So you’ve been drawing for a while, you have a favourite medium – pencil, charcoal, oils – but you’re starting to feel a bit stuck in your ways. You have some go-to techniques which you know usually turn out pretty well, but you’ve lost the sense of play and experimentation that you had when you first started drawing. The better you get, the harder it seems to let yourself go and try something new. It feels like starting all over again.
This is where I found myself. So I decided to go in search of inspiration from the art of the past, to try and understand how the most creative of artists kept their eyes and minds open to new ideas. What might their daily practice have looked like? What kept them stimulated?
In this series of articles Drawing on Art History I’ll go in search of practical ways to stimulate creativity, try new things and learn from the art of the past. In this first post we take a look at Surrealism and the visual games that they developed to help unlock the imagination.
A brief history of Surrealism
Melting clocks, bowler hats, furry cups – Surrealism has provided us with some of the most iconic and fantastical imagery in the history of art (although once you’ve seen Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1495-1505) up close you’ll realise this has always been part of the human psyche). I always remember visiting the Tate Modern in London with my Dad when I was young and seeing the Surrealist room – the lobster telephone, the industrial-looking elephant – and buying a print of The Metamorphosis of Nacissus (1921) from Camden market. As a child it was easy to accept and delight in the absurdity and fun of Surrealist imagery.
Hieronomous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (c. 1495-1505), Museo del Prado, Madrid
In the public mind, Surrealism (1920s-1960s) has become synonymous with the eclectic and prolific figure of Salvador Dalí (1904-1989, Catalunya), an artist that has been at times both poked fun at by the art establishment and revered as a genius. Of course, like all art ‘movements’ there is more to the story and I was intrigued to discover the prominent role that the lesser known Dada movement had, through the relationship of two of its most vocal theorists, Tristan Tzara and André Breton.
Dada emerged at the onset of World War I, when a mix of European artists and intellectuals fled to the safe-haven of Zurich and created a collective arts space called Cabaret Voltaire, where they hosted absurdist theatre, dance, poetry….it’s hard to describe….
The onset of WWI had left many disillusioned with the prevailing social values of the time, where capitalism, conspicuous consumption and nationalism had become the status quo. These artists rejected the art of the past, rejected the notion of artistic genius and rejected the so-called rationalism that had led to one of the largest wars the world had ever seen. Dada challenged artistic convention and self-consciously questioned the very function of art itself. Thus was born the first ‘anti-art’ movement where “the real Dada’s are against Dada”. A humourous, self-conscious and politically-charged movement.
André Breton (1896-1966, France) had been part of the Paris Dada movement during the early 1920s, through his friendship with the poet and performance artist Tristan Tzara, who had helped spread Dada across Europe. However, Tzara and Breton clashed in their views on how the movement should develop and what the role of art now was. Tzara strongly clung to the founding principles of Dada and vehemently rejected artistic interpretation of the work. Breton had been working on techniques which would bypass the rationalism that the Dadaists so rejected and free the imagination, outside the control of reason, aesthetics and morals. Breton still believed that is was possible to find something meaningful, something deeper, through art.
Breton and the Surrealists were thus preoccupied with tapping into the unconscious, unrestrained by societal and cultural norms, and were very prolific and inventive in finding new creative methods to do this. Automatism is a technique whereby the artist suppresses conscious control and writes or draws ‘automatically’ to produce text and images directly from the unconscious. Symbolic imagery used material from dreams (Breton even set up a Bureau for Surrealist Research to collect dream imagery – check out this clip from a BBC documentary about 1920s Paris) and juxtaposition in daily life to form the basis of an artwork, often involving recurring motifs and symbols specific to the artist (e.g. Dalí’s ants, Magritte’s businessman). Language and visual games were used to explore chance, the absurd and the playful to induce collective creativity.
