Automatic drawing is one of the major contributions of the Surrealist movement to the Modern and Contemporary Art. This unique method of art making has been largely used not only by surrealists, but by other modern and contemporary creators as well. Theory of art puts French painter André-Aimé-René Masson at the place of a pioneer of automatic drawing; however, it should also be mentioned that the English artist Austin Osman Spare developed the same practice at the same time. Automatic drawing was rapidly influencing many prominent artists of the 1920s (mostly surrealists), including Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Jean Arp and André Breton.
Automatic drawing can be described as “expressing the subconscious.” It is implied that one should draw randomly across the paper, without any rational thinking. There is no rational control at all. As a product, there is a drawing, produced by subconscious with the goal to discover something about the psyche of an author. In case that the author uses ratio or mind in his/her drawing, the subconscious would be repressed and no single link with the depths of a person’s psyche could be expressed. That is why channeling a spirit is one of the main goals of automatic drawing with completely free hand "putting" psyche onto surface. Finally, drawing automatically is inherently linked with automatism, which is an art-making process where the subconscious is allowed to create - hence the name automatic drawing. Of course, psychoanalysis and Sigmund Freud influenced this method of art making a lot, particularly Freud’s theories about the conscious and the subconscious.
After the first artworks were created with the use of automatic drawing, this new technique was rapidly transferred to paintings and other media. Pablo Picasso, for example, was very interested in surrealist automatism in his late period. The method is also described as illusionistic, since creators were making drawings based on the representational form that was suggesting itself. One of the most notable automatist groups - the French-Canadian group called Les Automatistes completely abandoned the notion of representation in their use of automatism. This method has had a huge influence on other media and movements. Today, it’s used by computer artists, typewriter art creators, painters and many others.
Editors’ Tip: Line Let Loose: Scribbling, Doodling and Automatic Drawing
The book Line Let Loose: Scribbling, Doodling and Automatic Drawing was written by David MacLagan. This author focuses on scribbling, doodling and automatic drawing as methods of art making. Not using your mind and conscious part of the brain, this type of drawing is like writing on paper completely free and without control aiming to create stunning examples of artworks. With a single page and a pen or pencil and with open and creative mind , everyone can create this technique just following the simple process . David Maclagan shows that each of these marginal forms of drawing has its own history in spiritualism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, and psychedelic art. Referring to Klee, Pollock, Miro, Twombly, andLeWitt, as well as many lesser-known or anonymous artists, he traces the links between them and a pervasive notion of the spontaneous and unconscious creation of forms in art. He suggests that the original novelty of these unconventional drawing processes has begun to wear off, and he explores their new situation in our modern digital culture and digital art.
Andre Masson was a prominent French surrealist, probably best-known for his drawings. He was the one who introduced this method into Modern and Contemporary art, influenced by automatic writing that was practiced by Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault. In the end of 1920s, he found this type of drawing to be too restrictive, which made him leave the Surrealist movement. He started painting more structured works, usually politically motivated, mostly as a reaction to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The most famous automatic drawings in history were made by Masson.
Featured Image: Andre Masson - Automatic Drawing, 1921
If we can say that Andre Masson was a pioneer of the automatic drawing practice, then Austin Osman Spare was the main theoretician of this method. This English artist and occultist who was influenced by Symbolism and Art Nouveau, developed idiosyncratic magical techniques including automatic writing, automatic drawing and sigilization. All of these techniques the creator developed based on his interest in relationship between the conscious and the unconscious self.
Featured Image: Austin Osman Spare - Automatic Drawing, detail
One of the most famous Spanish artists of the 20th century, Joan Miro, also created several interesting automatic drawings, influenced by Masson and other Surrealist artists. His creations were never non-objective, however he was always trying to dismantle the notion of representation. One of the endeavors he took to avoid representative art was by adopting the method of automatic drawing. Still, this method was never recognized as one of the greatest achievements of this artist.
Featured Image: Joan Miro - Preparations for Birds,detail, 1963
One of the greatest Surrealist artists of the 20th Century, Salvador Dali, also created several automatic drawings. Still, this eccentric artist was experimenting with a number of different methods, techniques and styles, including symbolism, photography, film, and so on. Automatic drawing was only one more example of Dali’s experiments, and he drew only several works based on this method.
Featured Image: Salvador Dali - Automatic Drawing
Jean Arp, famous German-French sculptor, painter, poet, and abstract artist used automatic drawing a lot in his practice. The number of works created based on this method can only be compared with those by Andre Masson. Apart from Surrealist movement, Arp was also associated with the Dada movement in Zürich and later with the Cologne Dada group. In 1931, when he broke with the Surrealists, he found Abstraction-Création working with other artists in Paris.
Featured Image: Jean Arp - Automatic Drawing
Ellworth Kelly is the first creator on our list that is not directly linked to Surrealism. Kelly was an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker usually associated with color field painting and minimalism. In 1949, he spent some time in Paris, where he was under influence by Henri Matisse and Jean Arp, and there he started creating drawings, many of them created by using the method of automatism.
Featured Image: Ellsworth Kelly - Automatic Drawing, Pine Branches VI, 1950, detail
Another prominent Surrealist, Wolfgang Paalen was a German-Austrian-Mexican painter, sculptor and art philosopher. Before joining the influential Surrealist movement in 1935, he was a member of the Abstraction-Création group from 1934–35. He is known for living and working in Mexico for many years, where he was a close friend with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (with whom he ended friendship due to political disagreements). In the end of the 1940s, Paalen returned to Paris where he created several notable automatic drawings.
Featured Image: Wolfgang Paalen - Automatic Drawing, 1950
Pierre Gauvreau was a prominent Québécois painter who was a member of the Les Automatistes movement in Canada. Both Gauvreau and the group he was belonging to were highly influenced by Surrealists and by theory of automatism. That’s why many of them (including Gauvreau) rejected the idea of representation, and began creating abstract art. Also, a number of artists belonging to this movement were using automatic drawing as a method, including Pierre Gauvreau.
Featured Image: Pierre Gauvreau - Ink Drawing
William Anastasi is American painter and visual artist. Although he does not focus his practice on automatic drawing per se, his approach looks like a product of influence of automatism. His well-known Subway series is consisted of drawings that were made while the artist was walking. While drawing, Anastasi keeps his eyes closed for the most of the part, while his walking drawing were created while he was walking, meaning he was watching where he was going to, and not looking to the paper. Although this example is not directly linked with automatic drawing, it still has some parallels, since subconscious plays an important role in art practices that are created by using methods similar to those of Anastasi’s.
Featured Image: William Anastasi - Untitled (Subway Drawing), detail, 2009. All Images used for illustrative purposes only.