Automatism: surreal art from the subconscious
What is automatism?
Automatism is an unusual drawing or painting technique that you can use to create surreal art.
When you use it, you bypass the thoughts you’re conscious of thinking, and instead, you allow your subconscious to drive.
Using automatism in art is quite the zone-out experience. It’s almost like dreaming while you’re awake—but on paper instead of just in your head.
When you make an automatic drawing, there’s no planning the layout beforehand. You don’t have a chance to make choices about the composition.
Because of this, most of the finished art pieces have a jumbly, almost textural look to them.
Examples of automatism
Because automatism comes from undeveloped thought in the subconscious, a lot of the art it yields features organic, flowy shapes. You can guide the shapes to be well-framed by the size of paper you’re using, but other than that the process is a pretty uncontrolled. I use automatism in my Organic Form Drawings series—a collection of dozens of automatic drawings using colored pencils.
Here are a few examples. Some look rather creature-like, others look more like plants … all of them leave a lot to the imagination.
Still other automatic drawings take on a look of human viscera.
This creepy drawing, Remaining in the Details, is an example of that. Here’s a look at the 9″ x 11″ drawing, which I created with a simple roller-ball pen on regular sketch paper.
Many doodles and sketches have similar automatic attributes—as long as they’re not just some rote, memorized pattern over and over again.
How to draw using automatism
Here are some starter tips for making your own automatic drawings.
1. Choose your materials.
First, lay out all the materials you’re going to use. I recommend keeping it simple, like a pen or pencil and a small piece of paper. Pick something you’re comfortable with so you don’t get distracted by the medium itself.
Paint is generally not the best choice, since it’s easy to get caught up in different ways to layer and mix. This requires much more consciousness of what you’re doing—you want to be able to zone out.
Do not use an eraser. Every mark you make is there to stay. As soon as you start second-guessing the lines you draw, you’re no longer using automatism.
2. Make a few marks at random.
Avoid the temptation to look around the room for inspiration. The drawing you’re making shouldn’t be based on anything you see or plan if it’s truly automatic.
The only way you’ll tap into the subconscious thought is by not basing your drawing on anything you’re aware of.
This sounds difficult and weird—and at first it kind of is. But the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it.
Sometimes it’s great to have drawing ideas, but right now you need to push all the ideas from your mind.
As unnatural as it may feel, just touch your pencil to the paper and make a few random strokes—however you feel like making them. They can be long, wiggly lines. They can be disjointed tiny bits. You can make really faint marks, or really dark ones.
This can be a great way to boost your confidence for making other types of drawings in the future.
3. Riff off of existing marks.
Now that you’ve broken the ice, it’s easier to get the automatism flowing. Riff off of the strokes you already laid down. You could add shading; you could add texture; you could extend them; you could create parallel lines.
The main trick is this: don’t let yourself think too hard. You need to be free from planning, weighing ideas, and choosing.
Allow yourself to make marks on the paper without letting yourself vet them beforehand.
So is automatism just doodling?
You might read all this and think, “wow; automatism is pretty much the same thing as doodling.” Well, you’re close … but it’s not quite that simple.
While some doodling can certainly qualify as automatism, a lot of it uses rote patterns and common symbolic motifs (like smiley faces, rainbows, and hearts). These drawings are often less about subconscious thought, and more about keeping your hands busy by drawing familiar shapes. This type of doodling isn’t automatism.
Automatism is a legitimate form of surreal drawing. The word “surreal” literally means “dream-like.” Your subconscious is the power-house behind your dreams.
Automatism is about as dream-like as it gets. (The drawing on the left is called Introspect—another example of automatism.)
Why bother with automatism?
You might think that making a drawing with no particular goal in mind is, by its very nature, meaningless. But I would argue that’s not true.
See, just because you’re not actively thinking about a concept doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on in your mind. Just because you haven’t fleshed out a surreal idea doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate thoughts under the surface.
When you create a drawing using this process, you’re experiencing raw thought fragments from parts of your mind you don’t usually access. Well, except when you’re asleep.