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Incorporating Surrealism Concepts into Your Digital Artwork

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Have you ever wanted to incorporate Surreal concepts into your artwork, but weren't sure how to approach it? In this article, I share my personal pipeline for fusing Surrealist notions with my imagination to create fresh work. Learn to unleash your mind, capture your dreams, and fuse wild ideas into well crafted digital works of art through experimentation, planning, and execution.

This Post is Day 8 of our Digital Illustration Session. Creative Sessions


I am in no way a Surrealist technique master, nor am I a Surrealism scholar. I am not here to discuss what Surrealism is and how it's done right - as there are no rights or wrongs. What I will share with you in this article is strictly my personal approach to creating Surreal digital artwork by incorporating the Surrealism approach with my own twists.

Below, you will find five sections, which roughly define my pipeline of how I approach creating Surreal artwork and basically any otherworldly work. They are formatted from early conceptual notions, to actual execution, things to look out for during creation, and final tips that may help you with the entire process.

"Parade of the Dreamers," by Jeff Huang, For Desktopography 2009

Unleash Your Mind

No, this is not relating to the Matrix, but it is an important matter to discuss. When it comes to creating your own artwork, you must remember that you aren't trying to please anyone but yourself. You are not aiming to please a client, nor do you have to worry about revisions. Self-satisfaction should be your goal in creating personal artwork.

The biggest misunderstanding is that people often try to stress their imagination and try to force themselves to think of something extraordinary. You do not have to do that. As a matter of fact, it makes matters worse because you may force yourself too hard, be stuck, and end up getting frustrated. To avoid all of that, I believe one should just let go, relax, and let their imagination do the work. You'd be surprised how much better the imagination works when you aren't forcefully trying to get it to work.

Remember not to get frustrated. You may find yourself stuck at times, but that's alright! Move on to doing something else! Go take a walk, watch TV, buy some groceries, go have dinner with your loved ones. What I've learned is that I often come up with ideas when I least expect it. Life itself inspires, and if you just go about it daily, there are an infinite amounts of things that we see, hear, and feel that will spark our imagination.

Below is an example of something I've seen here in NYC that certainly inspires.

"Alamo (The Cube)," is an outdoor sculpture by Bernard (Tony) Rosenthal, which is located on Astor Place, on the island of Manhattan in New York City.

Capturing Your Dreams

So you've come up with an idea and want to execute it. Here are a couple things to do in order to capture that idea before it fades away:

  1. Sketch It Out - You do NOT have to be an amazing draftsman to quickly sketch your concept out. All you need is either a piece of paper and pen/pencil or a tablet. It is up to your preference what tools you use - you could even use a chisel and hammer if you're into that sort of thing...though I don't personally recommend it. Nonetheless, draw your vision out roughly. Don't finesse any details yet, but just lay out key points of your vision.

  2. Find Reference Images - Gathering reference images will help you greatly in realizing your new idea. Gather images that directly relate to what you have in mind. If you are looking to create a piece that revolves around a grass field, gather images of grass fields that suit your vision roughly, it doesn't have to be exact.

    If you're looking to create a certain style of art, gather certain pieces by the artist you like. Personally, whenever I work, I almost always create a folder of reference images and have it accessible on my secondary monitor, or at the very least have my browser open with one single image that strongly inspires me.

Below is a sketch of a potential upcoming piece and a few reference images that I possess. I imagine the structures floating to be rocky structures, thus I found references of strong rock textures, as well as relevant inspirational surrealist work.

Sketch of mine for a potential upcoming piece.

Reference images of rock textures and Surrealist work.

Mindset During Creation

Now that you are ready to start the piece, let's go over some things you may come across during the creation process.

  1. "Does this look real?" - This is a weird question. I believe the real question should be, "Is this convincing?" In my own opinion, Surrealism is at its best when it's convincing enough that it could be real, however we obviously know that the subject matter you are creating is nonexistent, thus is not real.

    A rule of thumb that I have for myself when creating Surreal work is to make sure the subjects are convincing enough to exist in the world which is my current canvas. This means, to match the lighting, shadows, and everything in between. Don't get it twisted though, this does not mean it has to be super realistic.

  2. I imagined something rather epic, but I doubt I could make it happen! - Make it happen to the best of your ability. When I approach work which I feel would be incredibly challenging to realize, I just go about it the best I can. In the end, this is just a learning experience as an artist.

