Automatic Drawing and Painting

views updated

Automatic Drawing and Painting

The phenomenon of artistic expression without control of the conscious self belongs to the same category as automatic writing, but neither necessarily involves the other.

Mrs. William Wilkinson, the wife of one of the pioneer English Spiritualists, could draw, paint, and play music automatically, but she could not produce automatic writing. Her husband developed both gifts. An interpretation of the flowers of joy, love, humility, faith, and the architectural designs emanating from under his wife's hand was forthcoming in his automatic scripts. After many weeks of vain trial, the power of automatic drawing burst forth on William Wilkinson in the following way:

"After waiting less than five minutes it [the pencil] began to move, at first slowly, but presently with increased speed, till in less than a quarter-of-an-hour it moved with such velocity as I had never seen in a hand and arm before, or since. It literally ran away in spiral forms; and I can compare it to nothing else than the fly-wheel of an engine when it was run away. This lasted until a gentleman present touched my arm, when suddenly it fell like an infant's as it goes to sleep, and the pencil dropped out of my hand. I had, however, acquired the power. The consequences of the violent motion of the muscles of the arm were so apparent that I could not for several days lift it without pain."

In most cases visions are being presented to the automatist, and the idea to sketch then comes to him naturally. Georgiana Houghton in Evenings at Home in Spiritual Séance (1881) wrote of a Mrs. Puget who saw upon a blank paper "a lovely little face, just like a photograph, which gradually disappeared; then another became visible on another part of the sheet, and they arrested her attention so much that she thought she would like to catch the fleeting image, which she did with a piece of burnt cork, thinking that a piece of pencil would be too trying for her sight." William Blake sketched his spiritual visitants as if they were posing. He drew them with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him. If the vision disappeared, he stopped working until it returned. He wrote: "I am really intoxicated with vision every time I hold a pencil or pen in my hand."

Héléne Smith painted in trance a series of tableaus on biblical subjects in colors. Her fingers moved incoherently over the canvas, executing different details in different parts which later merged into a harmonious whole. She was very slow. The execution of a big picture took more than a year. The vision always returned.

Elizabeth d'Esperance saw a luminous cloud concentrate itself in the darkest corner of the room, become substantial, and form itself into the figure of a child. Nobody else saw the figure, but she could sketch it in the dark, being unconscious of the extraordinary circumstances that she could see the paper and pencil perfectly well. Spirit sketching became a regular phase of her mediumship for a considerable time, but the power waned; the luminosity of the apparitions decreased as soon as she began to study sketching and became more self-conscious of her work.

Dr. John Ballou Newbrough, the automatist of Oahspe, could paint with both hands at once in total darkness. Susannah Harris, being blindfolded on a platform, executed in two hours an oil painting upside-down.

There are various degrees of such automatic activity from inspiration to obsession. The fantastic designs of Victorien Sardou scenes on the Planet Jupiter, the House of Mozart, the House of Zoroasterwere inspired, as he felt it, by Bernard Palissy. In the celebrated Thompson-Gifford case, the impulse amounted to obsession (see possession and obsession ).

Heinrich Nusslein, a German automatist of the 1920s, developed his powers of painting under the effect of the suggestion of a friend. In approximately two years he painted 2,000 pictures; small pictures took three or four minutes and the largest works took no more than 30 or 40 minutes. Many of them were painted from visions and in complete darkness. Nusslein made portraits of distant sitters by psychometric rapport or by concentrating on a name. His paintings have considerable artistic merit. Augustine Lesage, the French miner painter, produced his first work in 1918 at the age of 35 after attending some séances. In 10 years he produced 57 canvases, the conceptions of which are harmonious and suggest an innate genius for color. He always began at the top of the canvas and worked his way down. Lesage, who believed himself to be the reincarnation of an old Egyptian painter, experienced an inner prompting before he began to paint. In 1926 the Society of French Artists exhibited some of his works.

Marjan Gruzewski, the Polish painting medium, experienced a preponderant subconscious life from early childhood. At school his hand would write something other than what had been dictated; if he tried to write what he was told to do, the pen dropped out of his hand. When he first came into contact with Spiritualism, he was discovered to be a medium for telekinesis, ectoplasmic phenomena, and trance mediumship in general. His gifts of automatic painting were discovered at the age of 18 or 19 after the end of the war. In a state of trance and in full daylight, he could produce pictorial representations of anything suggestedscenes from the spirit world, historical events, striking portraits of dead people whom he did not know in lifethe compositions were often interwoven with grinning demons and weird faces. In Paris at the Institut Métapsychique, he drew designs and painted portraits in complete darkness, although these were inferior to those produced in light. The quality improved with red light, even if it never reached the table where he was working. Gruzewski also painted portraits under psychometric influence. Before his automatic activity developed, he knew nothing of designing or painting.

