How to get surrealism ideas for art

How to get surrealism ideas for art

How-tos | 18 comments

Some people come up with surreal art ideas left and right. They might not even know how they get these ideas—it’s like a creative lightning bolt to the brain. Some of us are struck with these idea bolts all day every day, and for others of us, we’re lucky if we get one idea a month like this.

You can’t force these flashes of inspiration. They just happen to you. But what if you want an idea now?

Get a surreal idea without waiting for inspiration

You’re in luck—waiting around for lightning to strike is not the only way to get great ideas. Take a look at these surreal drawings, for example.

Two normal objects that anyone could think of—and eye and an ear—are combined in an unusual way to make a surreal drawing.
In this drawing, Rooted, hands are combined with stylistic tree roots to create an unexpected new image.
Or in this case, a gooey substance is the main subject … but it’s used to create the form of a human walking into the distance.
Let’s talk about ways you can come up with surreal ideas for images like the ones above (and much, much more).

Nine ways to get surreal art ideas

Here are nine thought exercises to get you coming up with your own surreal ideas.

This post includes nine prompts for coming up with original surreal drawing ideas any time, anywhere. By the end of this article, you should be able to look around a room and immediately come up with all kinds of new surreal ideas for your own art.

1. Combine an inanimate object and a living object

Think of any inanimate object. Use your surroundings as inspiration if you’re having trouble deciding on one—and don’t be too picky about it. It could be something as boring as the computer monitor you’re looking at, a lightbulb, or the pencil on your desk.

Then, think of an animal or person—anything that’s alive. It doesn’t have to be creative or complex. Even something as basic as an earthworm will do.

Example combinations: a cat and a keyboard. A human and a desk. A fly and headphones. You don’t need to go beyond what’s available in your line of sight to come up with some interesting ideas.

Then, combine those two things in a drawing somehow.

Here are a few examples.

In the surreal painting below called The Whale Stones, I gave pillars of rock a creature-like characteristic by giving each one an eye. This provides a curious effect; things that aren’t ever thought of as alive suddenly are.
Or take a look at this example. In the charcoal drawing, The Shadow of Lightning Cat, I combined lightning with a cat, and then I drew his shadow. You can experiment merging other inanimate and living objects to form your own surreal ideas.

2. Combine two or more living objects

By merging familiar attributes of totally different living things, you’ll end up with a surreal creation. You can try the same thing with any combination to invent your own creature artwork. Put a pig snout on a duck. Give a fly the wings of a bat. Turn the antlers of a stag into tree trunks.

You get the idea.

Here are a few examples of some of my own surreal art that does this.

In this surreal pen drawing, I combined a human (using a human ear and a human eye) a bull (using the horns of a bull) an eagle (using an eagle-like beak) and a lion (using the teeth, the snout, and an eye like a lion’s).
In this other marker drawing called Disarmed, I combined the skin of an amphibian with some of the body shape of a human—with a human-like torso and the ability to stand on two legs. Of course, there are a few other surreal elements going on in the drawing, too.
Plants are living objects, too, and you can get cool effects combining creatures with plants of some kind. I tried that in this mixed-media drawing called Grow from It.

3. Combine a landscape with a living object

Personifying landscapes can be quirky, fun, or even terrifying. The man in the moon or the lady of the mountain are well-known examples of this type of imagery in folklore. But there’s no limit to what you can make up in your own living landscape.

You can explore this concept with cityscapes, bodies of water, cliff faces … lots of possibilities. Add features like a head, arms & legs, or even just two eyes to breathe a surreal type of life into a landscape.

Here are a few examples of using this prompt to get surreal art ideas.

For example, this surreal charcoal drawing is a cross-section of a hill—a hill that actually turns out to be the head of a creature with enormous eyes.
In this sketch of a surreal cityscape, I doodled one of the towers having five spires, to look kind of like a human hand.

4. Combine a landscape with a technology

Think of a landscape, like a mountain, a valley with a stream, or a cityscape. Then add some kind of mechanical or technological element to it to turn it surreal.

You could put a gear in place of the setting sun. You could add levers, pistons, or pipes rising out of the ground. You could put a giant button in the middle of a forest for some massive entity to push.

You could even do something like what I did below, and add a contoured circuit-board pattern to part of the ground.
In the old sketch below, I combined geometric shapes and organic things, like swampy shapes and plants. I combined an appearance of sheet metal and weoponry with dripping goo.

5. Combine something living with a technology or mechanics

To get a biotech effect, combine something living with mechanical or technological elements. You can give a mechanical or technological twist to a plant, person, or animal to get all kinds of really interesting surreal effects.

For example, in this pen and marker drawing called Technosaur, I used the shape of a human eye and gears, bolts, and other mechanisms to create a surreal drawing.
In this surreal mixed media drawing called Processor, I combined similar mechanical-looking shapes and circuit-board imagery with a human face. The result is what looks like a human-robot hybrid.

6. Make an object bigger than it would ever be in real life

You can pick an object that’s ordinarily small, and place a huge version of it in context of another regular-sized thing. This creates a surreal effect. It helps to make the regular-sized object something people are familiar with in day-to-day life, like cars, buildings, or people.

