls.

Runde’s first 3D piece — an orange jersey cow — wasn’t perfect. “The calculations were a bit off and the illusion didn’t quite work.” She also didn’t know how much chalk she’d need for a 23-foot cow and ran out of orange. Her then-boyfriend had to scour the city looking for more. But that first gig got her hooked.

“The rush of speed-art and time limits combined made for quite a challenge and quite the adrenaline rush, so I became an addict and have since ironed out a lot of the 3D snags,” Runde says. “I’ve also just chilled out and gotten more comfortable with imperfect illusions. I’m in it for the fun of the process more than the photo I’ll get at the end.”

3D painting 3D street art‘Elephant’ by Katie Runde.

When you view a completed 3D painting, you’re likely to think it took days to complete (at the very least). That’s not always the case. One example for Runde is The Earth on Turtle’s Back: “It’s either the most or one of the most difficult I’ve ever created.”

“I chose a simple image to draw for a one-day drawing event and decided that meant I didn’t have to scale it down. Let’s just say, getting that thing done in time was like doing nine hours of squats in a constant state of ‘Is this actually physically possible to finish?’ anxiety. I could barely walk for four days afterward,” she says.

3D painting 3D street art‘The Earth on Turtle’s Back’ by Katie Runde.

The Playful Aesthetic

Remko van Schaik finds 3D painting inspiration depending on the type of festival or submission the work is for, but he’s “always looking for fun, exciting objects for the public.” His favorite subjects are real or fantasy animals, and flying or walking machines, because “the sizes of these objects are perfect for interaction.”

3D painting 3D street art‘Flying Car’ by Remko van Schaik.
3D painting 3D street art‘Springmuis’ by Remko van Schaik.
3D painting 3D street art‘Draconis Raptor’ by Remko van Schaik.

Schaik is also a cartoon fan, so those subjects and the way they’re painted adhere to his personal style — “my fantasy world,” he says. “The image is understandable and the purpose is to take the public out of ordinary life.”

3D painting 3D street art‘3D Boat’ by Remko van Schaik.

A Day at the Museum

I couldn’t write about 3D painting without experiencing it for myself. So while I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I visited Art in Paradise, an interactive museum where trick art is the main focus. During my visit, I was part of a great many 3D paintings, but none more memorable than when I became a human version of a message in a bottle or when I finally got to take a flying carpet ride.

3D painting 3D street art‘Message in a Bottle.’ Photo by Brandon Green.
3D painting 3D street artFly me away. Photo by Brandon Green.

With your camera in-hand, go find a 3D painting event and discover just how enjoyable this art form is. After all, the artists are doing this for you. end


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