When realistic painter Dennis Crayon participated in a six-week archeological dig near Rome in 1998, he was privy to sights that would shape and direct his artistic vision for years to come.

“The dig was an old site that was bombed during World War II, so we dug down past 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted,” recalls Dennis. “But we also [went] into a lot of the houses that tourists don’t get into. One of the houses had these incredible fresco paintings that in some places looked as fresh as the day they were made and in other places were really beat up because they were from Vesuvius. Some of them had just been so protected, you could see the brushstrokes…and all the incredible realism, and then you’d also have the cracks in the walls.”

That pivotal experience serves as motivation for his refreshingly unique body of work. Juxtaposing the old and the new, Dennis combines contemporary composition with classical painting techniques and trompe l’oeil, surprising viewers with what’s real and not real. This trickery might be as simple as the foundation of a painting–for example, a surface that appears to be wood is actually medium fiber density board with layers of gesso that Dennis has sanded down and painted to look like fine wood grain. And if you think you see ripped-up photographic images taped on with Scotch tape, you need to look again. In fact, you might be compelled to touch the surface to be totally convinced that what is in front of your eyes is a masterful oil painting. No pasted images, no Scotch tape, no torn-up photographs stuck on a surface–but rather one painting designed to look like taped down fragments–old and new all harking back to his epiphany in Pompeii.

Dcrayon-Blue-MagdaleneDennis further entices viewers with his unique interpretations of works by Old Masters, including Raphael and Caravaggio. For a long time, Dennis had held on to a circa-1905 black-and-white photograph of women on the New Jersey shore, but he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with it. His vision for the piece finally clicked when he remembered that Raphael’s “Three Graces” had been used as a starting point for sculptures and paintings for centuries. Once again, he set out to counterbalance the old and the new by employing trompe l’oeil in “Blue Magdalene.” In a nod to Caravaggio’s “Martha and Mary Magdalene,” Dennis created the illusion of a decaying portrait that has been enhanced with a rectangle of “new” that appears to jump off the canvas.

After taking private art lessons in high school, Dennis went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from the State University of New York and later earned a diploma from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was there that he began to learn classical painting. He later moved to Washington, D.C., and studied at the Zoll Studio of Fine Art in Timonium, Maryland, fully delving into classical painting techniques and trompe l’oeil

Photographs by collaborating brothers Doug and Mike Starns further inspire Dennis’s work. One Starns series featured several photographs and found objects that had been taped them together to make a new image. “I wanted to show my concept of how you would [put] together a piece in the way that the museums have put together a Pompeian image–pulling [the pieces together],” says Dennis. “I wanted to take all of the fragments and then tape them back together and present it as you would a piece that would be in a museum.” After seeing some of the photographs by the Starns brothers, Dennis launched into his work “Wave Fragment,” which, he says, “is the preface for everything I’m doing.”

Dennis is an award-winning member of The Art League in Alexandria and the Arlington Artists Alliance. His work can be seen at the John Zaccheo Fine Art Gallery in Manchester Center, Vermont, and locally at Gallery Underground in Arlington.