Surrealist drawing games
The visual games used by the Surrealists to tap into the imagination are a fun way to get back some of that childish creative energy that can be so easy to lose. Try them on your own or even better, in a group. Notice how you feel about them. Are you able to let go and let your imagination take over or do you feel constrained to ‘get things right’. Being creative and unrestrained in your thinking can be surprisingly difficult, but rather than thinking “I’m just not creative!”, see it as a skill that can be developed with practice like any other.
Cadavre Exquis, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise & Man Ray (1927)
Probably the most well known of the Surrealist drawing games, you’ve probably played some version of this before. It can be played with words or images, but here we’ll focus on images.
Works best with 3-6 people
- Take a piece of paper and fold into sections equal to the number of people in the group
- Label each section as a body part starting at the top with the head and ending at the bottom with the feet
- On your own piece of paper, draw a version of a head – this could be a head inspired by a person, an animal, or anything that symbolises a head for you
- Fold the first section of the paper over backwards so that you can’t see your drawing (but leaving a small portion for the next person to continue drawing from)
- Pass to the next person to draw the next section of the body
- Keep drawing each section, folding it over, and passing to the next person until you have completed all sections
- Reveal your Exquisite Corpse!
Game of Variants
This is a drawing version of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone) and can be played with any number of people.
- Randomly choose an adjective, a noun and an action word (e.g. using a random word generator)
- Create a phrase from the three words (e.g. angry – clown – baking)
- Draw an image of this phrase on a piece of paper and pass to the next person
- The next person must guess the three words (adjective, noun and action word) that describe this image and write them down
- They pass these three words to the next person to draw an image
- You will keep alternating between drawing an image and writing down three words
- This is most fun when you work on a long piece of paper and keep folding as you go
- Unravel the paper and reveal the evolution of the drawing from the original three words!
Automatic drawing, André Masson (1924)
Automatic drawing and writing was used frequently by artists such as André Breton, André Masson and Joan Miró as a means to bypass conscious thought.
Simply take some paper and a pen or pencil, set a timer (e.g. 10 minutes) and draw continuously without thinking about what you are drawing (it’s interesting to note that in the end Breton did not think this was humanly possible!).
An alternative version of this is to draw continuously for a set time without planning what you are going to draw but taking stimulus from your environment. For example, sit in a café and draw whatever catches your eye but without labouring over anything; simply keep your eyes and your pen moving quickly without thinking too much about what you’re drawing. Don’t judge the drawing just let it flow.
Personal Values, Rene Magritte (1952)
Noticing the uncanny and the absurd in daily life through the use of juxtaposition was a key tool of Surrealism.
Find the uncommon in the common by drawing or painting ordinary objects together in unfamiliar spaces and contexts. Choose a room in your house and draw the space. Choose five everyday objects and in your imagination place them in the room. Draw this image (using real objects to draw from, or simple from memory) and play around with the composition, position, sizes and colours of the five objects.
Create a Surrealist collage – using a range of sources (e.g. newspapers, magazines, books etc), cut out different images and arrange them together to create a juxtaposing bizarre, fantastical image.
The Paranoic-Critical method
Paranoiac Face, Salvador Dalí (1937)
The Paranoic-Critical method was developed by Dalí whereby simulating a state of paranoia you are able to perceive links between things which are not normally linked, thereby undermining your rational view of the world.
The most widely-known version of this is seeing animals and objects in clouds, but is the process of finding double or multiple images in another, for example a face in a stain, a rock, a landscape etc. Many of Dalí’s paintings adopt this technique and he apparently found a lot of inspiration for this in the rocky landscape around his home in Cadaqués.
- Cut out a black & white image from a newspaper or magazine and find a human form within the shapes (you can turn the image round any way you like)
- Create a stain on a piece of paper (e.g. with ink, paint etc) and look for an image within the stain
- Day-to-day, start noticing images in unusual places (faces in wallpaper patterns; an animal formed from a piece of hair stuck to the wall in the shower) and start a collection
If you’re interested in more Surrealist language and visual games, there’s an interesting book called A Book of Surrealist Games compiled by Alistair Brotchie.