How I Come Up with Surrealist Art Ideas

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

Someone asked me this and I thought a short story post wouldn’t suffice. This deserves a whole ass blog post. Let’s start. 

All surrealist creation involves the synthesis of two unrelated ideas. Ideas are unrelated / incongruent when they don’t have any seeming relation to one another. By finding the “missing link” between these unrelated ideas, it creates a perceptual shift in the viewer's mind that instantly changes the way they think about the world.

This is how metaphors work; this is how punchlines hit; this is how babies are made - this is the absolute crux of all creation - more on this later. 

But first to explain what I mean, here is an example of this in an artwork from one of my favourite surrealists Luigi Serafini:

As I said before, creativity is the synthesis of two incongruent ideas. Here are the two incongruent ideas: 1) a couple mid-coitus, and 2) an alligator. If you present these two ideas to an uncreative they will struggle to see how they relate to one another. Your job as a surrealist is to find the similarities between the two completely unrelated objects. Luigi found a relation in the form to create this beautiful artwork. 

Here is another example by Raoof Haghighi:

Here are the two incongruent ideas: 1) An old man, and 2) a broom. Raoof merged the two ideas by finding a relationship between the man’s beard and the broom’s bristles. 

Here is a third example by the legendary Rene Magritte, who I’d be remiss to mention:

Here are the two incongruent ideas: 1) A daytime sky, and 2) a nighttime town setting. When you merge the two, you get a scene that is strangely eerie and evocative, and altogether surrealist. 

Here is a brilliant artwork by Andrew Scott (@ascottillustration):

Here are the two incongruent ideas: 1) birds in a cage, and 2) a shopping trolley. By illustrating a a metaphorical depiction of a trolley as a cage, he delivers an effective message on the negative environmental and oppressive impacts of consumerist culture & capitalism. 

And lastly! One of my own artworks:

Here are the two incongruent ideas: 1) a foetus, and 2) a teabag. A baby brews in the womb much like tea brews in a teabag. There is the metaphor. Not too profound by any means but definitely whimsical. 

By now you can see the formula behind surrealism. Take two or more dissimilar elements and find the similarities. The more coherent and strong the link, despite the seeming prima facie unrelation between the elements, the more epiphanic the creation will be. When you illustrate the “missing link”, it creates a “aha!” moment in the viewer’s mind, much like a good punchline or epiphany does. 

By now you’re thinking, “what a hot minute kari, does this formula really apply to all surrealist artworks?”

Well, non-existent-hypothetical-interlocutor-I-made-up-in-my-head, that’s a great question. Here is the answer: 


There is another type of creation too...


I’ve thought about this a lot. What makes something creative? What makes someone creative? If we can know this, then we can start creating...

So after perusing all the great surrealist art I admire (mostly Magritte, let’s be honest all surrealist art is just one long footnote of Magritte), I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two types of creation, (the former of which I’ve already talked about above):

1. Synthesis – combining unrelated data to make new meaning

2. Spontaneous generation – creating meaning from meaningless chaos

Let’s explore this idea of spontaneous generation.

Let’s look at what I consider to be an example of spontaneous generation. Here is the painting There is No Finished World (1945) by André Masson:

This painting teeters on chaotic abstraction, if it were not for our ability to discern certain representational elements. From the chaos we can see faces, fire, horns, and eyes - all mingled together in a wild orgy of colour and form. In other words we are creating meaning from meaningless chaos. 

Now take the iconic pattern on the seats of Sydney Trains, which unfortunately is seared into my brain from my morning commutes:

And this Rorschach inkblot picture: