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An automatic drawing is the absolute antithesis of illustration, since one does not see what one is drawing until it has been drawn. It requires a practiced pen-hand and an ability to attain at will an essentially vacuous state of mind, that can be sustained for the duration of the drawing. Those who have read Austin Osman Spare will realise there is much in common between automatic drawing and sigil creation, which is why a true automatic drawing can be talismanic (Spare and Carter wrote an essay entitled Automatic drawing, and Spare's 'Book of Pleasure' expands on what he meant by 'obsessions'). Attaining vacuity seems difficult, until it is realised it is easy, again through long practice. It is the same with wuwei, it takes a long time to learn to do nothing properly. As in martial arts, it is acting from the centre.

While a piece of scribble could be called an automatic drawing, even with scribble there is ability and lack of it. Running grass-script Chinese calligraphy, for instance, has the appearance of scribble, but done by a master it has vibrancy, it has bokki. A single pen line can have that energy, but a single pen line by itself is not an automatic drawing. The line has not been 'taken for a walk', as Paul Klee put it. If you are successful you are unlikely to be drawing trees and cars and houses (at least not in any expected sense) but rather giving form to things more deeply unconscious, things that suggest but defy recognition, that are more things than one, and may even be drawn upside down, but only from one momentary fixed standpoint upon the material. The difficulty in getting a fix on what the automatic drawing actually is is what ultimately fascinates. There is an interaction with the mind that is not broken by the release of identification, since it comes from somewhere quite unreachable, and in our attempt to reach toward it it takes us off balance just slightly. Such, at least, is what I look for in an automatic drawing.

Historical Overview

Automatism is a term appropriated by the Surrealists from physiology and psychiatry and later applied to techniques of spontaneous writing, drawing and painting. In physiology, automatism denotes automatic actions and involuntary processes that are not under conscious control, such as breathing; the term also refers to the performance of an act without conscious thought, a reflex. Psychological automatism is the result of a dissociation between behaviour and consciousness. Familiarity and long usage allow actions to become automatic so that they are performed with a minimum of thought and deliberation. Pathological automatism, also the consequence of dissociative states, ensues from psychological conflict, drugs or trance states; automatism may also be manifested in sensory hallucinations.

During the late 19th century Pierre Janet, a French psychiatrist, treated mental disorders with hypnosis, as did other practitioners of dynamic psychiatry. In particular, he studied the automatic behaviour of mediums to determine the degree to which the subconscious interacts with the conscious during a trance. A medium, while in a self-induced trance, performs spontaneous physical acts with no conscious control. Psychiatry suggests that their apparent messages from a spirit world may actually be subliminal thoughts or feelings, released and given free expression.

While psychiatry considers automatism reflexive and constricting, the Surrealists believed it was a higher form of behaviour. For them, automatism could express the creative force of what they believed was the unconscious in art. Automatism was the cornerstone of Surrealism. André Breton defined Surrealism in his Manifeste du surréalisme (1924) as ‘ psychic automatism in its pure state ’. This automatism was ‘ dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern ’. Breton’s formulation of automatism borrowed ideas from the practices of mediums and from dynamic psychiatry, which emphasized the interplay among conscious and unconscious forces in directing behaviour. Although related to Freud’s free association, the automatism of the Surrealists required only one person and was written rather than spoken. Automatic writing served as the Surrealists’ first technique for tapping what they believed to be the unconscious; subsequently, hypnotic trances and dream narration provided other routes to the unknown.

Automatism in the visual arts can arise from manual techniques that involve chance in the creation of the work ( frottage, grattage, decalcomania) or from psychological experiences (hallucination, intoxication, hypnotic trance, dream narration). André Masson’s automatic drawings, such as Furious Suns (1925; New York, MOMAstartend), Joan Miró’s paintings from the mid-1920s and Max Ernst’s frottages are examples.

By the mid-1940s the American painters known as the Abstract Expressionists (in particular ‘Action Painters’; see Action Painting) had adopted automatic methods in their work. Influenced by Surrealism, these artists introduced the appearance of automatism even when their pictures were deeply deliberated. They included Arshile Gorky, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning. Between 1946 and 1951 les Automatistes, a group of Canadian Surrealist painters, painted in a technique based on automatic writing. In post-war Europe, the artists grouped under the label Tachism produced paintings with swiftly registered, calligraphic signs and broad brushstrokes, which had the spontaneity associated with automatism.

