“Automatic Writing” in the Visual Arts

Thelma, in a comment on the last post, quoted from The Writer’s Almanac where Garrison Keillor spoke about Gertrude Stein: “She was one of the early students at Radcliffe College, the sister school to Harvard University, and her favorite professor was the psychologist William James. He taught her that language often tricks us into thinking in particular ways and along particular lines. As a way of breaking free of language, [William James] suggested she try something called automatic writing: a method of writing down as quickly as she could whatever came into her head.”

Is there an equivalent in the visual arts?

In creative writing classes, automatic writing is often used as a warm-up exercise, just as gesture drawing is used as a warm-up exercise in figure drawing class. But of course, even jump-started writing is carefully and thoroughly edited before it gets published. And gesture drawing is only exhibitable by a very few very accomplished artists. The rest of us hide our pathetic attempts.

Are there equivalents in stitched and quilted art? And, are there drawbacks to such methodology? Can it lead us astray, down paths that end in a tangle? Is there something in the properly finished product that art quilts tend to be that prevents “automatic quilting” from being as useful as it might be to the writer or drawer?

I myself use a form of automatic writing when I start an essay or a post, but I have to edit hard after that first draft. And I use automatic painting, sometimes to see a place to begin (as others do with hand-dyed fabric) and often when I’m stuck in the middle of a piece. But the closer I get to the end of any of these processes, the less I am able to tap into the automatic flow. Every decision means a host of decisions that have been closed off.

This can have a less-than-useful effect on pieces that start to go wrong. Even as I’ve finished some work, I can know it needs something, but I can’t figure out what. Or sometimes I get just beyond the start and then come to a complete halt.

Here’s a piece that stopped me mid-stream. I began with the automatic writing, but once to this point, I could go no further. I didn’t know, still don’t, where I was going with the images I created. And they were not going to look polished no matter what I did.


And below is another:


I think both of these look better as images than they do as quilted art. They are too unfinished, unable to attain a finish, that would look “decent” beside the work of the exquisite craftspeople in our field.

I have tons of these kinds of pieces. I also have work which evolved out of this kind of procedure that is highly finished — but looks more like automatic writing than like the well-crafted bed quilt. These particular works, I feel, are the best I’ve ever done — but they look raw and ragged when seen in public.

So, what artists do you think use automatic visioning? Someone mentioned Dali, but when I paused to think, I decided that his work is far too deliberate in its final presentation. And I’m not sure that those artists who probe the subconscious use it as a finalizing technique. Have you seen and studied worksheets of people who proceed in this way? Does the art they produce show the process they use? And what about your own processes and finished products? Do you carry through beyond the first impulses with the ragged look of automatic writing?


20 Responses to ““Automatic Writing” in the Visual Arts”

  1. 1 andiswa ngwane July 26, 2007 at 4:39 am

    i find the notion of the artist initially attempting to escape their normality by expressing themselves through artistic mediums and later realising that they become trapped in the normality of the conventions within the art discourse a true example of an anti climax.are artists contributing to the progression of the discipline of art or is it a pointless cycle?polishing a work or any chosen style of execution is relevant if it serves to highlight the conceptual aspect of the work.

  2. 2 June March 16, 2007 at 9:25 am


    I think it depends on what you mean by “polished.” If you mean that the image goes clear to the edges, the all parts of the surface have been thought through and are relevant to one another, that the design is of a whole, then it’s a matter of good art.

    However, if the polish which is being spoken to has to do with a finished look, a squared, painted look fabric, then the problem is more about who you exhibit with than about the quality of the art.

    If you are exhibiting with others whose pieces are taut as stretched canvas and whose edges are mitered and carefully bound, a piece that is “rough” looking — sways a bit, bends a bit, folds a bit, has bulky edges — will look unfinished. Unless it’s overwhelming, the context will make it look carelessly done.

    This doesn’t seem to be true in solo exhibits, where the raw look will clearly come forth as an element of the art itself. (You might look at Eileen Doughty’s post, where the comments veer toward solo work).

