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automatic drawing
Automatic drawing - yoga for artists

Gallery of automatic drawing

"Automatic Drawing" is a kind of yoga for artists. That is, it's the key to becoming centered, whole, and flexible. A brief session of automatic drawing makes a great start or end to the day.

Regular yoga practice loosens the body and relaxes the mind and spirit. Automatic drawing, or "free drawing" as I like to call it, does the same for the artist self. It's both relaxing and freeing.

Best of all, free drawing or automatic drawing is a direct line to the center of the self. It's a way to help yourself make all your art from that center. This means your development as an artist proceeds in a natural way, true to your inner being.

How to do an automatic drawing

How many automatic drawings to do?

What if it's just scribbling?

How to look at your automatic drawings

Recommended materials

Surfaces for automatic drawing

Resources to help with automatic drawing

Donate to help support my writing

How to do an automatic drawing

The key is to make a conscious decision not to control the drawing. Take a blank sheet of paper, pick up the pencil, and just watch the marks your hand and pencil make. You're the observer, not the controller.

If thoughts come to mind as you watch, notice them but let them pass through. Don't dwell on any of them. If necessary just repeat something to yourself like "Whatever comes out is fine."

Keep drawing till you have a sense of completion. Then set that drawing aside and pick up another blank sheet of paper. Start again. Let the pencil move freely.

How many automatic drawings to do?

I usually do a minimum of six in a row. Often this is enough to get some sense of completion. Sometimes it takes several drawings for me to let loose enough to allow the drawing to get chaotic and messy. When I allow this "lack of harmony" then I can clear out the inner "mess" and go on.

The later drawings in that session usually have a grace and harmony that I enjoy. But they won't come unless I allow the "chaotic mess" drawings to emerge when they want to. I think of this as a kind of natural "clearing out" process.

The wonderful thing is that it's so natural and easy. There's no effort or strain involved. You don't have to do anything special. It's as if the self has a natural self-cleaning, self-maintaining process built in. The automatic drawing "turns on" this process.

I've done as many as 30 or 40 drawings in a row, too, if I felt like it. It can be exhilarating to do a big stack like this. It's very freeing.

What if it's just scribbling?

Well, that's good. That's how it needs to start. Just let go.

Often you'll look back at some of your first automatic drawings and think "how contrived!" You thought you were really letting go and scribbling wildly, when really you were controlling the pencil. At first, the part of you that Tim Gallwey calls "Self One" just won't believe that you can even "scribble" without its firm controlling guidance. (More on Self One later.)

Then what? How to look at automatic drawings

After I'm finished drawing, I prop up a sheet of gray foamboard and use pushpins to tack up four to six drawings at once. This makes it easy to see the development of the drawings during the session.

automatic drawing
(4 automatic drawings pinned to a sheet of gray foamboard. Click on this photo for a larger view.)

Sometimes I just notice which ones I really like. I usually scan these into the computer. Later I can correct any smudges in Paint Shop Pro. I can also "erase" the holes left by the pushpins. Then I make archival giclee (inkjet) prints of these drawings to sell.

If my purpose has been primarily for personal growth, I might take time to free write about each drawing. How do I feel as I look at it? What does the drawing express about my state of being?

If my purpose has been primarily to "clear myself out" and get ready to do other artwork, I might skip this step altogether and just start right in painting or forging.

Empathic responses

For maximum progress in artistic development, put up each drawing separately. A gray background is helpful, but any background that lets you see the drawing well is fine. Then relax and let the drawing enter your awareness. Make it your goal to accept the drawing exactly as it is. You want to feel the world as the drawing feels it.

You may want to make some notes about what you notice. Or just make the empathic responses and let them go. What's important about this is that you're becoming one with the work, in a completely nonjudgmental way. Oddly enough, this gives you a sense of detachment.

setup for empathic responses to automatic drawing
(How I've set it up in my small "clean studio" for doing empathic responses to 4 automatic drawings at a time. Click on photo above for a larger view.)

I've written detailed instructions for making empathic responses in a separate article.

Alternating automatic drawing with empathic responses

It's this rhythm, or alternation, between "free working" and empathic responses that makes for optimum artistic development. The automatic drawing, or equivalent "free working" in any medium, gives you a way to create straight from the center of yourself. Then the empathic responses give you a way to relate to your creations.

Criticizing your own creations usually leads to a more tense, rigid, and artificial way of working. In contrast, empathic responses lead you into a natural, relaxed, free way of making art. The "corrections" tend to make themselves, without special effort on your part.