For example:

This leech-like creature in the drawing, The Leech in the Tree, is terrifyingly huge. And that’s what makes this drawing idea a surreal one.
Yet another bug-like creature; this weevil-like thing is wrapped around a streetlight … making it seem terrifyingly huger than it should be.

7. Make an object smaller than it would ever be in real life

This is really similar to the last approach. You can take an object, and shrink it down to create a surreal art piece. It helps to use objects people are familiar with. For example, if you shrunk a human being, you could put them in context of everyday objects like coins, keys, a computer mouse, or even pieces of food that are now the size of trucks.

In this example, this little girl is small enough to fit in a pair of hands, giving the image a surreal feeling.

8. Remove an item from a set it always belongs to

You can do this with any number of things, like removing the black keys from a piano, or taking two toes off of a foot, or subtracting a wing from an airplane. But one of the most dramatic ways to get a surreal effect with this tactic is to remove a feature from a human face.

For example, look at this pencil drawing, called Another One Silenced. A face always has a mouth. Taking out the mouth creates a surreal image.
Even really similar concepts can yield surreal images with very different feelings to them. For example, I did yet another drawing of a face, but with something that’s always present on the face missing once again. In this charcoal drawing called Nobody’s Looking, I took away the eyes instead of the mouth.

9. Try automatism; don’t get any ideas at all

Automatism is a type of surreal art where you just start drawing with no plan. The idea is to cut past your conscious thought straight to your subconscious. For this type of art, it’s best to use a really simple medium, like pencil on paper, so you don’t get distracted by fancy techniques.

In this surreal drawing called Permission, I just used a simple purple pencil
In the drawing Hybrid, I started with marbled paper to zone out even more.
I spaced out on an airplane to create the automatic drawing Facts.

More examples of surreal art

To help get you thinking of more ideas, you can see a directory of all my surreal artwork.

More surreal art

Understanding how surrealism works

You might intuitively recognize surreal art when you see it. But you may have wondered what exactly defines a surreal concept. The term, “surrealism,” is thrown around a lot.  If you’ve heard anyone try to define it, it might not ring true. It also might conflict with something you’ve heard someone else say about surrealism. I’ve heard many different definitions that vary wildly depending on the person using the term, and depending on the art form they are describing.

The definition of surrealism is “dream-like”

Even the dictionary definition of surreal is vague. Most dictionaries simply say that a surreal art form or situation has a dream-like quality to it. A dream could be anything: I’ve dreamed about turning my sister into a chicken, manning a submarine with cyborgs, drowning in oatmeal … and stranger things. How are we supposed to get anything definitive out of “dream-like”?

Both dreams and art are extremely subjective, but we want the concrete principle behind it.  If we can break down surreal art into specific elements, we can engage in it and create it more reliably.

So let’s try to break this concept down in more concrete terms. We recognize surrealism ideas when we see them, but why?

It’s surprisingly simple. This is my basic guiding principle for what defines surrealism that I use to generate surreal art ideas. You’re welcome to use it to help you come up with your own.

Get dream-like effects with strange combinations of elements

What imagery comes to mind when you work with “dream-like”—the dictionary definition of surreal? If you’re thinking of something archetypically dream-like, you may imagine a foggy landscape, or people in flowy clothing moving in slow motion. Quite honestly, I doubt that’s what your dreams are really like—and I know they’re not what mine are like.

Dreams don’t tend to have a magical quality to them; they’re just plain weird. But what is it that makes them weird?

My theory is pretty simple: the weirdness—or, surrealism—comes from simple combinations of two or more elements that don’t occur together in regular life. That’s it.

Try holding any of your dreams that you can remember up against this idea.

In a dream, you might be on a pirate ship with your boss, or your pencil sharpener might be alive, or you can fly. Each of those scenarios is a simple combination of two elements that would never occur together in real life (your boss + a pirate ship, a pencil sharpener + life, you + flight).

Coming up with a surreal art idea is as simple as taking two unrelated elements and combining them—though you don’t have to stop at two elements. This can get as complex as you want it to.

An example of combining elements to get a surrealism idea

I’ll give you a simple example of this surreal-art-generating method at work in one of my own drawings.

I was walking to my apartment at the top of a hill in the drizzly Pacific Northwest one afternoon.  I looked up from the base of the staircase toward my door, and saw the silhouette of a boy at the top of the stairs just before he turned the corner (element 1).  I remember thinking that I would have taken a photo if I had my camera—the lighting was perfect.

Still with that image on my mind, I got home and made a cup of tea to warm myself (element 2).

And with that, a surrealism idea for an art piece was born. I combined the two everyday concepts, a cup of tea and the staircase & silhouette of the boy, to make an entirely new one. As you can see, even combining somewhat mundane objects, like in this surreal drawing, can create a very interesting effect.

Surreal art ideas: The Dregs, a pen & ink drawing by Laura Kranz

If you try any of these tips for coming up with surreal ideas, and it works for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

More examples of surreal art

To help get you thinking of more ideas, you can see a directory of all my surreal artwork.

More surreal art

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