    I know these things because I’ve seen how my work, which depends heavily on the quality of the fabric being seen as fluid and bouncy and saggy. In the context of the stretched, starched, quilted within an inch of its life work, mine tends to look careless.

  3. 3 marion barnett March 16, 2007 at 12:49 am

    Why is polished important?

  4. 4 Kristin March 14, 2007 at 6:21 am

    This is interesting food for thought. June, you said that most automatic writing is heavily edited before it actually gets published, and that gesture drawing is mostly a warm up. I would suggest that these freeing techniques are used to break an idea loose, to try something out, to peek in dark corners. Then, only if a wonderful kernel is found, does the artist use that as a foundation from which to create well-honed artwork. Not all automatic writing is worth reading, not all gesture drawings are worth looking at, and not all plunking around on the piano is worth listening to — however, through that stream-of-consciousness creating, I believe the artist can find something that IS worth sharing with the world in a more refined form. Therefore, the quilt artist should also be able to use loose, intuitive techniques to find the idea to then pursue further. Perhaps loose squiggling on the sewing machine results in a pattern of stitches worth using on a finished quilt; or that stack of fabrics haphazardly thrown down suggests a composition or color combination to be explored further. Maybe automatic painting on fabric gives you a foundation to work on — but then again, maybe it doesn’t. You didn’t know ’til you tried. And of course, like gesture drawing, the more you do it, the better you become and the more successes you will have. There may be a lot of textile artists who use automatic techniques, but we’ll never know because the evidence is locked away in their sketchbooks.

  5. 5 june February 17, 2007 at 8:46 pm

    It would be fun to see what would turn up in such an exhibit, Eileen. Maybe a web exhibit, just for the heck of it.

  6. 6 eileen doughty February 17, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    June said “It’s the pressures of conforming to the standard (which all of us do in varying degrees) that can preclude breaking through to new visions. I struggle, as you have heard, with this; most people don’t even know that the structure is constricting their vision.” I wonder how many non-conforming pieces are made and entered in exhibits – but they are not accepted because they don’t play well with others and won’t make for a “coherent exhibit”. Maybe we need a salon de refuses.

  7. 7 joan February 16, 2007 at 2:53 pm

    I would love to see Anna Torma’s work in-the-cloth. Last night I looked at the photograph of her 2005 QN piece, Rainy Day 1, as I pored over the catalog of wonderful quilts. I cannot say that it was a favorite. I think I made my earlier comment hoping to draw out some discussion by someone who has seen the actual work. I was surprised that of all of the 2005 quilts, it was deemed by such marvelous artists to be the most innovative, and most visually stimulating. It strikes me as being spontaneous and having a sketch-book quality but not the elegant finish of so many of the other works that I would call innovative and visually stimulating. Is it about the finish? Would I feel that the stitching was just so marvelous? In the jurying process, the judges saw only slides, not the cloth and they saw magic. What am I missing?

  8. 8 Clairan February 15, 2007 at 4:31 pm

    So Joan, do you like or dislike Anna Torma’s work? Is it because it seems unfinished?

  9. 9 Jaret February 15, 2007 at 7:10 am

    Okay June, now I’m intrigued. Please, rant a little about textiles pretending to be paintings!!!

  10. 10 joan February 13, 2007 at 8:49 am

    Thank you, June, for your comment, “I love the process of the semi-automatic art making, but I find that it works rather less well with stitched art, I think because of the constraints of sewing and quilting tradition — the hard core tradition of fine finish.” It was another light-bulb moment for me. The notion of “the hard core tradition of fine finish” reminded me of my reaction to the work of Anna Torma http://art-history.concordia.ca/eea/artists/torma.html and http://www.fiberscene.com/galleries/g_images17/torma14.html
    which I first encountered in her 2005 Quilt National piece.

  11. 11 Jaret February 13, 2007 at 6:13 am

    As far as automatic writing in the arts, it was one of the very foundations of Dada and surrealism.
    and more generally:

    I have posted briefly before on the list of May Steven’s beautiful paintings incorporating words as elements of light. She did not use automatic writing (I don’t think) but text and poetry she felt strongly about. She used the text as such an integral part of the imagery that in standing in front of her huge paintings sometimes you had to get very close to tell they were words and not brushstrokes of nonverbal paint.

