Research: Ernst Experiment 1

After reading about the various techniques Ernst tried in creating his automatic paintings I decided to experiment with a couple of the techniques myself.  This first experiment uses ‘decalcomania’, where you sandwich ink between two layers of paper and then peel the top layer off, revealing a printed reverse image (see Ernst post below).

I visited Chicago a little while ago and took a boat trip around the river ways which have skyscrapers lining the banks.  One of the things I noticed when taking this trip was that the glass walls of the skyscrapers reflected the vivid blue sky and the surrounding buildings reflected as broken abstract images on the glass, with gridlines provided by the window frames.  I thought this would work well using the ‘decalcomania’ technique.  Of course, I realise Ernst would have first used decalcomania and then looked at the resultant image to spark his imagination for the final image and in effect I have reversed the process as I already have an idea for the final image.

I first drew the gridlines and then used masking fluid to keep the ink off these lines.  I painted the vivid blue of the sky using acrylic ink and then, using printing ink on a separate piece of paper, drew a rough, loose shape of a building adding dots of other colours for the windows, ledges, etc.  I inverted this piece of paper and then placed it over the window sky grid, pressing it down to transfer the image.  Once dry I removed the masking fluid and drew the window frames in black ink.

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One of the things this experiment has taught me is the detailed planning Ernst must have undertaken for various stages of his compositions before arriving at the final image.  For example, I thought is would be easy to peel off the masking fluid once all the media was dry revealing clean lines; this was not the case as the dried ink had created a film across the lines and it peeled off with the masking fluid.  I therefore had to go over the lines with a knife to break the seal before peeling off the fluid.

The experiment itself worked as the resultant image does remind me of the abstract shapes I remember  on the skyscrapers and I lost a degree of control on how the reflected skyscraper would turn out.  However, as an image I do not think it works.  The black grid lines are too heavy and the scale of the piece is all wrong.  It would have been better on a much larger scale with the reflected skyscraper being smaller in relation to the overall size.  Also putting the glass wall in context of the overall building would have been better.  However, I did enjoy the process and it is a technique I would think about using in the future.


Max Ernst

After investigating Ernst and frottage I decided to look at the work of Max Ernst in a bit more depth.  He was deeply interested in the link between the unconscious and conscious mind.  This came from his early reading of Freud and his observations of images created by mentally-ill patients.  Throughout this life Ernst explored this link, particularly the use of automatism in painting, where chance and the unconscious mind plays a part in producing the image.  What made Ernst’s use of this imagery interesting for me was how he developed the ‘automatic’ image using his conscious mind.  Over his life he developed and explored a huge variety of techniques, often revisiting or combining them at various points in his artistic career.

He was associated with the Dada movement using collage to question both traditional art values and the accepted general cultural values of the time.  He arranged photographs and engravings prompted by illustrations in scientific catalogues and added line, areas of colour or a landscape not associated with the original objects.  In May 1921 he exhibited a series of collages entitled ‘Beyond Painting’ at the Au Sans Pareil Gallery in Paris; the mechanistic nature of the collages show Ernst being influenced by de Chico, Duchamp and Picabia (Turpin 1979, 1993: 8).  Even the titles of the collages were dubbed ‘verbal collages’ as they reflected the distortion of reality present in the images themselves.

Hydrometric Demonstration, 1920. Oil on canvas, 24x117cm. Paris, Galerie Jacques Tronche

Ernst went onto produce Picture Poems in which the words not only relate to the image but are also part of the structure of the composition.

Who is this Tall, Sick Man …, 1923-4. Oil on Canvas, 65.4×50 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

In 1922 Ernst became associated with the Surrealist movement and it is here he used automatism to discover frottage and went on to adapt the technique to oil painting, calling it grattage (see previous post).

Two Sisters, 1926. Oil and frontage with black lead on canvas, 100×73 cm. Private Collection.

Ernst then produced his Forest series in which he explored childhood memories and the work of earlier German painters; a series based around birds particularly Loplop, The Superior of Birds; the Horde series which used twine to create coils on the surface from which an image emerges; and, the Whole Cities series.

In the 1930s Ernst produced the collage novel which used 19th century book illustrations cut-up and rearranged to change the original meaning of the illustrations.  These rearranged novels lack a cohesive story with no clear beginning, middle or end and were rather, a loosely connected series of depicted events.  The first novel was called The Hundred Headed Women where the women is both headless and many headed at the same time.

In the late 1930s Ernst experimented with fellow Surrealist Hans Bellmer with an automatic painting technique called decalcomania.  In this technique ink is sandwiched between layers of paper to produce the initial image; Ernst adapted this technique to oil painting taking the initial image and adding layers to create a contrast between the areas of chance and more conscious painting.

Napoleon in the Wilderness, 1941. Oil on canvas, 46.3×38.1 cm. New York, Museum of Modern Art.

Ernst then developed his oscillations painting where paint is dripped onto the canvas from a swinging can with a hole in the bottom.  The resultant image then acts as a stimulus to develop the conscious image.

Young Man Intrigued by the Flight of a Non-Euclidean Fly, 1942-7. Oil and varnish on canvas, 82×66 cm. Switzerland, Private Collection.

Reading about Ernst has certainly made me more aware of the need to experiment and also let chance play a part in my image making.  I do not fully buy into the unconscious mind aspect as I believe that as evolved beings you are ‘consciously being unconscious’.  However chance and randomness is something I think has exciting potential.  I know I can be quite controlling in the way I draw and I need to move away from the simple depiction of the visual image.

Turpin, R. (1979,1993) Ernst. London: Phaidon Press

Oxford Art Online (2013) Ernst, Max Biography [online] At: (Accessed on 15 November 2016)

Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art

Summary of Introduction

This is an exhibition in book form, with images selected by TRACEY, an on-line peer-reviewed journal hosted by Loughborough University (School of Art & Design). It follows on from the 2003 exhibition The Stage of Drawing which focused on perspectives that aligned drawing with thinking and ideas rather than appearance. Drawing Now develops this discussion by looking at drawings since the year 2000 and emphasising two key aspects – the performative (that the process of making contributes to the drawing content) and the speculative.

Drawing is traditionally seen as a medium that shows the perceived visual appearance of the world. However, since drawing is about both the visual and the thought process, the distinction between the objective and the subjective are conflated and confused. Drawing Now looks at two parallel discussions on drawings – that of appearance and perception, and that of conception.

In Playing with Appearance Drawing Now presents the view of Berger that there are three types of drawing – appearance, communicating ideas and memory (with the latter two requiring at least some memory of observation). It goes on to discuss how drawing moves between:

  • studying the visible (present tense)
  • reference (past and memory)
  • projection (future tense and what is absent)

From this the artist restores invisibility to memory, making visible what is unbeseen; it is this aspect of drawing which is the focus of the images that were selected to be included in the book. The drawings move away from the visual appearance instead showing the use or experience of something – giving appearance to a thought.

In the Hypothesis of Sight the book considers the moment at which the pencil makes contact with the paper when we cannot see what is about to emerge and yet the point anticipates the memory of what we have seen in the past. It both stops and anticipates what is to come.

It goes on to look at the two approaches to drawing, the first where the artist is immersed in the activity of drawing with conscious decision-making, unconscious compulsion and the synthesis of addition/subtraction – the performative; the second approach which is a more rational application of the imaginary – the speculative.

The book also presents the view of Derrida that drawing hypothesises and drawing therefore demonstrates oppositional conditions and proposes concepts that are neither proved or disproved, neither true or false. The ‘thoughts of drawings’ do not describe or report and cannot be verified.


I found the introduction of the book presenting the overall premise for the selection of the drawings very thought provoking. As someone who has come to the course essentially drawing the visual appearance of objects, the idea of my drawings showing my experience or ideas about things, both real and imaginary, is quite challenging. I am familiar with conceptual art, where the idea is the art, however, it was never something I had thought I would consider for my own drawings. Also, I found the performative aspect of drawing interesting and in some ways can see this in the frottage and collages of Max Ernst where you can see that the process of making has contributed to the content of the drawing. The discussions in this introduction has certainly made me think about how I will approach the exercises and assignments in the course.

A review of selected drawings from the book will appear in later posts.


Downs, Marshall, Sawdon, Selby & Towney (eds.) (2007) ‘Drawing Now: Between the Lines of Contemporary Art’. London; I.B.Tauris

Frottage & Max Ernst

Frottage is taking a rubbing using paper and usually a graphite medium to show the textural surface of an object such as a tile, leaf, etc.

Frottage was used to stimulate the imagination, acting as a jump off point for an image to express the subconscious imagery of the artist.

In Surrealism it was a form of automatism  (chance rather than automatic) where the unconscious mind produced an initial frottage outcome.  It should be noted that once the frottage had been produced, Surrealists used it consciously within a final image.

It was first introduced by Max Ernst (1891-1976)  in 1925 when he was inspired by rubbings of floorboards which he said intensified his visionary powers (Oxford Art Online, 2013)   His frottage drawings were exhibited and published in 1926 in Histoire Naturelle, a collection of 34 frottage drawings, now part of the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) collection.  He combined various frottage to create fantasy landscapes, plants and animals.  An example from the MOMA collection is L’origine de la pendule (The Origin of the Clock) from Histoire Naturelle (Natural History) in which a fantasy woodpecker-like bird and the tree trunk has been built-up from various pieces of frottage from different rubbings.   See here.

Ernst went on to adapt frottage into grattage where layers of paint are both rubbed on and scraped off to reveal unexpected images in the under-layers, which are then incorporated into the final image with additional overpainting.

Ernst was a member of the Surrealist movement (having formerly been part of the Dada movement) and he produced art that challenged the Western Academic Art aesthetic code of the time and went against both Christian doctrine and conventional morality (Oxford Art Online; 2013).

Other artists who used frottage include:

Saburo Husegawa (1906-1957) in Rhapsody:  At the Fishing Village (1952).  See here.

Simon Hantoi (1922-2008) and Henri Michaux (1899-1980)

Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) Preparatory drawing from In Memory of My Feelings (1967).  See here.


Oxford Art Online (2013) Ernst, Max Biography [online] At: (Accessed on 15 November 2016)