The term ‘automatism’ is described in science as movements that are not consciously controlled like breathing, sleeping and dreaming. The Surrealists were among the first to explore automatism as a method of making art. This took many forms including drawing, writing, collage and painting. Creating art in this way requires your subconscious to take control, without thought or intervention from the conscious mind. This often includes the exploration of chance, encourages spontaneity, and may be used as the beginning of subsequent art making.

Contemporary artist Brent Harris creates ambiguous forms that move between figuration and abstraction and are often derived from his use of the Surrealist technique of automatic drawing to access unconscious imagery.

The title of Brent Harris’ exhibition is Surrender & Catch, which refers to his interest in sociologist Kurt H. Wolff’s notion of ‘surrender and catch’ as a method of working. The activities in this resource will lend themselves to the notion of ‘surrendering’ – yielding power or control to another, and ‘catching’ – to intercept something that has been thrown or dropped. Combined with other automatic art making techniques this resource will provide you with some simple art-starters for children of all ages that stem from free association and embrace the unexpected. The purpose of these visual techniques is to prioritise free thought, manipulate materials and play with images either created or found.

  • Blind continuous line drawing - Close your eyes and relax your mind. Draw without thinking and avoid conscious control over what you are drawing. Do not remove your pencil, instead draw one continuous line.
  • Select a word randomly from a hat. Write this word repeatedly for 10 minutes so that your page is full. You may need to overlap, write in different directions to cover the page. You might find that your word doesn’t even look like a word anymore and that your mind has become free of thought.
  • Play the Surrealist exquisite corpse game. Fold a sheet of paper into three equal parts. Take turns by drawing in each section and concealing your drawing before passing the paper to a friend for them to continue. Tip: Extend your drawing slightly into the next section so the person after you know where to begin their drawing. Once the page is full, open the drawing. You might like to up-size this activity and try it life-size!
  • Take a line for a walk. Capture your journey to school using pen and paper with a single unbroken line. Place the tip of your pen on the paper and let the movement dictate your marks. Tip: Keep your grip loose, avoid looking at the marks being made – imagine your hand is on autopilot, let your mind wander.
  • Play the Surrealist exquisite corpse game, this time using words. This can be done as a whole class activity or in small groups. Cut an A4 sheet of paper in half so that you have a long narrow piece of paper to circulate. Taking it in turns, each person in the class must write a word; either 1. an article (a/an/the etc.), 2. an adjective or verb and 3. a noun – repeating the sequence until the page is full. Before passing the paper to the next person conceal the word by folding over the paper. Once complete read the passage aloud to the class.
  • Browse through magazines or newspapers. Skim through the text selecting words at random or those you are drawn to. You can either highlight words, block out others in one article to make a new piece of writing, or cut out words and assemble them in the order you have found them to make a text collage.
  • Place an interesting object in the centre of the room. Using this object as stimulus write automatically for a timed period. Relax your mind and allow your writing to flow spontaneously. Use this writing to create a short story about this object and compare your writing with that of others. Tip: Try to use only blue biro so that you aren’t tempted to edit your work – let your imagination run free!
  • With the same object, or a different one, answer the following questions. (This is akin to word association so write whatever first comes to mind – no wrong answers):
    • What era is it from?
    • What historical or pop culture figure can it be associated with?
    • Where in the world does it live?
    • How does it travel?
    • What place does it occupy in the family?
    • Is it happy, sad, angry or friendly?
    • What food is it related to?
      You might think of some more questions to add to this list. Share the responses with the class.

Brent Harris, born Palmerston North, New Zealand 4 October 1956, Drift V, colour trial proof, 1997, Melbourne, aquatint, spit-bite aquatint, printed in brown ink on paper, 27.5 x 36.5 cm (plate), 49.5 x 55.6 cm (sheet); Gift of James Mollison AO through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2015, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Brent Harris.

German-French artist Hans Arp was a key contributor in the development of Dada and Surrealism in the early twentieth century. Alongside other artists, Arp employed antirational strategies and the use of chance to make art. He made collages from torn paper and let them fall – adhering the paper to the surface where they fell, handing control over to gravity.

- Cut or tear up a variety of paper, for example coloured card, magazines or even some of the results from the activities listed in this resource. Place a sheet of paper on the floor, from standing position grab a handful of paper scraps and let the scraps fall onto the surface. Stick these down exactly where they fell.