    I am not a quilter but would suggest perhaps trying to use the word as a verb only when discussing art. The confusion is inherent in the fact that the word names an object for us even when it doesn’t enter the brain as a verb. June, I think you are right to try to replace the term in artistic discussion or at least insist on more subtle language in the discussion simply out of respect for the artform.

    The first image above reminded me very strongly of the sculptural imagery of Jonathan Borofsky. I almost expect moving parts.


    Hey, look at me, I’m blogging away…

  12. 12 June February 12, 2007 at 10:35 am


    Except within the confines of our little (!!) quilt art family, I eschew and deplore the use of the Q word. (Sorry for the silly phrasing — it’s 10AM here and the coffee is making me giddy).

    I use “textile artist” and when forced, say that I use traditional tools of stitching to produce my art. And I am seriously irritated when people mix up quilted art with art quilts. This is my latest campaign — the get rid of the AQ and replace it with QA.

    That said, the mind-set of traditional craft insists on the finished work in a way that precludes rawness — and interesting breakthroughs. It’s why all QA exhibits tend to look the same.

    Many young artists simply don’t adhere to these QA standards. But in the exhibits of quilted art — whether Quilt National, Houston, Visions, or the local guild — the heavy weight of the craft standards turns many an aspiring artist into someone who throws out the promising in order to produce the exhibitable.

    I believe that structure often produces content, and the structures and strictures of our QA world most often determine that we fear being chastised for rawness; that we won’t be exhibitable within these venues.

    It’s the pressures of conforming to the standard (which all of us do in varying degrees) that can preclude breaking through to new visions. I struggle, as you have heard, with this; most people don’t even know that the structure is constricting their vision.

    Thanks for checking in. I also have rants about textiles pretending to be paintings, but I’ll save that for later:-)

  13. 13 alison February 12, 2007 at 4:08 am

    June, I am wondering if the binds you feel, many of us feel, within the world of quilted art, might not be loosened indeed not exist if it were not for our persistence in using the word ‘quilt’ somewhere in how we speak of what we do. I tend to say I work with fabric, that I am a textile artist. It is amazing how often that suffices, and if pressed I go very lightly into technique, mentioning pieced designs with a textured appearance produced by quilting.

    Here in spanish speaking Uruguay there is no exact equivalent of ‘quilt’ – the nearest thing is “tapice” ie tapestry, woven and hung on the wall. For all the non-quilters listening to the conversation on this table, I’m sorry, we quiltmakers re-visit this old ‘what’s in a name’ thing regularly, but without resolution.

  14. 14 Sandy February 11, 2007 at 8:56 pm

    Clairan a long time ago I took a color class from Michael James and he had us paint paper fabric and then design with that. It was a great learning tool and one that has helped me over the years. I did make one that I saved and hung up for a long time to make a quilt from but never did. It would save us from making many scraps but then all the paper we would need.

  15. 15 Clairan Ferrono February 11, 2007 at 7:11 am

    Perhaps one could try the process with paper and then use the result to “translate” to fiber?

    And I reiterate — I personally prefer the raw, the unpolished; I think it feels more honest and more powerful. It is what I have striven for in the 8 years of my “art quilt” career. And I certainly hope there’s room for it in our world.

  16. 16 June February 9, 2007 at 7:50 pm


    I love the process of the semi-automatic art making, but I find that it works rather less well with stitched art, I think because of the constraints of sewing and quilting tradition — the hard core tradition of fine finish.

    I have actually completed a piece that has come to me in the way of semi-automatic processes. However, after I had done the original design and some of the stitching, I had to take everything apart and do most of it over again. It was well worth while — I think it’s the most powerful piece I’ve ever done — certainly it’s the most honest.