In turn, this makes it easier to do automatic drawing and any other kind of spontaneous work. Oddly enough, "letting go" and working spontaneously is one of the most difficult things to do in art. Some people believe that it can only come after years of education and practice. I believe this is only because the initial education and practice usually create a problem. Basically "the problem" is a tendency to criticize work. Then the "rules" and self-censorship have to be unlearned, in order for the work to flow spontaneously.

Ideal art education - or a cure for "critical" art education

If you can avoid this by starting your art education with automatic drawing plus empathic responses, you'll save a few years. If it's too late for that, then the same "cure" applies. Do the automatic drawing every day. You can do this anywhere because it's so portable and takes only a minute or less per drawing.

Then practice empathic responses. If you can't bear to look at your own artwork empathically, start with other objects to which you have less attachment. Do empathic responses to a dish or cup. Try empathic responses to a plant. Move on to someone else's artwork. Keep practicing till it's easy and natural.

Automatic drawing - recommended materials

Soft drawing pencil

Any pencil or pen and blank paper will do. If possible, though, use a very soft pencil. I like the Ebony drawing pencils, as well as the Cretacolor Monolith Woodless Pencil in 8B. Any soft drawing pencil will be better than a standard #2 office pencil. I used 4B pencils for years, before going with the Ebony, which is more like a 6B. Now I alternate between the Ebony and the Cretacolor pencils.

Inexpensive paper with a little tooth

I've used the Wassau Exact vellum bristol paper for many years. It's 8 1/2 x 11" size, so if I use a 3-hole punch on it, I can keep the drawings in a binder. This is also handy for making my own sketchbook, using any 1/2" binder. One pack has 250 sheets.

This isn't an ideal drawing paper. I'd prefer one with a bit more tooth. But it works. If you decide to use a 9x12 paper, you have a wide choice. A good, inexpensive choice would be Dick Blick white sulfite drawing paper. It comes in 500-sheet reams.

Newsprint is tempting, because it costs even less. And you can choose a newsprint pad with a nice rough surface for extra tooth. However, the drawings will turn yellow so fast, that the cost savings probably isn't worth it. If newsprint is the only paper you're willing to "waste" with automatic drawings, however, go ahead and start with this.

Here's the key to choosing paper:

It's very important that the paper be so inexpensive that you can make as many drawings as you want without any thought of cost.

Use free paper if you must -

If you tense up at the thought of buying any paper at all for automatic drawings, then use the back of paper that would otherwise be thrown away. There was a time when I'd go by my local hospital once a week to collect paper they were recycling from their photocopy center. I did all my writing and free drawing on this free paper.


For years I sprayed Krylon or Blair fixative on each drawing. Finally I got lazy and stopped doing this. It's messy, and should be done outdoors or with a respirator. It made the automatic drawing too much like a chore.

Without a fixative, the soft pencil drawings do smudge a bit. But handled with reasonable care, it's not a real problem. Now I scan the drawings into the computer, where I can easily "erase" such smudges before making prints of the drawing.

Variations in materials

The pencil drawings are basic. Start with those. Then you'll probably want to branch out into other materials. You can use crayons, soft colored pencils, oil pastels, and markers. Brush markers are especially suitable.

Sumi brush with India ink

This is my favorite variation. The size sumi brush to use depends on the size of your paper. I have quite a few, for I use them with 24x36" paper as well as 8.5x11" paper and sizes in between.

These brushes are usually quite inexpensive. The standard bamboo handle is fine. If the brush has a little loop for hanging, so much the better. If possible,  select your sumi brushes in person at a "hands on" art supply store. They vary quite a bit in softness and spring. Some brushes are almost too soft for my taste.

These brushes do need gentle care. Keep them wet, not letting any ink dry on them. Wash them with an extra gentle touch. The hairs can pull out easily.

The Dick Blick "Black Cat" india ink is especially good for automatic painting. It's very inexpensive. A pint costs less than $6 and will last a long time.

I keep a separate brush rinsing tub just to use with ink. That way I have no worries about the black getting on a brush I'm using with clear varnish or a pale paint. Similar tubs are available at art supply stores everywhere.

The sumi brush ink paintings are especially useful for analog drawings. I've written about doing analog drawings for dream interpretation. But the same idea works well for preliminary studies for any artwork.

Surfaces for drawing

For years I used a clipboard for automatic drawing. Then I moved up to the kind of clipboard that has a built-in storage area. This is convenient because the pencils, sharpener, and stack of paper are always at hand.