    When you try to approach something challenging, even if it doesn't turn out the way you envisioned, you will learn the skills you may need for next time to make it work. The worst thing you can do is be afraid and back off from your idea, because you would never learn that way. You must remember that if you are making personal work, no one is there to be critical to you or to make fun of you. It's a sort of self-meditation. Experiment and learn from it. Be brave, and have patience!

Below is an example of how something could be convincing but not hyper-realistic.

"Meditative Rose," by Salvador Dali

Realism Versus Surrealism

This goes back to the earlier question of, "Does this look real?" If you want to create a Surreal piece of art, I believe it's important to know the difference between Realism and Surrealism. I will try to define what these two terms mean to me personally, not as written by the Dictionary. Remember, this is what the two terms mean to me, and I have no intension to start a mass debate on what they truly mean.

  • Realism - Takes subject matters of the ordinary and common world which we call "reality." It almost always takes a non-exotic and non-extraordinary subject matter and theme. There is no need to think outside of the box, as that is not "real."

  • Surrealism - A twist on Realism. It explores the subconscious mind, with subject matters concentrating on dream-images and often aims to distort the ordinary and what we call reality.

The point that I'm trying to make is that one can be free when creating Surrealist work. This goes back to unleashing the mind as mentioned earlier in the article. This is what I love about Surrealism and it is the reason why my artwork often exhibits a Surreal atmosphere.

I don't need my work to be hyper-realistic, nor am I aiming to be in the future. I just love playing between the lines of the Real and Unreal. As an artist, I feel rather powerful to have the ability to control and deliver such notions to the audience based on my will. To me, Surrealism is the perfect movement for artists who enjoy letting their imagination go wild, which allows them to delivering their wild visual ideas in a believable atmosphere.

Tips and Recommendations

Here are some tips and recommendations that I have that may help you with your creative process and artistic vision:

  1. Keep a sketchbook - I personally enjoy drawing with a pen/pencil on paper, as it feels much more natural than a tablet's texture. Keeping a sketchbook would not only improve your draftsmanship, but also allow you to quickly capture ideas that you may have come up with suddenly.

  2. Patience - There are no doubts about it that patience is a virtue. An important thing to have is patience, especially when it comes to creating personal artwork. Take your time, no one is rushing you to finish!

    If there is something important I've learned from creating work in a few hours and work that takes weeks...it's that the ones that take weeks are much more refined and detailed. Be patient and it will improve your artwork.

  3. Buy books and observe - A great way to study a certain style, in this case Surrealism, is to buy books of artists whom you are interested in. I have a few great books of Salvador Dali's work, one from his museum in Figueres, and it's awesome.

    Nothing beats being able to read and observe these masters, because as you read and observe their work, you unconsciously absorb lots of visual knowledge that you will recall in new work without even noticing. It's rather magical!

  4. Zoom out - I cannot stress how important it is to simply zoom out of your canvas to view the work in full. Unless you plan to display your work as chunks or full-res, the zoomed out image is what the audience will see in the end.

    That is not to say to detail the piece while zoomed out, definitely not! But it is very important to zoom out to see the piece as a whole - to ask yourself how convincing it looks. A lot of times artists focus so much on one area that they fail to notice that it looks off in conjunction to the piece as a whole.

  5. Experiment - Experiment with techniques and styles. Making work digitally is great in that you can always undo something. Play with Photoshop, go crazy, and often you'll find yourself being able to take pieces of each experiment and incorporate them into one successful piece.

    I never took a Photoshop class before, and almost all my knowledge is from experimenting and learning over the past five years. When I did have to take a required Photoshop class in school, there was nothing I didn't already know. You'd be surprised how much you could learn by yourself if you just jump in and play around! There is no harm in exploring!

A piece from my sketchbook, created 2007.


So there you have it, a peek into my mindset, a look into how I incorporate Surrealist concepts into my digital artwork. Surrealism is perfect for artists whom enjoy playing the fine lines of the real and unreal. Digital artists - remember that the software is just your canvas and basic tools. Your main tool is your imagination.

A lot of people ask what sort of software an artist uses to create their artwork because they believe it is the software that does the work...but this is totally wrong. Many people could use Photoshop, but it is how you use it in conjunction with your mind, your attention to detail, and overall aesthetics that makes you stand out above all.

Resources and Inspiration

This Post is Day 8 of our Digital Illustration Session. Creative Sessions
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