Trompe L’oeil

The Perspective Illusionism of

John Pugh


Busy with several different projects at the same time, John Pugh, is an artist of unusual insight and talent. After 25 years of producing murals, he is one of the best-known muralists in the world. He got his start at the California State University at Chico, where he painted his first major mural on the side of Taylor Hall, the gateway to the university. Started as an art project for college credit, John had found his special niche and was on his way to an award-winning career. After receiving a B.A. Degree in Fine Arts in 1983, he moved to San Francisco where he continued producing murals for commercial and residential applications. His first Los Gatos mural was a commission for the Honda Dealership on Los Gatos Boulevard. He received so much attention for this project that he has now produced over a dozen murals, both public and in private residences, in Los Gatos. So prolific, he designs one mural while painting others simultaneously.

One’s first impression upon seeing a John Pugh mural is disbelief. Most people feel the need to actually touch the wall to prove to themselves that they are seeing what they really think they are seeing. Fooling the eye is what John does with his trompe l’oeil (pronounced “trump loy”) murals. So lifelike, people have been known to start conversations with the human figures in his paintings or try to walk down one of the passages in his works. Sometimes referred to as illusionism, objects are represented as though they exist in a three dimensional, photographic realism.
The history of trompe l’oeil murals can be traced to the time when the cavemen drew and painted on the rough walls of their dwellings. Since then, men have recorded lifestyles, cultures, wars, rituals, and religious events on tombs, churches, and buildings throughout the world. Trompe L’oeil distinguishes itself from ordinary decorative murals by its lifelike quality with the intent to deceive. With the use of perfect perspective and cleverly observed light, using realistic colors, the onlooker is tricked into believing that the surface is not flat, or that space exists where there is none.

John Pugh has become one of the most accomplished trompe l’oeil muralists in the world. He is currently doing a public project on the side of a library in New Zealand, after recently finishing painted illusions in San Jose at the Berryessa Community Center and on an overpass in Dublin. A most unassuming man he was born in Lake Forest, Illinois in 1957. His family moved to Walnut Creek when he was just beginning school and he lived there, graduating from Ignatius Valley High in 1975. Today, he is still close with his older brother, Jeff, and his identical twin brother, Howard. He says that when they were adolescents, he and his twin brother were competitive, but now they are very close friends and business partners, since Howard designed and maintains John’s websites.

John has lived in various places in the South bay over the years, doing stints in Santa Cruz and Felton, as well as living on Morrill Road on the summit for a short time, and on lower Madrone in Redwood Estates for several years, where he had his first studio. Unfortunately, in the late 90’s the commute for his wife, Wendy, became so intense that they bought a townhouse in the Willow Glen section of San Jose. He then started hunting for a new mountain studio, settling on a converted barn in the summit area, where he works with a group of assistants.

Over the years, his murals have become more elaborate. Concepts have become more important to him as his art has evolved. This is why public art competitions have become his favorite form of expression. He wins one out of every two he enters. That work, in addition to the other work that comes his way, and this artist is booked for the next two years.

John starts a project by researching the history of the area, the architectural style, as well as the culture and the heritage of the people. What’s currently happening in the community helps give a sense of placement. He says he loves the process of filling the palate, using ideas, molding them into a concept. Giving a sense of pride to the community. He says, “ I feel the role of public art in the community should be to elevate the community, not to alienate them, or just to please their senses. There is a fine line there.” 

His first murals were breakaway pieces. He would break away the façade we look at everyday and create an imaginary interior. John’s attention to detail and his stunning use of shadow and light give the viewer the illusion of realism and the illusion of depth that no photo can quite replicate. “Everything we see depends upon how light is working, how it’s reflecting, how it’s casting shadows. So much of how we perceive life itself depends on light- how it reflects with colors and different materials. I couldn’t create the illusions I do without understanding the inner working of light.” He always makes a model of the architectural elements in a mural to study how the light reflects and reacts. He holds them out in the sun to see what happens. He observes the direction of the shadow, the color influences of the different reflective lights. How it exaggerates the lights. The work on the side of Taylor Hall at Chico State is an excellent example of this brilliant breakaway style. The building appears to be crumbling. The interior of classic Greek pillars is exposed. Pugh says that this idea came to him in a dream. On Main Street in Los Gatos, a Mayan jaguar god is grafted with the “cats” of Los Gatos to become one of the key metaphors of this concept in the “Siete Punto Uno.” His murals have become more sophisticated, as his art has continued to grow. His concepts are getting deeper. With experience have come multiple levels and layers of deception. A good example of this is a work he was commissioned to do for Victor Valley College. They wanted the history of the valley for the last 150 years, so the mural looks like a canvas stretched out on exposed boards that appears to be unraveling. On the part that appears to be underneath, he placed Indian petroglyphs. On the peeling portion, he drew Joshua trees with oranges, and on the unraveled part are prominent local settlers.

The recently completed “Valley of Hearts Delight” in San Jose at the Berryessa Community Center is another excellent example of his attention to detail. According to John’s website, “inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, the mural's repetitive arched walls are also reminiscent of the old California Mission. Just as the Missions did before, the Berryessa Community Center provides a year-round gathering place for activities. Included in the mural are elements from the past, as well as the present and future, to create a continuum to this heritage.” It is apparent that Pugh does a great deal of research and uses an incredible amount of forethought when designing murals. There are layers of complexity to his murals that take time to comprehend. Many of his murals propel the viewer into another dimension of space and time. Many make the viewer question reality. He entices one to think outside of the box. You question what the eye sees. Deception at it’s very finest. A good example is the mural at Michael Lane and Associates Architectural Firm (now P3M Web Design Company) on Monterey Avenue in Los Gatos. (See the back cover) This piece is a perfect example of John’s use of depth perception. So real, you feel like you should be able to walk through the pillars. The use of realistic colors adds to its lifelike quality. Another completely different style of mural, but one that causes a discovery process as one tries to comprehend what the eye is transmitting, is “Woman in Café” at the Great Bear Café on North Santa Cruz Avenue in Los Gatos. In homage to Edouard Manet’s Bar at the Follies-Bergere, the picture is of a young woman standing behind a wine bar. You see her reflection in the mirror behind, but wait, the mirror also reflects a male, local mountain resident Bill Trieglaff. A play on the original, using modern dress, local Los Gatos resident Kelly Cunningham is the woman at the bar. John is a regular at the café and he suggested to the owner, Ann Van Epps, that the back corner of the shop would be a perfect location for a mural.

John Pugh has produced over 200 murals in his career. He paints about five a year; all are incredible works of art. He has been named the Precita I Mural Art Center Master Muralist for 2003 and Chico State has named him a Distinguished Alumni for 2003, as well. Truly a master of illusion, people will still be marveling at his incredible, brilliant, insightful, optical illusions, one hundred years from now.

Please visit John Pugh’s websites at and

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