Automatic Drawing–What IS it?


I realize that in my last post, Expressive Drawing, I forgot to explain what “automatic drawing” is.

Maybe it’s obvious, but in case it isn’t, here’s a bit more information and how to do it and why it’s a great way to let loose and free your creativity.


The Surrealists embraced automatic drawing as way to incorporate randomness and the subconscious into their drawings, and to free themselves from artistic conventions and everyday thinking.

This technique, they felt, was a way in to access meaning and information unavailable through tradition and the conscious mind.

Surrealist wackiness aside, it also lets you sink into the quality and experience of making marks and developing the relationships between them which in turn lifts you out of your logical brain’s desire to make something that’s “good” or “accurate.”

It lets you tap more easily into your intuition, emotions, and the physical experience of drawing and painting.

So if you judge your own drawing ability, this technique can be very liberating because it’s so physical, there’s no wrong way to do it, and it improves your drawing skills in the process.

Most importantly, it gets you out of your head.

How to Get Started

All you need is a few mark-making tools and big sheets of paper. In Expressive Drawing, Steven Aimone recommends working big and drawing with paint and a brush and I couldn’t agree more.

(If you think you don’t have room to work big, reconsider all the rooms in your house–how often do you really use the dining room or the guest room? Could you put a tarp down to protect the floor and clear off one wall? Think about it.)

The Power of Ritual

To facilitate the process of getting out of my logical brain, I first set an “intention” to let go of logical thinking and release into the creative process. This is immediately followed by 5-10 minutes of Shiva Nata and then I start in. I also usually play classical or Sacred Sound music while I’m making the drawings.

I find these additional steps help “set the stage” for lifting myself out of my everyday thinking, but you could do a variety of things to do that–a short meditation, breathing 10 conscious breaths, doing a round of sun salutations, or even taking a run or a vigorous walk beforehand.

Of course, it’s not necessary to do any of these things ahead of time, but I find that we’re all so busy and preoccupied with our hectic lives that it can be helpful to create a ritual or symbolic transition from your everyday busy-ness to the drawing exercise.

At the least, it signals to your body to shift gears. At most, it really helps maximize the intuitive experience.

No Rules

Once you’re ready to go, just grab your brush (have water nearby) and start making some marks. (I like how Steven Aimone recommends standing a few feet away from your paper in a kind of fencing position so you have to reach forward to make your marks–it emphasizes the physical aspect of the experience.)

After you’ve made some marks, just step back, take a look, and make more marks.  Keep your brain out of it and let your body respond, see what your hand wants to do and let it do it.

Just notice. (This is where it’s really like a meditation.)

When are you done? When you decide it’s finished. Keep it or throw it out. Then make another one. And then another.

Try using your opposite hand for a change–this is a really great way to shush your judging brain. I know for me, my non-dominant hand feels guided by something else entirely, and my brain just kind of watches it go–it’s neat.

Creativity KickStarter

What I love about automatic drawing is that it’s a WONDERFUL way to get yourself  creating again. It’s the perfect antidote to feeling completely uninspired or if you feel like you have no ideas anymore.

You don’t need any ideas to do this, and it will help the idea generating part of your brain wake up again. What a combo.

Automatic drawing also feeds all your art-making activities and desires because it brings your intuition to the fore while at the same time absorbing you completely in the creative, aesthetic experience of making marks and responding to them.

It’s a great choice for the 20 minute timer technique, and a wonderful way to start or end your day. Ready to give it a try?

Do you ever do exercises like this? Would you like to free up your drawing? Leave a comment, I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. Love the Shiva dance by Havi on U tube. It looks really hard to memorize the moves. I’d like to learn. I like the idea !

  2. Sarah says:

    I’ve been doing Shiva Nata for about 6 months now–and I love it!

  3. Corey-Jan says:

    Sarah, I love this. I’m a songwriter, playwright and playwriting instructor and this is exactly the kind of stuff I do – both with my own work and with my students. Rituals that force us to shift gears, not worry about product and just create are so simple – yet so powerful.

    Some people might think that when the medium is words, as it is for writers, the process is different. It is not. The hardest thing for any artist is to give ourselves permission to get out of our normal train of thought – to jump the track.

    Thank you for sharing your insights and ideas – I follow you via Creative Women of Facebook and it’s terrific.

  4. Sarah says:

    So glad it resonated! Also funny you should mention the similarities with writing, as my next post (or soon!) is going to be on the wonders of Automatic Writing. And lately I’ve been using writing in the automatic drawing as well, and loving the creative possibilities that it is opening up. The world is our oyster! ;-)

  5. Stephanie says:

    I went to your site to get “unstuck” concerning my new art students that I face in the morning. It worked! I also ordered the book you are using for Expressive Drawing. I am a High School art teacher and lately the students are in zombie mode – so I am hoping some of these techniques will wake them up! Thank you Sarah. I also enjoyed the TED talk.