Losing Collage Control

Collage is a really simple and accessible activity for students of all ages, particularly those who think that they can’t draw. At the end of this resource, we hope that students have gained confidence in art making regardless of their ability and found some techniques that piqued their interest. Letting go can be the hardest part, but here are some collage ideas to stimulate spontaneity.

  • With a glue stick or paint brush and PVA randomly make marks onto a piece of paper. Sprinkle sand or even 100s and 1000s over the glue. This can be left to dry or manipulated further using the edge of a small piece thick cardboard (like a scraper).
  • Froissage- Scrunch up a piece of paper. Unfold the paper. Use the lines created by the creases to create a drawing. Before unfolding and drawing, you might also like to try submerging the scrunched paper into diluted ink, allowing the creases to soak up the ink. Let the paper dry then unfold and draw or leave it as it is.
  • Select an image from a magazine or newspaper. Cut up the image. You might choose to cut random shapes or into even squares. Re-create a new image from these pieces.
  • Frottage - Place a sheet of paper over an object or surface that has a texture. Rub the paper with the side of a crayon or oil pastel. Combine or overlap textures from different surfaces, cut up your frottage and create a new image.
  • Using a selection of found images create a bizarre or dream-like collage. Images might be sources from magazines or stock images printed from the internet – this might include a selection of limbs, wings, eyes and tails. Students may even choose to reverse this collage idea and cut sections of an image away to create a new one.

In 2011 Harris visited the exhibition Degas and the Nude at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. The exhibition inspired the him to begin working with dark-field monotypes. Dark-field printmaking is subtractive in nature, where a plate is covered with a layer of ink or paint and the artist manipulates the medium by removing or making marks into the surface. Paper is placed over the ink, pressure is applied to the back of the paper and a monoprint is made.

  • Play a surrender and catch round with dark-field printmaking. On glass or Perspex/plastic surface roll out a layer of printing ink. Arm each student with a different type of tool – it could be a variety of brushes, skewers, rags etc. Allow students to make marks, manipulating and subtracting the ink on the surface for one minute. Move the students clockwise around the room to the next surface with their tool. Again, allow students one minute to make a mark. Repeat this process 5 more times. Return to your original surface and now place a piece of paper over the ink to create a monoprint.

When Brent Harris experiments with automatic drawing, he lets forms bubble up from his subconscious mind. One day an odd little elephant face appeared on the page. Harris called this an Appalling Moment because the creature was so unexpected and silly. This painting comes from a series of surreal, blobby faces, inspired by that first little elephant.

  • Using watercolour paint or ink make large blobs on paper. Loading the brush with water and tilting the paper once the liquid is on the surface may yield some unexpected results. Once dry, jumble all the blobs and re-distribute to the class. This may mean students won’t receive their original blobs. Using felt tip pen or texta transform your blob into a creature or simply draw intuitively – it might not be turned into anything at all.

Brent Harris, born Palmerston North, New Zealand 4 October 1956, Appalling Moment, 1994, Melbourne, charcoal on paper, 74.5 x 56.0 cm (comp.), 76.0 x 57.0 cm (sheet); Gift of Michael Galimany through the Art Gallery of South Australia Contemporary Collectors 2018. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gift Program, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, © Brent Harris.

Decalcomania resembles the Rorschach test used by psychologists in which ink-blot is folded in two to create roughly a symmetrical image. There are a few variations you may like to try in the classroom:

  • Spread a variety of ink or paint onto a surface (glass/plastic), dilute the ink or paint in some places by dripping water onto the medium. Press paper onto the surface and peel away the paper.
  • Using textas, draw an image (free association as explored above) on to a sheet of aluminium foil. Spray a mist of water over the drawing. Press paper onto the surface and peel away the paper.
  • Marbling! Manipulate a water-based pigment in an oily liquid. This can be achieved with shaving cream and food colouring or paint; or oil and food colouring. The processes for both are similar. Place the shaving cream or oil in a shallow dish, blot the paint or food colouring into the dish and manipulate the solution with a skewer. When you are happy with the result, press the paper onto the surface and peel away the paper.

Students may then like to scrape the wet paint from the paper surface with a palette knife or edge of thick cardboard.