    And you are right about Pollock and Rembrandt — the two don’t set each other off well:-) so perhaps that’s the problem — most art which involves traditional processes of quilting has its roots so deeply into the craft of stitchery that anything else looks raw and silly beside it, as Pollock would beside a Rembrandt. So one has to find other venues in which to exhibit, I guess.

    The process on my “best” piece, by the way, was beastly and not one I would recommend to myself as I was 5 or so years ago. I just barely got the thing together so it hung right and I see now that I need to quilt it more. But the process was so “right” for me that I am finding ways to exploit it more consciously. I did another work along the same lines, with the same kind of raw look, which is, I would say, almost finished.

    Sandy, the top piece can’t be polished very well. The bright colored pieces came from already quilted work that’s been cut up and so there are raw edges that can’t be refined very readily. I think my problem with it was that ultimately I didn’t know why I was doing it — I lost that subterranean meaning that you can start out with and so I lost the impetus to do more. I simply didn’t know where to go with what I had. Why the bunny ears, I ask myself. I dunno, I respond? Why a nude? I dunno. Who are the ghosts? Well, maybe, I dunno…..


    The process you describe is one I think lots of us “indulge” in — and these are often thrown into a basket (like, I think, what has happened with the ones pictured above). There seems to be no place for them in the world of quilted art.

    I’m wondering if we didn’t think of these as sketches, but rather as beginnings, and if we pushed ourselves to continue working with them seriously, raw of not, if we might break away from some of the binds that I feel within the world of quilted art. I dunno….. 🙂

  17. 17 Kathy N February 7, 2007 at 9:37 pm

    I have two ways of working in fiber…one starts with line drawings which turn into pattern pieces on Wonder Under. It’s like putting a puzzle together, very formal and structured in intent and practice. These take months to become a final project.

    Then when I just want to make something quickly, in the manner of automatic writing, I start cutting up fabric that already has Wonder Under on it, and laying it out on a background, with no drawing or previous plan. These take a night, maybe two, to put together.

    I finish more of the first kind, but truly enjoy the second kind. They are another kind of drawing for me. They are smaller than the others, and it’s harder to find titles for them. I learned this from Laura Wasilowski in one of her fusing classes. When I get my web gallery up and running, I think one of the pages should be these sketches, because they are very different in style. I do have a harder time finishing these because they are less intentful (is that a word?), so they seem less important to me.

    There is definitely a link between the surrealists and automatic writing, painting, and drawing, a spontaneous way to express (expressionism also comes to mind). I think Dali is more the surrealist putting things together that are not commonly together in a fantastical way. I think if you are making art without a plan, without a pattern, just cutting up fabric or sewing it together and not analyzing it (maybe Matisse with his color collages of the later years, when his eyes were going), then that is fairly automatic. Maybe that’s why they’re harder to finish…we don’t really know where we were going in the first place, so we can’t finish it.

  18. 18 Sandy February 7, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Top image – my guess is you are to close to this image – I see the beginning of an interesting but abstract piece – not to look polished – to me the color and rough cut of the “automatic” is eye catching. I would also like to see a finished piece but more of a rough cut then polished.

    I find myself slapping up what my minds eye says is good and most of the time pulling it apart to begin again – I’m guessing this is what you call “automatic quilting”. Most of the time the original does not work as begun.


  19. 19 Clairan Ferrono February 6, 2007 at 7:47 pm


    The first image you show is clearly unfinished, and just as clearly to me, interesting and intriguing. I want to see a second photo of it finished!

    It concerns me when you say it wouldn’t look finished or “decent” besides the well-crafted quilt. Like Jackson Pollock worrying that his work wouldn’t look good next to a Rembrandt. . . .

    I like the look of raw and unfinished. I think it says something to our times. And I think that asking “automatic quilting” to look finished before you get to the end is asking a bit much. Perhaps you have to follow it to the end, see what you’ve produced and — edit, finish or start again from that point.

    Or not bother with the process if you don’t feel it works for you.

  1. 1 Automatic Writing Explained » Reality Seeds Trackback on February 21, 2007 at 12:54 pm
Comments are currently closed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 221 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: