A painting, drawing or writing process that aims to suppress rational thought, allowing the subconscious to take control. This spontaneous approach is associated with Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.

Joan Miró Peinture [Painting] 1925 © Successió Miró. All rights reserved. ADAGP, Paris and DACS London 2023

Automatism is a creative technique for producing artworks without thought, will or intervention from the conscious mind. The term is originally taken from physiology, where it refers to unconscious bodily motions such as breathing or dreaming. The Surrealists were among the first to explore the method in art and writing, which was later developed into Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Andre Breton, the leader of the Surrealist movement in Paris described automatism in Manifesto of Surrealism as:

‘…the dictation of thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason and outside all moral or aesthetic concerns.’

Automatic Writing

In the early twentieth  century psychoanalysts including Sigmund Freud explored a variety of techniques to bring forward the subconscious thoughts of their patients, including free association and automatic drawing or writing. These ideas in turn were a source of fascination for Surrealist writers and artists. In the 1920s Surrealist poets Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, Robert Desnos, Louis Aragon and Philippe Soupault experimented with writing in a hypnotic or trance-like state as quickly as possible without guiding the hand. They believed such activity would bring forth ideas from the depth of their unconscious and reveal a significant inner meaning, although little of these writing experiments remain today.

Automatism and Surrealist Art

In Surrealist visual art automatism took many forms, including collage, drawing and painting, with artists producing spontaneous works through free association, often resulting in fantastical or erotic imagery. Surrealist collage was one of the first forms of automatism and brought together cuttings from film and fashion magazines, book illustrations and postcards to produce bizarre, dream-like sequences. In Georges Hugnet’s Untitled Collages, 1960 he produced a suite of 42 collages with clippings from pornographic magazines set against historical buildings to create a series of voyeuristic, erotic fantasies. Hugnet also experimented with decalomania, in which paint was brushed onto smooth paper and covered with another. The top layer was then peeled off to reveal an abstract imprint, as seen in Portrait Automatique deL’Automate d’Albert-le-Grand, 1938.

Max Ernst pioneered the automatic techniques of frottage and grattage, either rubbing or scraping to produce chance, unexpected results. In painting, artists brought elements of drawing resembling doodles into their work, as demonstrated by Paul Klee and Joan Miro, while others combined figurative realism with invented fragments derived from their subconscious mind, such as La Corde, 1924, by Andre Masson.

Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism

The Surrealists Ernst and Andre Masson had moved to the United States to escape the First World War, and in 1936 the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism, igniting excitement and interest amongst modern artists. Action Painting and the closely related Abstract Expressionism emerged, in part, out of these ideas. The United States in the 1950s was eventually populated with countless artists who emphasised the automatic, gestural process of painting as the most important element of their work, exemplified by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell.

Art Informel

The Surrealists’ use of automatism in art played a vital role in the development of Art Informel, a style which initially emerged in France and spread throughout the rest of Europe during the 1950s, concurrently with Action Painting and Abstract Expressionism in the United States. Prominent artists associated with the style include Jean Dubuffet, Antoni Tapies, Jean Paul Riopelle and Pierre Soulages.


1893 - 1983
1912 - 1956
1906 - 1974
1915 - 1991
1891 - 1976
1896 - 1966

Glossary terms

Abstract Art

Art in which there is no attempt to represent anything existing in the world, particularly used from the twentieth century onwards. ‘Abstraction’ refers to the process of making images that may in part derive from the visible world but which are reduced to basic formal elements.


Surreal Encounters | Collecting the Marvellous
  • Ended Sun 11 Sep 2016