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How I Come Up with Surrealist Art Ideas

Updated: Nov 18, 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:

By some stretch of the imagination you might see faces or animals emerge from the patterns. This is the spontaneous generation of figures in our mind. The ability to see faces and objects from meaningless data is called pareidolia. You might remember the phenomenon of seeing the figure of Jesus in a piece of burnt toast - this is an example of pareidolia!

I will argue that there is no such thing as true spontaneous generation. The example above is actually just synthesis, except it is less coherent and contains more elements and unrelated data. In the Rorschach figure, if you see two people sitting opposite each other holding your hands, then you are creating an image by synthesising your existing preconceptions of two people embracing, with the inkblot gestalt forms. 

This synthesis underlies all revelatory experiences, including comedy. Take wit, for example. The coherency of the synthesis of elements is the currency of wit. A witty joke is nothing but the elegant organisation of ideas to produce a synthesised humorous idea. 

Let‘s look at this joke by one of my favourite comedians, Mitch Hedberg:

I wanna hang a map of the world in my house. Then I'm gonna put pins into all the locations that I've traveled to. But first, I'm gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map, so it won't fall down.

Now I will commit the cardinal sin of analysing a joke… a pin has a dual function in this scenario: 1) to mark a point on a map, 2) to staple the map on to a wall. As these two functions are synthesised within a single object (a pin), Hedberg introduces both functions to create a perceptual shift in the viewer's mind. As I said before, witty comedy relies on perceptual shifts. 

However, when synthesis is not coherent, or when meaningless data is presented in a haphazard and disorganised way, it instead becomes madness…


In a lot of pop culture, there is this fantastical idea that genius and madness is somehow linked. We often see the image of a mad scientist, with silver hair and a crazed-eye look, mixing up chemical cocktails. Or we see the schizophrenic professor in a tweed blazer hallucinating mathematical formulae in the sky. We think of eccentric billionaires and their visionary ideas. And we’ve all seen Doc Brown messing about with the flux capacitor. 

What is the common denominator between the genius and the madman?

It is this trait alone: Apophenia.

(Note: we talked about pareidolia before - pareidolia is just a subset of apophenia). 

People who have apophenic thoughts tend to be more creative, open to experience, curious, and inquisitive. 

Schizophrenics tend to experience a type of apophenia that is strange and incoherent. They find meaning in chaotic noise, but the meaning is strange and not altogether rooted in reality nor reason. Take the case of Richard Chase, a schizophrenic serial killer. He believed that holding an orange next to his head allowed him to absorb the vitamin C via osmosis. He tried to establish a meaningful cause-and-effect relationship where none existed. 

Geniuses, on the other hand, experience a type of apophenia that is organised and coherent. They find revelatory links in seemingly meaningless noise that other people of lesser intelligence cannot see. 

This little excerpt from a news article provides some more insight!:

"There's this great study showing that successful artists are as high as schizophrenics on these measures of unusual thought processes and strange experiences," says Grazioplene, "but that they don't have any of these more negative symptoms such as cognitive disorganization, confusion, flattened emotional affect, anxiety. What it suggests to me is that while there are certain shared network properties between schizophrenia and creative artistic professions, there are other divergent characteristics."

One thing that appears to dampen vulnerability to psychosis is intelligence: "It seems to have a modulating effect on apophenia," says Grazioplene. "In order to usefully engage the hyper-associative process, you have to have the top-down executive control to choose among all these alternatives to identify what's actually meaningful and which things are by chance.

The best artists operate under the process of creativity within parameters.

Creativity without intelligent organisation is psychosis.


One of my favourite people in the whole entire world!!, Scott Adams (creator of comic Dilbert), says this: your brain is a moist programmable robot

This means you can program your mind to be better at what you want. This is the neuroplasticity of the brain.

Before I literally tell you exactly what you need to do to be an idea machine, you must do this very important precursory mindset shift:


Stop romanticising your goddamn depression. Stop romanticising the idea of the tortured depressed artist. 

Depression is not conducive at all to productive creation. First, think about what the word "depression" actually means. To "depress" a button is to push it down to a lower level. On the physiological level, to "depress" your body is to inhibit or retard optimal bodily functioning. This is to conserve energy so that it may be partitioned to address a perceived stressor. Creation is a proactive, energy-driven act. Depression is the opposite.

Now here's what you came to read...


Here is the most most most important thing you need to know. If you take away anything from this piece, let it be this (full credit to eccentric millionaire (mad genius) James Altucher for this principle):

Perfectionism is the enemy of the idea muscle. 

“What the heck is an idea muscle, kari?” 

Great question, voice-in-my-head-that-implants-questions-to-allow-me-to-explain-futher. 

Basically we must see our ability to generate ideas as a muscle that can be strengthened. The more we exercise our idea muscle, the stronger it gets, the easier we come up with ideas. 

What is happening on the neurological level when we do this? Neurons that constantly fire are sheathed by a white coating called myelin. This coating (called white matter) insulates the neurons which allow for faster future neural transmissions. The more you fire certain neural networks, the more efficient you will be at firing them in the future.

The biggest thing stopping you from using your idea muscle in the first place is perfectionism. When you try to find the *perfect* idea, you filter a lot of potential ideas. There is no shame in coming up with shitty ideas. You can discard them as easily as you come up with them. 

Again, credit to James Altucher for this idea:

If you can’t think of 10 ideas, think of 20.

“Kari you sweet idiot, if I can’t come up with 10 ideas how am I going to come up with 20 ideas?”

If you can’t come up with 10 ideas then you are filtering yourself too much. Come up with 20 shitey ideas if you need to. 

Not sure why I’m kind of embarrassed to share this but here is an idea list from one of my days:

  1. Gas mask lovers

  2. Flowers and their matching people

  3. Don’t go outside in your skin suit when it rains! 

  4. Staircase face

  5. Contagious beard

  6. Rose thorns and peony hat face

  7. Curtain hair bangs

  8. Rabbit with lily ears

  9. Peeling human like banana

  10. Rat centipede

And I followed the rough formula I wrote above in the rest of the essay. 

All you need to do is come up with 10 surrealist ideas a day. Open up a text file or some pages in your diary. Do this every day for at least 3 months. By then you will have trained your brain. Ideas and inspiration will come to you easily and seemingly out of nowhere.

For the creative mind, this shouldn’t be a chore. This is a chance to play with the best toy ever for the inquisitives: ideas. And to play in the playground of the imagination! 

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