Surrealist Dreamscapes

By Rebecca Starr

Express your imagination and let your pencil run with the paper to create Surrealist dreamscapes

Don’t forget to share your work or post online and tag @natsatclub and @uolartsoutreach



This project asks you to think about dreams and how your subconscious imagination and memories can be depicted in art. Focusing on surrealism, you will create your own weird, wonderful and surreal dreamscape that represents a dream that you remember. 


Materials needed

  • Paper
  • Pens or pencils 
  • Felt tips or coloured pencils 
  • Paints and paintbrushes 
  • Scissors 
  • Glue stick
  • Assorted paper (newspaper and magazine scraps, coloured paper)


Activity part one – Automatic Drawing

In psychology, the term ‘automatism’ refers to involuntary actions that do not come under the control of our conscious minds; for example, things like breathing or dreaming. Artists have used automatism as a way of creating spontaneous images that explore their subconscious minds. Automatic art encourages you to think and create freely, with artists often using automatic drawing as a way of expressing their unspoken feelings or desires. 

 Wolfgang Paalen, Automatic Drawing (c. 1954), Image source

Now, create your own automatic drawings. You can do this in timed sessions to see where your imagination and pens take you. To begin with, try drawing one image in 2 minutes.

  • Set your timer for 2 minutes
  • Place your pen or pencil on your piece of paper
  • Close your eyes and draw freely for 2 minutes. Try not to worry about drawing anything in particular and see where your pen takes you 
  • When your time is up, have a look at your drawing. What do you think of it? What do you think it suggests? How did it feel not being able to see whilst you were drawing?  

Now, try this activity again.

This time you might want to do the activity with your eyes open or, taking inspiration from surrealism, think about the term ‘dream’. What does ‘dream’ mean to you? Do another automatic drawing and see what you come up with. This time, give yourself 5 minutes. 


Activity part two – Examining Surrealism

Surrealism is an art movement from the twentieth century that was concerned with the unusual, the unconventional and the unexpected. Surrealists were interested in how they could unlock ideas from their unconscious minds and depict dreamlike worlds which blur reality and imagination.

A ‘dreamscape’ is an artwork that depicts a dreamlike landscape. Have a look at some examples of surrealist dreamscapes and think about the following questions:

  • What do you see in these examples? 
  • What narrative or story do you think is present in these images?
  • What do you think of these examples? Are they bizarre, surreal, imaginary? Do you think that there is anything uncanny about the images? 

You will notice that these examples often combine objects, scenery and figures that would not usually be found together. Think about how the background contrasts with the objects and figures in the foreground. 

Dorothea Tanning, Rêve de Luxe (1944), Image source


Salvador Dalí, The Persistence of Memory (1931), Image source


Gertrude Abercrombie, The Red Rook (1948), Image source


Activity part three – Surrealist Dreamscapes

Now it is time to make your own surrealist dreamscape. Before sketching your design, think about and answer the following questions:

  • Try and remember a dream that you had. Make brief notes about what happened in your dream. If you can’t remember a specific dream, take inspiration from some of the examples that you’ve seen and imagine a dreamscape which includes things you wouldn’t usually expect to find together. 
  • How did you feel when you woke up from your dream or how does your imaginary dreamscape make you feel? Do you think it relates to your unspoken feelings? 

In order to create your dreamscape, answer the following questions. Answering these will help you to narrow down what you will include:

  • What is the background for your dreamscape (eg desert, underwater, forest, a corridor, etc)?
  • Are there any people or animals in your dreamscape, if so, how many and how do they interact with each other (eg a woman and a bird or a child chasing a lion)?
  • What objects are in your dreamscape and is there anything that you would not expect to find there?

Use your answers as the basis for your dreamscape using materials such as pencil, crayons, markers or watercolours to complete your artwork. You might also want to use collage materials (newspaper and magazine cuttings) to illustrate your artworks. 


Thank you for taking part in the University of Leeds Saturday Club Workshop.

Share your work or post online and tag @natsatclub and @uolartsoutreach


Further Development

You might be interested in researching surrealism in further detail. If so, MoMA has a host of resources that will help you to understand Surrealism, including how surrealists worked across mediums from painting, drawing and sculpture to installations. See here for further information

Tate recently hosted a retrospective exhibition of Dorothea Tanning’s work. You might find the information and video interesting here

Wilfredo Lam, a Cuban artist born in 1902, used his artwork to explore his mixed heritage (his mother was Spanish-Afro-Cuban and his father was Cantonese Chinese). He worked in a number of styles but is most well-known for his large-scale surrealist compositions that often features figures from Santerían and Orisha spiritual practices. More information about his work can be found here




  • The unconscious or involuntary performance of actions. In art, this relates to the idea of creating artworks without conscious thoughts or intentions so you might like to think of this as creating things ‘freely’. 


  • This is a compound word of the terms ‘dream’ and ‘landscape’. A dreamscape is a landscape image that depicts a dreamlike or fantasy world. 


  • Psychology is the scientific study of the way that the human mind works. 


  • The term ‘subconscious’ is used to refer to a part of your mind that notices and remembers things without actively trying to do so. Our subconscious thoughts and memories often influence the way we act, the way we think and the dreams that we have without us realising it. 


  • Surrealism is a twentieth century art, literary and philosophical movement that aimed to explore the inner workings of our minds. Surrealism encouraged artists to focus on the irrational, bizarre and unconventional to create work that explored their unconscious or subconscious thoughts and ideas. 


  • The term ‘uncanny’ refers to something strange that may be difficult or impossible to explain. The term was made popular in the early twentieth century by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud who used it to describe the feeling of seeing something familiar that is, at the same time, strange or unusual. In art, the uncanny can be used to create artworks that combine the familiar with the unfamiliar so as to create uncanny feelings. 



Resources & References 

Art History Unstuffed – Surrealism and Freudian Theory

MoMA Learning – Surrealism 

Tate – Automatism 

Tate – Dorothea Tanning 

Tate – Surrealism 

Tate – Uncanny 

Contributed by Rebecca Starr, University of Leeds Art&DesignSaturday Club

Rebecca is an Education Outreach Fellow at the University of Leeds and is currently finishing her PhD in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. 

She has worked with community groups and arts charities to design and deliver arts workshops. She is interested in arts education, widening participation and socially-engaged art.  


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