Jennifer Gibson
From Grove Art Online
© 2007 Oxford University Press

Automatism: Dissected

Automatism has taken on many forms: the automatic writing and drawing initially (and still to this day) practiced by surrealists can be compared to similar, or perhaps parallel phenomena, such as the non-idiomatic improvisation of free jazz.
Surrealist automatism is different from mediumistic automatism, from which the term was inspired. Ghosts, spirits or the like are not purported to be the source of surrealist automatic messages.


Pure psychic automatism" was how André Breton defined surrealism, and while the definition has proved capable of significant expansion, automatism remains of prime importance in the movement.
In 1919 Breton and Philippe Soupault wrote the first automatic book, Les Champs Magnétiques, while The Automatic Message (1933) was one of Breton's significant theoretical works about automatism.


Some Romanian surrealists invented a number of surrealist techniques (such as cubomania, entoptic graphomania, and the movement of liquid down a vertical surface) that purported to take automatism to an absurd point, and the name given, "surautomatism", implies that the methods "go beyond" automatism, but this position is controversial.

Automatic drawing (distinguished from drawn expression of mediums) was developed by the surrealists, as a means of expressing the subconscious. In automatic drawing, the hand is allowed to move 'randomly' across the paper. In applying chance and accident to mark-making, drawing is to a large extent freed of rational control. Hence the drawing produced may be attributed in part to the subconscious and may reveal something of the psyche, which would otherwise be repressed. Examples of automatic drawing were produced by mediums and practitioners of the psychic arts. It was thought by some Spiritualists to be a spirit control that was producing the drawing whilst physically taking control of the medium's body.

Automatic drawing was pioneered by André Masson. Artists who practised automatic drawing include Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Jean Arp and André Breton. The technique was transferred to painting (as seen in Miró's paintings which often started out as automatic drawings), and has been adapted to other media; there have even been automatic "drawings" in computer graphics. Pablo Picasso was also thought to have expressed a type of automatic drawing in his later work, and particularly in his etchings and lithographic suites of the 1960s.

Most of the surrealists' automatic drawings were illusionistic, or more precisely, they developed into such drawings when representational forms seemed to suggest themselves. In the 1940s and 1950s the French-Canadian group called Les Automatistes pursued creative work (chiefly painting) based on surrealist principles. They abandoned any trace of representation in their use of automatic drawing. This is perhaps a more pure form of automatic drawing since it can be almost entirely involuntary - to develop a representational form requires the conscious mind to take over the process of drawing, unless it is entirely accidental and thus incidental. These artists, led by Paul-Emile Borduas, sought to proclaim an entity of universal values and ethics proclaimed in their manifesto Refus Global.

As alluded to above, surrealist artists often found that their use of 'automatic drawing' was not entirely automatic, rather it involved some form of conscious intervention to make the image or painting visually acceptable or comprehensible, "...Masson admitted that his 'automatic' imagery involved a two-fold process of unconscious and conscious activity..

How to do an automatic drawing

The key is to make a conscious decision not to control the drawing. Take a blank sheet of paper, pick up the pencil, and just watch the marks your hand and pencil make. You're the observer, not the controller.

If thoughts come to mind as you watch, notice them but let them pass through. Don't dwell on any of them. If necessary just repeat something to yourself like "Whatever comes out is fine."
Keep drawing till you have a sense of completion. Then set that drawing aside and pick up another blank sheet of paper. Start again. Let the pencil move freely.

How many automatic drawings to do?

I usually do a minimum of twenty or ten in a row. Often this is enough to get some sense of completion. Sometimes it takes several drawings for me to let loose enough to allow the drawing to get chaotic and messy. When I allow this "lack of harmony" then I can clear out the inner "mess" and go on.

The later drawings in that session usually have a grace and harmony that I enjoy. But they won't come unless I allow the "chaotic mess" drawings to emerge when they want to. I think of this as a kind of natural "clearing out" process.

The wonderful thing is that it's so natural and easy. There's no effort or strain involved. You don't have to do anything special. It's as if the self has a natural self-cleaning, self-maintaining process built in. The automatic drawing "turns on" this process.
I've done as many as 30 or 40 drawings in a row, too, if I felt like it. It can be exhilarating to do a big stack like this. It's very freeing.

What if it's just scribbling?

Well, that's good. That's how it needs to start. Just let go.
Often you'll look back at some of your first automatic drawings and think "how contrived!" You thought you were really letting go and scribbling wildly, when really you were controlling the pencil. At first, the part of you that Tim Gallwey calls "Self One" just won't believe that you can even "scribble" without its firm controlling guidance.

