Automatic Drawing

So apparently there's a term for the drawing technique in which you allow your subconscious mind to take control of the creative process. It's called automatic drawing. Also known as intuitive drawing in more modern terms. Similarly, it's known as automatic painting or intuitive painting when paint is the medium of choice. In all the years that I've used this technique, I never had a name for it until now.

This technique emerged during the 1920s and 1930s with the Surrealism and Dada movements, and was adapted from the Surrealist technique of automatic writing. Surrealists called this technique automatism. The purest form of which was regarded as surautomatism. Although, many Surrealists acknowledged that in order to make a work presentable, the conscious mind would often intervene. One could argue that a work may start out purely driven by the subconscious, but the conscious mind would inevitably provide more input as the piece progressed.

André Masson. Automatic Drawing. (1924).
Ink on paper, 91⁄4 × 81⁄8" (23.5 × 20.6 cm).
Museum of Modern Art, New York

What's really wild is it seems to be a common experience among artists to discover this sort of creative process on their own through individual practice and exploration. Often without realizing how common the practice is, or that it's an established technique. Perhaps more so for those with limited formal training. As was the case with myself.

Now that I know this technique has a name, I'm starting to find references to it everywhere!

Realizing that this creative process isn't uniquely my own prompted me to question myself as an artist, and my understanding of this technique. If I remember correctly, I began practicing this technique about 25 years ago. It was a creative process that I developed on my own over a few years. As far as I know, I did so without knowledge of any external influence. 

However, I do concede that it is possible I may have been influenced in some way. Our consumption of media, knowledge of art history, and life experiences are all significant sources of influence. At the time though, I was still relatively young, and wasn't inundated with modern media like I am today. Maybe there was some external influence, but I either can't remember what it was, or simply never directly connected the dots between the established technique of automatic drawing and the creative process that I developed through practice and exploration. 

I'm also not sure what inspired me to start exploring this creative process in the first place. This was before I had access to the internet, but those were also the early days of dial-up when AltaVista was the reigning search engine, and Netscape Navigator was still on its rise to prominence. Any influence would have most likely come from school or books. I don't particularly remember anything that might have informed my art though, aside from watching Bob Ross paint his happy little trees on PBS. My formal art education didn't start until my third year of college. Prior to that, I wasn't exposed to art history in any meaningful way. And by that time, I had already been using this technique for several years.

An early example of my work from 1997
using the automatic drawing technique.

My creative process begins with a subconscious gesture. And like a seed, it begins to grow. During this process, I try to quiet my conscious mind, or focus it entirely on something else. Such as listening to a lecture, or the radio. All the while, my subconscious lays down the line work. The work is almost always non-representational, but normally includes abstract shapes that maintain some semblance of flow and continuity of form with the initial gesture. I also tend to apply shading, hatching, and stippling techniques to fill in the shapes. To the subconscious mind, the otherwise tedious process of detailing becomes soothing.

I see this process as a good way to practice the basics, without putting pressure on oneself to produce something of any value. I find this relaxes me. In the past, I've used this technique as a coping mechanism in particularly stressful situations. Occasionally it would also allow me to enter the flow state, in which time and the world around me would slip away. As such, this process can serve as an escape, and provide a refuge for the conscious mind to rest and recover.

The key to this creative process is that none of it is premeditated. The subject emerges in the moment, without conscious thought as to the direction of the creative process. 

Although the conscious mind takes a back seat during this process, it seems as though the subconscious mind may rely on a sort of muscle memory in its creative direction. What determines how readable one artist's rendition is from another's may depend on how developed their skill and personal style are. Similar in a sense to how the unconscious mind creates dreams, the subconscious mind may draw influence from previous works as echos of the conscious mind. 

Until recently, I thought this kind of creative process was uniquely my own. I was naive to think that I had developed some new technique, when in reality I had essentially rediscovered the wheel. Even more embarrassing is knowing how long I had believed it to be so. In that moment of clarity, I became painfully aware of how ordinary I was. But then it occurred to me: I wasn't alone. 

With this newfound knowledge, I realize now that I am part of a much larger community of artists, united through a common experience that spans more than century. The thought of which provides some welcomed comfort to a humbled ego.