This week I’m writing about a different type of drawing than I’ve written about before. It has nothing to do with drawing from life. It’s a type of drawing that I didn’t really get into until I was well in my late twenties and it didn’t fully exploit it until many years after that. For me it’s all about pulling images out of my imagination that have never been seen before. It’s how I come up with so many of the weird things that I draw. I first learned about it back in my art school days and it was called “Surrealist Automatic Drawing”.

Back in the 1920’s and 30’s the Surrealists were looking for some new ways to draw stuff and “Automatic Drawing” is what they came up with. To me it’s basically scribbling or doodling mindlessly on paper. Salvador Dali used it for his dream-like paintings and Paul Klee used it completely differently for his child-like paintings. The key is to draw with no idea in mind of exactly what you are going to draw. This is not an easy thing to do. It takes practice. In the same way that clearing your mind takes practice so does this.

When I first started drawing this way I’d begin by drawing borders on my paper and then scribbling. The borders aren’t absolutely necessary to the method but since my natural talent is for composition I almost always start any drawing by defining its edges. That’s the way my brain works. Not everybody does this but I find it helpful. Then within that box I just scribble lightly. After a while I discovered it was helpful to close my eyes as I scribbled. I didn’t want my conscious mind making the decisions of where I was moving the pencil. Over time I learned that my hand, even not guided by my conscious mind, would tend to repeat some of the same scribbles. So I would turn the paper sideways or upside down to mix things up. I would also use my left hand at times to add to the variety. It takes a bit of technique to scribble mindlessly.

After I made a lot of scribbles on the paper, the automatic drawing phase, I would look at the paper to see what I could see. I would try to find the drawing in the lines. It’s a bit like finding faces in clouds. The scribbled lines intersect, split off, and makes shapes both positive and negative. It’s from those shapes that I pull the images out of my imagination. Weird creatures and strange worlds that don’t necessarily have a relationship with the real world. These are the things I’m looking for when I do this type of drawing. Something that I couldn’t have come up with by a more traditional method.

The drawing stages from scribble to ink.

I can remember a moment from years ago when I was giving a talk about art at a school. I think the students were around thirteen. A friend and I were giving a talk on drawing and it was mostly about the traditional type of drawing that I wrote about before. I had only been doing my take on Surrealist Automatic Drawing for maybe a couple of years at that point. My thoughts on it weren’t especially clear at that point but I did a demo of it anyway. I scribbled on the chalk board and then made a weird drawing out of it. Then we had all the kids try it. Since it started with scribbling it was easy for them. Except for one kid who couldn’t see anything in his own scribbles. That’s when I first realized exactly how much practice that type of drawing takes. A fair amount. I saw something right away in the kid’s scribbles and drew a picture for him from them.

For years I mostly used this particular method of drawing to make a comic strip. The strip was made up of a running narrative over a series of non-literal pictures. They were about eight pages long. I would make them by first ruling panel borders on all eight pages in whatever layout I thought was interesting. After that I would scribble over all the pages. Right hand, left hand, sideways, and upside down I would use all my tricks to keep the scribbles as varied as possible. Then I would look at each individual panel and draw what I would see there. With six to eight panels a page there was a lot of drawing to be done. Being that I often had my eyes closed when scribbling I couldn’t see the panel borders and that helped unify the drawing over the entire page.

After I had all eight pages drawn I would lay them all out before me. This is when I’d come up with the story I wanted to tell. This is also when I’d put the pages in order. That’s how non-literal the pages were as I was doing them. The pages didn’t even have a numerical order until I was done drawing them. The first page I drew only had a one in eight chance of being the first page of the story.

This type of comic was too far out for most comic book fans that I knew but some people liked them. They were strange and dream-like. They really did give me a chance to do a lot of automatic drawing. I’d have to look but I think I did at least ten of these type stories. At eight pages a piece that’s about five hundred automatic drawings. It was certainly a good start and gave me a chance to really delve into that type of drawing.

At around that same time I started learning how to paint in gouache. That’s when I started using this automatic drawing method to create single images. That’s something I hadn’t done with it before and it caused me to get even more illustrative with the weird images I was pulling out of my brain. That’s one of the odd things about this method of drawing. Since I’m starting the drawing with no idea of what I’m going to draw in my mind I often have no idea where the image I draw comes from. I surprise myself. I like that.