  6. [...] You  might not know that e.e. cummings also painted and drew, and was influenced by Surrealism, which I talked about recently in my blog post on Automatic Drawing. [...]

  7. [...] week, I talked about doing automatic drawings as a good 20 Minute activity, and this week, I used one of those drawings as a starter for a new [...]

  8. I am teaching existential painting, it’s a slight twist on Abstract Expressionism. It’s sort of like putting ‘intention’ into intuitive action. Although that does sound contrary it may, in fact, be similar to automatic drawing with acrylics or oils. I am going to merge the automatic with some intention as a way to get myself, and students into a process orientation as opposed to product orientation. This is a challenge and should be interesting. We are leaving the brain out of the creative process so we can access our feeling Self. Thanks for the insight.

  9. stoney cheek says:

    Iv been doing this for 14 years this is the first time iv ever heard a name put to it thank u

  10. kimbra holbrook says:

    I automatic draw also. i do no ritual, i do no preparing.I dont draw in a large area or paper.infact,i can do it on a post-it, it doesnt matter. Just comes out smaller but same results. but what i really want to know, is what moves the hand?nobody ever fully explains that. i know all about the subconcience and blah blah,blah. that doesnt answer my question.i also see, nobody, really knows what it is. everybody has their opinion., but absolutely nobody can really explain it other than with a bunch of big words basically used to boggle the mind covering the fact…they have no idea what it is or who is moving the hand. im sure not doing it. Also, my drawings vary, from time to time. completely different drawing styles and look.Indicating to me clearly, there are more than one responsible for the hand movement.Sometimes i draw beautiful pictures. othertimes, ridiculous cartoon characters. Other times, they can be dark and creepy.I just wish somebody could give me a straight answer. But i think that just isnt possible.Nobody knows anymore about it than i do.

  11. sylviane berry says:

    How long have you been drawing?
    I also automatic draw and am looking for an answer. Like you, I have no ritual, no preparing, I started to draw trying to do automatic writing three years ago. My hand moves freely on the paper, at first I was scared and anxious to know what I would create. I started drawing cartoons, then a lot of textures which are similar to batik fabrics: flowers, tulips and sunflowers. Since this last this last year I started to draw faces. I use pencil, gel pen or acrylic paint which is a little more difficult.

    I had shown my drawings to a medium to assure myself that I was not crazy; according to her I am guided by spirit artists similar to those who receive from spirit writers. How do they moves our hands, who knows, but I sure would like to know. Anyway, I really enjoy drawing every day. While looking for an answer I found this interesting site:
    Happy drawing!

  12. Sarah says:

    I like thinking about automatic drawing as a spiritual experience–thank you for sharing your experience! I think we all access the divine in different ways–and I think you’ve found your way through automatic drawing. I think the answer is the drawings themselves, what they give you and what you can learn from them.I wonder if you could use the drawings to explore issues in your life more deeply–perhaps meditate or ask the universe a question before you start a drawing and see what happens.

  13. Sarah says:

    Hi Sylviane, thanks for commenting and sharing your spiritual experiences doing automatic drawing as well. I think this is fascinating. I personally believe that you’ve simply found a spiritual pathway and you should simply trust and embrace it–and if you want to more answers, perhaps you could get them from your drawings? Or you might consider actually adding a ritual to your process before you start a drawing–perhaps do a meditation or a prayer? I think it’s exciting and joyful. And I LOVE the link you shared–thank you for that!!

  14. Andrew says:

    Awesome. I’m experimenting with something similar to this that I’m calling automatic writing but works a little bit differently. Basically I used a few random household items to trace outlines on a piece of paper and then used the shapes and intersections of the lines to determine where go from there. The result was interesting but I need to work with it more.

    I consider it automatic drawing in the sense that the composition is determined by an arbitrary process or set of rules. I haven’t tried completely freehanding it yet (not in any way that didn’t result in a page full of messy scribbles, anyway).

    I might have to try it your way as well.

  15. Sarah says:

    Very interesting Andrew! Thanks for sharing your approach–let me know how it goes if you try mine! :-)

  16. Dawn says:

    Starting to draw used to entrance me so I could make beautiful artwork. Now, I am unable to draw well. I do not know what to do to be entranced or inspired anymore. Any suggestions?

  17. Sarah says:

    Hi Dawn,
    I’m just about to offer a guided drawing meditation audio file to my makegreatstuff.com subscribers, perhaps that will help you! If you’re interested, just sign up for my newsletter and you’ll get notified when it is ready!

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