Since talented painters, like Ferdinand Desmoulin and Hugo d'Alesi, produced automatic pictures, subconscious activity might well explain the case. But that the explanation is not always satisfactory is well shown by the case of Marguerite Burnat-Provins, a very able author and painter. At the outbreak of World War I, when the church bells tolled out the mobilization order, she was seized by a great emotion, and sudden voices impelled her to write. Later the voice was accompanied by a vision, which she drew with lightninglike quickness. The visions, which represented symbolical character pictures, were sometimes felt subjectively but were often seen objectively in natural colors in space. They developed on some occasions from a cloud-like formation and assumed a great variety of shapes and contents. Over 1,000 pictures were produced by summer 1930, when Dr. Eugèn Osty published the result of his study in the Revue Métapsychique Burnat-Provins felt anguished if she tried to resist the temptation to draw the visions as soon as they presented themselves, and an exhaustion followed or sometimes preceded the phenomenon. The works produced during these episodes differ entirely in style and character from the painter's ordinary work; most of them resemble caricatures, which she attributed to an extraneous influence.

John Bartlett produced automatic sketches of Glastonbury Abbey, bringing out archaeologically verified details with an amazing precision. Bartlett would begin at the left-hand top corner and work downward.

The tremendous speed with which the automatic execution takes place is one of the most puzzling features of this psychic activity. The Seeress of Prevorst (Frederica Hauffe ) drew complicated geometrical designs. "She threw off the whole drawing," wrote Dr. Justinus Kerner, "in an incredibly short time, and employed, in marking the more than a hundred points into which this circle was divided, no compasses or instruments whatever. She made the whole with her hand alone, and failed not in single point. She seemed to work as a spider works its geometric diagrams, without a visible instrument. I recommended her to use a pair of compasses to strike the circles; she tried, and made immediate blunders." William Howitt, who had the gift of automatic drawing for five years, wrote on this point: "Having myself, who never received a single lesson in drawing, and never could draw in a normal condition, had a great number of circles struck through my hand under spirit influence, and these filled up with tracing of ever-new invention, without a thought of my own, I at once recognized the truth of Kerner's statement."

F. W. H. Myers observed that independent drawings often exhibit a fusion of arabesque with ideography; that is to say, they partly resemble the forms of ornamentation into which the artistic hand strays when, as it were, dreaming on the paper without definite plan; and partly they afford a parallel to the early attempts at symbolic self-expression of primitives who have not yet learned an alphabet. Like primitive writing, they pass by insensible transitions from direct pictorial symbolism to an abbreviated ideography, mingled in its turn with writing of a fantastic or of an ordinary kind. He often showed to experts strange hieroglyphics obtained automatically, but he found that at the best they appeared to resemble scrawls seen on Chinese plates.

The watercolor pictures of Catherine Berry, exhibited in Brighton, England, in 1874, disclosed the vagaries of mind to which Myers alludes. Catherine Berry acknowledged, "By any ordinary observer they would be pronounced as chaotic, but a more minute survey of them reveals a wonderful design in construction and purpose whatever it may be." She was told by her guide that they were illustrative of the origin of species. Baroness Guldenstubbe attributed them to the inspiration of a planetary spirit.

Mental patients often exhibit an impulse to decorative and symbolical drawings. Some of their products, like those of Vaslav Nijinsky, are of decided art merit. As a rule, however the automatist is of sound mind. Learning and erudition have nothing to do with the gift. Fabre, a French blacksmith, produced an almost faultless copy of Raphael's Bataille de Constantin, the original of which is now in the Vatican. The symbolic ideas often disclosed a high moral purpose: "Never has anything proceeded from these drawings," wrote William Wilkinson in Spirit Drawings: A Personal Narrative (1858), "nor from their descriptions, but what has been to us an incentive to a better and holier life." The phenomenon is even recorded in the Bible:

"Then David gave to Solomon his son the pattern of the porch, and of the houses thereof, and of the treasuries thereof, and of the upper chambers thereof, and of the inner parlors thereof, and of the place of the mercy seat and the pattern of all that he had by the Spirit, of the courts of the house of the Lord, and of all the chambers round about it, of the treasuries of the house of God, and of the treasuries of the dedicated things. All this, said David, the Lord made me understand in writing by his hand upon me, even all the works of this pattern" (Chron. 28).

Modern psychic artists include the Brazilian Luiz Gasparetto. Painting in the early 1900s at lightning speed and in semidarkness, the entranced artist produced more than 6,000 paintings, some of them in the unmistakable style of such dead masters as Picasso, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gaugin, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Tissot, Manet, Monet, and Matisse.

Among British psychic artists, radical magician Austin O. Spare (1888-1956) portrayed fantastic and demonic spirit forms. In 1927 he exhibited a collection of his "psychic drawings and others of magical and occult manifestations" at St. George's Gallery, London. He also published several books of his powerful drawings.

Another British psychic artist, Coral Polge, sketched people who had passed away and wanted to communicate with members of her audience. At such public demonstrations, Polge often worked in a unique partnership with such clairvoyants as Doris Collins, who passed on messages while Polge sketched the communicator.

Some of the most remarkable examples of psychic art have come from the contemporary British medium Matthew Manning, who has produced automatic drawings in the style of many great artists.


d'Esperance, Elizabeth. Shadow Land; or, Light from the Other Side. London, n.d. [1897].

Flournoy, Theodor. From India to the Planet Mars: A Study of Somnambulism. New York and London, 1900.

Manning, Matthew. The Link: The Extraordinary Gifts of a Teenage Psychic. U.K.: Colin Smythe, 1974. Reprint, New York: Holt, Rinehart, 1975.

Spare, Austin O. A Book of Automatic Drawing. London: Catalpa Press, 1972.

About this article

Automatic Drawing and Painting

Updated About content Print Article