Empathic responses

For maximum progress in artistic development, put up each drawing separately. A gray background is helpful, but any background that lets you see the drawing well is fine. Then relax and let the drawing enter your awareness. Make it your goal to accept the drawing exactly as it is. You want to feel the world as the drawing feels it.
You may want to make some notes about what you notice. Or just make the empathic responses and let them go. What's important about this is that you're becoming one with the work, in a completely nonjudgmental way. Oddly enough, this gives you a sense of detachment.

-GPS 2008
© 2008 - 2021 gromyko
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OddworldianPrincess's avatar
I'm glad to hear about this...
All my life I have done drawing where I have been almost completely unconscious, "coming to" near the end of a drawing. I pick up a pencil and draw, but I do not pay attention I relax, i daydream, I let it happen. Some days I watch myself draw, other days I draw with my eyes shut if I am relaxed enough.
I am proud to say Automatism is the dominant style in my art :)
There's something so beautiful and flawless when you let your mind free, no goals set in stone, you just let yourself go...
xPostApocalypticGirl's avatar
Very interesting article :)
obleakpattern's avatar
excellence i must say!
Virtual-Cortex's avatar
Nicely constructed article, well done.

Eric-Dyer's avatar
Time to get a new sketchbook to fill with some automatism. :)
Great read.
chelleshocked's avatar
Thanks for sharing this. It was very informative and interesting to read about. I actually didn't know about automatism before this. :thumbsup:
christinehoyler's avatar
I just let my mind go blank and I start drawing how I want.. sort of a doodling state of mind and then when I see something emerging, I build on that and maybe add an eye in there somewhere, flip it around, see something else emerging.. rinse and repeat. Please check out my work to see my free style :)
christinehoyler's avatar
This news makes me go :airborne: :]
Maldoror24's avatar
very interesting article, but i think its not easy to do really automatic drawings, because you cannot say if something is automatical or just spontaneous. i think when you are still taking care of harmony or asthetics it cannot be automatical
gromyko's avatar
You have a point over there, however to call a work automatic it includes the adjective spontaneous, the same synonymous to free-expression...but this however has a automatic work doesnt necessarily mean it has to be too uncontrolled, if you look at chinese paintings or the works of matta, pollock, and that of cy twombly, some early rothko, automatism are a varied collective term-meaning there are various methods that could be termed automatic such as decalcomania, frottage, scrappage, decopage, titration, marbling automatic work can also be a source for a more finished work such as those utized by dali, ernst, and others...thank you
Shinigami08's avatar
very nice article. i definately learned something new.
gromyko's avatar
Im glad to be of help
Morgan-666's avatar
i almost read all of this.
but it looks pretty interesting.....
Morgan-666's avatar
so i guess i will.
gromyko's avatar
Im glad it interest you...:bow:
happy-gnome's avatar
Very timely, have been re investigating the process just this week, excellent article
gromyko's avatar
Im glad it coincided with your tackling of the subject...i use automatism along with other methods to produce works that are hybrids of abstract surrealism and expressionism...i will be glad to see your works
janellemckain's avatar
Well written, I enjoyed that!
gromyko's avatar
Thank you Señorita McKain...Im glad it help widen other people's minds...Automatism is and has always been the primary weapon of surrealists, be them veristic or abstract...:bow:
limnides's avatar
gromyko's avatar
Thank you...glad it interest you
Judas130's avatar
when applying this to writing, its damn hard, but not impossible. I've seen it done before for the purpose of magic tricks, which degraded the process somewhat, but to write words without thinking about the words is something very hard i'd think, without making it undecipherable patterns written on paper. I'd say it works for Art best. Interesting article!

gromyko's avatar
But from the very beginning in the hayday of surrealism, automatism had been a literary weapon, developed by breton against the conventionalism of the classicist traditionalists of Anatole France's comerades et al, Automatism is also best applied in written form...I have practiced it several times, (the product is a novel called "The Evil Genius of a King", one written 5 years ago and is an erotic fantasy of automatic words, either written in a state of meditation or just plain horny apparitions)in verse and poetry. Automatic drawing, a weapon of choice is a basic part of my ouvre, but this collective term is so varied that i could cite any spontaneous act as automatism and be wrong about it...
Judas130's avatar
i think that's given me a good insight though, i know what you refer to as many good surrealist novelists and poets wrote spontaneously, and i suppose that that is automatism. :lightbulb:hmmm, that's interesting to me though, impulsive fantasy and thought on paper seems truer to the writer, which i think is a amiable quality in writing, and art.

i hope all is going well :D

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