From abstract to contemporary, impressionist to modern, painting in a style inspired by one of the great art movements can feel intimidating. Many people feel the same way about surrealism. But the truth is, whether you’ve been an avid art lover for some time or you’re just discovering a whole new world of creative excitement, making art in the surrealist style is accessible for anyone. Let’s cover what surrealist painting is, the history behind this unique style, and a few surrealism painting techniques that will get you started on your own masterpieces today.
What Is Surrealism?
Before we dive into art and painting specifically, let’s take a look at what surrealism means more broadly. The movement began in the wake of the First World War and is generally applied to creative works in art, literature, theater, photography, and film.
The idea behind surrealism is the juxtaposition of different images or movements in unexpected ways. In many cases, surrealist work is meant to represent or channel dreams, nightmares, or the imagination and free the artists from the restrictions of reality. In fact, the name itself comes from this idea. It originates in the French sur (meaning “above”) and real (or reality).
Inspired by the chaos created by war, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis theories, and Karl Marx’s socio-political views, artists began to create experimental pieces that relied heavily on contradictory imagery. The surrealist style took off when André Breton published his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto and was adapted by artists and writers all over the world into an intellectual and cultural movement.
Surrealism in Painting
Now that we know more about the surrealist movement, let’s look at this from an art perspective. What is surrealism painting? Like other creative works under this umbrella, the whole point is to make final pieces that reflect our unconscious thoughts and imagination. It’s all about liberating your mind from the conventional, so there’s freedom to include anything and everything in whatever way you’d like.
A well-known example of surrealist painting is “The Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dalí:
You can immediately see how Dalí distorts ordinary objects like clocks and shapes them into something new. While still incredibly detailed and recognizable as clocks, their fluid and melting appearance distorts reality and makes time appear to have no meaning at all. These are contrasted against a seemingly ordinary background, the cliffs of Dalí’s home in Catalonia.
As viewers, we know that this painting isn’t real—after all, clocks don’t just start melting on their own. But with surrealist paintings, the final image is more about what doesn’t make sense and what appears to be irrational, the stark contrast between reality and our minds.
Other artists who are best known for their surrealist works include Max Ernst, Man Ray, René Magritte, and Frida Kahlo. Their styles were all very different, which is hardly surprising of a movement based on personal interpretations of unconscious thoughts, but they all relied on certain techniques and overarching beliefs in the wider surrealist world to create unique and memorable paintings.
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Surrealism Painting Styles
Unlike many other types of art, the surrealism style isn’t confined to one single style at all. The goal is to tap into the unconscious mind and be led by what you see there, not whatever you are experiencing in real life. And since everyone’s imagination is different, that led to a whole range of interpretations when it came to asking, “What is surrealist painting?”
You’ll often notice that surrealist artists are broken down into two distinct groups based on the content of their paintings. Artists like Dalí and Magritte were heavily influenced by the dream-like nature of this style, creating juxtaposition in their paintings using hyper-realistic and incredibly detailed objects set in a three-dimensional world.
The use of saturated color (a favorite of Dalí) added to the dream setting and made the final images appear otherworldly. These artists saw surrealism as a way to bring the rational into an otherwise irrational setting.
Others, like Ernst and Miró, went in a different direction. Their surrealism style was based more on pulling together various objects using chaotic techniques rather than setting realistic images in an imagination-based world. Frottage—where a soft pencil or crayon is rubbed over a textured surface to create an outline of that texture on the paper—was a popular technique used by the early surrealists,
Instead of presenting crisp objects like Dalí and Magritte, these artists produced partial and unfinished images. Artists who work with this approach are drawn more to the opportunity for unconscious liberation by allowing the viewer to determine what they are seeing from the details that are missing and leaving the actual subject matter more open-ended. Because of this, artists who use this surrealist painting style are often known as “absolute surrealists.”
For new artists, or if you’ve never tried to create in this style before, absolute surrealism is one of the easiest places to start. Drawing and painting realistic looking objects in distorted ways may feel a little overwhelming to get you going, so putting together a collage or using techniques like frottage to create your artwork can be the perfect launchpad into the surrealist style.
Surrealist Painting Techniques
Inspired by the greats and ready to create your own surrealist art? These simple techniques will help you get out of your head and onto the page.
Don’t Think Ahead
One of the key techniques in surrealism painting is being spontaneous and not planning ahead. Since this is all about putting the wild and wacky thoughts in your imagination or dreams onto canvas, artists working on surrealist paintings are encouraged to use an automatic or uncensored style to put whatever they see in their mind into their work.
If you’ve never worked in this way before, start with a few simple line drawings of random objects that you’ve put together and see what you can create. Don’t think too much about what makes sense, and grab a few nearby objects. You could even set a timer and collect as many different items as possible.
From there, simply draw whatever is in front of you. You could go with a Dalí-esque distortion or use negative space to create the illusion of an object on your canvas. See what you can come up with and how dream-like you can make your final piece.
Play With the Unconventional
Surrealism paintings are all about breaking away from reality and turning something identifiable and realistic into a jarring and contrasting final piece. Much like expressionist art, working with (and sometimes against) your intuition gives you the freedom to explore different ideas and concepts that don’t necessarily fit into a normal setting.
Collages are a great way to try out this technique. Flip through some magazines or print off a handful of pictures and start building a collection on your canvas. Newspaper clippings, photographs, or even old holiday cards also work well. Nothing will fit together perfectly, but that’s the point.
Tap Into Your Mind
You may never have thought to use meditation or mindfulness techniques in your artwork before, but this is the perfect time to explore it. Since so much of surrealism is about your own personal thoughts and imagination, strengthening your connection to your inner self will only help you to come up with more creative ideas.
Take some time before you start painting to sit quietly and let your mind wander to wherever it needs to go. Think about the last dream you had and jot down some notes that you can go back to later, or reflect on a recent journal entry. Use your own thoughts to inspire and guide you as you create your work.
You don’t have to be literal, though. If you have something in mind but don’t want to make it too obvious when it comes to how you’re thinking or feeling, see if there’s an object or background that you could use to represent this instead.
Paint Using Your Imagination
Remember that this is meant to be a fun process. Nothing needs to be perfect and when your work is based on what’s inside your head, no one can tell you that it’s wrong. Enjoy the freedom of this painting style, and get creative!
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