The Paranoid Exchange

This is a step-by-step rundown of a solid assignment on creating strong compositions and depth through automatic drawing and abstraction.

In this project, the students will be exploring their subconscious minds using the “paranoia critical” method. Through collaboration, the students will create a complex ground to serve as the base of a drawing. Each student will then individually work on his or her own paper to create a strong, multimedia drawing, emphasizing originality and composition. For inspiration, they will look to the work of the Surrealists.

Day one:

I start this project by giving the students random textured paper.  Specifically, I print out a bunch of cloud textures on drawing paper.  We talk for a moment about Salvador Dalí and his paranoiac-critical method, Sigmund Freud’s work on the subconscious, Rorschach tests, and how we used to stare at clouds as children to see what we could find in them.  They then choose a piece of paper and develop it into something interesting based on what they see in the clouds.

Day two:

We have a brief discussion on what Surrealism is and where it came from.  We read an excerpt from the Surrealist Manifesto, we talk about Sigmund Freud a little more, and we discuss the Surrealist methods of tapping into the subconscious.  The artists we look at include Max Ernst, Joan Miró, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dalí, Remedios Varo, and Leonora Carrington.  Those last two you might not have heard of.  There are a lot of great, female Surrealists who have been mostly ignored by history.  They are definitely worth looking at and talking about.  I then give them a little more time to develop their cloud drawings.

Day three:

Each student is given an 18”x24” piece of Bogus recycled sketch paper.  I really like this paper.  It will hold up to just about any medium without major problems.  That’s very important for this project.  I then have a brief conversation with them about the different types of line and how different lines can have different meanings.  I show them artwork based almost entirely on line, including Arturo Herrera, Julie Mehretu, and Matthew Ritchie.  After that, I tell them that we are going to do some automatic drawing.  I explain that I am going to play music, and they are to use a marker (I provide colored Crayola) to “dance” along to the music on their paper.  I play a song for about a minute and the students draw randomly.  I say things like, “make sure the line matches the way the music feels,” and “don’t just dance in the corner, use the whole dance floor/paper.”  After each song, they switch and move to a different piece of paper.  Each song I play is completely different from the last, ranging from classical to Motown to hard rock.  This makes sure the paper has a wide variety of line types.  We go through three songs, and then switch to the other side of the paper.  For the last song, I have the students return to their original paper.  They write their name on their paper, as they all look the same, and I collect them.

Day four:

Today we talk about creating emphasis.  How does one create a strong focal point?  I discuss these five factors: placement, contrast, detail, grouping, and scale.  I explain to them what these all mean and how they can be used.   I show them a couple of examples of fun, contemporary art including Banksy, Camille Rose Garcia and Takashi Murakami and we discuss how they use those concepts to create a strong focal point.  I make sure to explain to them that they don’t have to use all five, but that their focal point must have more of these things going for it than anything else in the composition.  I then give them the assignment prompt.

You are going to turn your brown paper into an artwork including….

  • a strong focal point
  • a controlled color scheme
  • depth including foreground, middleground and background
  • texture

I allow them to use whatever media they prefer.  That’s why the Bogus paper is a good choice.

Day Five and on:

From here, I let them loose.  I push them to find an interesting form and make it dimensional, not to create an illustration, although I do not stop them from being representational.  After a day or two I show them a few images of the artist Roberto Matta to give them a little abstract inspiration.  Of course, I give them a half-way and final critique as I have discussed here.  This year, our final critique fell on the eighteenth day, but this group drags a little, as they are scheduled 7th period and are a little riled up when they get here.  If you need to do this in less time, you could shrink the paper.


This is a really great assignment for early artists.  I teach it to my sophomores in the first semester.  I constantly refer back to it when talking to my students.  I can’t tell you how many times I ask a student how he is creating his focal point when they are laying out an artwork.  It also helps students think about the entire paper, instead of just creating a background-less focal point.  Plus, it’s a great piece for the Breadth section of the AP Studio Art Drawing Portfolio.  All around, this assignment works very well for my students and me.

Here are a few examples.

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