You can also outfit a binder with punched paper and a binder pencil envelope. I haven't found this to be quite as convenient as the clipboard arrangement. But a half-inch binder or a larger zippered binder can make a nice portable sketchbook.

More recently I've been using a standard lightweight sketch board in the studio.

Large vertical surfaces for sumi ink painting

For messier, drippy sumi ink painting, I use pushpins to tack large drawing paper to a sheet of foil covered insulation board. The board comes foil covered from a local building supply store. It stays sturdier if the edges are covered with duck tape. I keep a sheet of plastic on it so the ink doesn't build up on the board itself.

I just prop the board up against a wall and go at it. I have extra foil-covered boards that I can prop up around the studio to use as display boards. That way, I can look at a large number of analog paintings at once and pick out the ones I like best. I can also pin up a white or gray background and photograph a painting.

Of course, a regular easel would work fine. You could just tape or pin the paper to a drawing board on the easel. Folded, a portable easel would take up less space too.

Examples of automatic drawing

You can see examples of my own automatic drawings from a few years ago here. I've scanned in the original pencil drawings, then cropped so the prints will fit a standard mat and frame. Often the adjustments I make in Paint Shop Pro make the print-ready drawing even better than the original.

I make the archival giclee prints on my Epson printer using Durabrite inks and Epson matte heavyweight paper. This combination of ink and paper has been tested well and should remain lightfast for at least 80 years.

The prints should be framed under glass or plexiglass. As with all artwork, direct sunlight and excessive heat should be avoided.

Here are a few thumbnail photos of available automatic drawings:

EcstasyPersonal PowerTake Pride

When framed, these can get quite a WOW! look:

This one is called "Personal Power."

Resources on automatic drawing

I've written about using a variation of automatic drawing for dream interpretation here on this site.

The book links below take you to, where you can read customer reviews and buy the book new or used. Sometimes excerpts are available as well. When you buy a copy of the book from having linked to from my site here, I get a small credit. This helps support my writing here and in my weblog. I appreciate this support very much.

Of course I don't want you to buy a book you don't really want. That's one reason why I like the customer reviews. The site has a good return policy too. But if you're going to buy a book anyway, I'll appreciate your giving me a credit at the same time. It doesn't add to your cost at all.

To go to the site to shop, giving me a credit for whatever you decide to buy, just click on the logo below. It will take you to the book department.


On Not Being Able to Paint, by Joanna Fields

This is the classic book on automatic drawing or "free drawing." Although my instructions should be enough for you to do this, you may find the book inspiring. It certainly motivated me to begin this process. I read it in 1983 and have been free drawing ever since.

Joanna Fields was the pen name of a British psychoanalyst, Marion Milner. Working fulltime as an analyst, she was a Sunday painter. But she was frustrated. She would start a painting with the intention of making something beautiful. (Does this sound familiar?) But despite her best efforts, her artwork wouldn't turn out beautiful.

It was only after she stopped trying to direct and control her artwork, that anything fruitful happened. By letting go and free drawing, she entered a natural process of artistic development. This led eventually to beautiful artwork - but only after she'd released control.

Writing Without Teachers, by Peter Elbow

coverThis is the best guide to both "free working" and empathic responses. This is the book that got me started with empathic responses, though my training in therapeutic responses had given me some groundwork.

The book also gives detailed guidelines on how to start a writer's group that really helps each member develop as a writer. I helped start such a group around 1976, that was a tremendous experience for all of us. Later I started a group for artists based on the same principles and methods. It ran for two years and proved essential to my making my first iron bowls.

Free writing is also a useful skill overall. It frees up any journal work you do. And it tends to free up artmaking as well.

If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence, & Spirit - by Brenda Ueland


This is one of the most encouraging books ever written. The author talks quite a bit about free writing. You can apply what she says to free drawing - automatic drawing. And if you ever have problems with writer's block or artist's block, this is a good book to keep at hand.

The Inner Game of Tennis, by Tim Gallwey

This is the classic book on how to learn to do anything better by getting Self One out of the way. Self One is the part that thinks it has to control everything, criticize, give conscious instructions. While the book seems to be about playing tennis, the same principles apply to learning anything. They also apply to any kind of natural development - including artistic development.

(I named one of the Chi Energy™ Bags "The Inner Game." Here's a photo link to more about it.)



The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green & Tim Gallwey

This book has even more ways to apply the Inner Game methods to creative endeavors. The focus is on skill development. So if you're learning a craft, or mastering techniques, then the book will prove invaluable.

But you can apply these techniques to developing your whole creative output as well.

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