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What is Automatic Drawing?

A drawing workshop with Ryan O Price

I see drawing as an extension of consciousness. As a preliminary step I start with a doodling process. A more historic term for that would be, Automatic drawing. It is like what some writers use, “Stream of consciousness” writing, where through a mental shift drawing automatically allows me to let my subconscious flow through my hand. It unhinges me when I get stuck and gives me a way to work through imagery without over conceptualizing. The philosophy being that if it comes straight out of me it is as authentic as possible. These pure unedited and uncensored thoughts are the best visual representation of my mind.

Automatic drawing is a technique named by and was commonly used by the Surrealists, it involves the artist directly and randomly moving the pen or drawing tool with no preconceived image or plan. For example, in Andre Masson’s Automatic Drawing, Masson begins unprompted with no concrete idea as his hand wanders freely around the page as body parts and strange elongated shapes begin to form organically. There is some touching up in some automatic drawing as the artist can begin to consciously respond to their subconscious image. Masson does this in punctuating areas by emphasizing forms such as a torso and hands. Same as one can edit writings collected from the stream of consciousness writing style and form from them more refined ideas by reworking back into them consciously.

Andre Masson, Automatic Drawing, Ink on paper (1924)

How do you draw “automatically”?

It’s really quite simple, almost deceptively simple. We have all been in that same place, confronted with the white of the sheet or canvas struck with fear that this one idea will not cut the proverbial mustard. To shake this one must draw without regard, without worry of making a mistake, fully embracing all failure that come with creation. All artists are like night divers descending into the murky depths of the self, fishing out odds and ends, fears and phobias, joys and elation. At the end of the day you can always edit, curate out your ideas from this mass of the self that is constantly desiring to be let out and expressed. There are shades of abstract expression here, and it should be embraced and let that energy flow through your arm and spill out the subconscious. Reveal to yourself and those around you what Velaquez deemed “That little world one bears within…”

Take your drawing utensil and move with rhythm or erraticism, write your name obsessively until it becomes maddening marks. Twist and turn the pencil or pen with the delicacy and grace of an angel all the way down to the brutish wickedness of a demon. Use this low stakes practice as a way to get more comfortable with a material or tool. The drawing doesn’t ever have to be quote on quote finished, it can be left as a single deposit of personal memory.

I intentionally leave these instructions vague and more as encouragement because there is no right or wrong way to practice automatic drawing. My hope is that it can become a tool for the reader as a way to get yourself unstuck, or to be used as another way of keeping oneself in practice without the stress of having to have a subject.

Workshop Structure:

Step one: Automatism

Use this new tool and move your hand and attempt to eliminate conscious thought as your hand moves, allow abstraction, accept whatever marks your hand creates.

Step two: Free Association

Now that you have something down on the sheet after some time, what do you see? Think about when we look at clouds or stains and see faces in the fire. What emerges from the mass of marks and lines your mind felt necessary to create.

Step three: Responsive Drawing

As something starts to form from this process, now we can design, what can we omit? What can we add? What can we modify? Respond to the imagery that begins to confront you, or use the abstract basis as a point of departure, does the imagery become more figurative, or abstract, these tendencies are as personal as handwriting and there is no wrong or right way, only genuine effort to attune oneself to their imagination and subconscious.


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