What if I told you the sky was green and that goats don’t make any sounds, it’s just your brain that screams every time they open their mouths and Dennis the Menace rode his bike down the road because furniture? Huh? What even makes sense anymore? None of the above, I assure you. Now, what if I told you that the more you read all the above, the more your brain would try to make sense of it and succeed in creating an image of it? Crazy, right?

Well, I’m not crazy (I hope), and nor are you (I also hope). It’s just one of those wonderful phenomena we keep discovering about the world around us, as well as our own brains, and just how powerful they are.

Surrealism is a form of art and design that speaks to the extremes of abstract, illogical thinking and quirkiness. A more technical explanation is that it is the process of creating from your subconscious mind and giving up your restrictions of logic to create something otherworldly, unnerving, or jarring.

Where does this come from, you ask?

After WW1 there was a desperate need to escape the hardships of the reality that was the destruction of war. Artists, intellectuals, and those curious enough found a release through their imaginations. By imagination, we are speaking of delving deep into the subconscious brain and allowing whatever lies there to become reality. 

This extension of the earlier art form, “Dadaism”, quickly became popular as a break away from the wearisome, everyday experiences of a broken and impoverished society. In essence, it became something people were looking forward to seeing and it gained popularity all over Europe, then the rest of the world, from its humble beginnings in Paris, France in the 1920s. 

One method of extracting this visual effect is automatism, a process whereby you put pen to paper and draw without the restrictions of your hands or that of rational thought. Whatever the outcome was, would be further developed into a type of juxtaposition that challenges what our naked eyes see daily and believe to be “normal”.

A French playwright and poet by the name of Guillaume Apollinaire coined the term Surrealism in 1917 after seeing the set and costume designs for Parade – an early 20th Century play that was designed by none other than Pablo Picasso. Apollinaire was fascinated by the design and the fact that it did something radically different to what had been done before. 

The Surrealist Movement

It wasn’t until 1924 that two Surrealist movement groups broke out in Paris, and vied for the bragging rights of who was the true Surrealist. One group was led by Andre Breton, and the other, by Yvan Goll. They both had their own staunch beliefs as to what exactly Surrealism is and how it should be used and perceived. To settle this all-too-common clashing of ideas and viewpoints, both artists published their own manifesto and subjected it to the wider intellectual community, to decide which would ultimately be the Surrealism “bible”. In the end, it was Andre Breton’s version that won the minds and the majority vote – thus crowning Breton as the official founder of the Surrealist movement into the 1920’s and beyond.

From this point on, Surrealism became ever more popular, until WW2, when it took an understandable backseat to the unfortunate and dreadful acts playing out on the world stage (certainly not a newer rendition of Parade, if you ask me). It bounced back following the war, and made its foray into politics as a resistance movement, around the 1960s. Surrealism eventually made its way into modern design and what we know, love and use today.

Notable characteristics

If you are sitting or lying there (presuming you’re reading this from your lockdown office, which is probably the couch or your bed) thinking “how the hell am I going to recognise what Surrealism is, since there have been just shy of a million art movements in the last 100 years alone”, then carry on reading, you must. These are some of the notable characteristics of Surrealist artworks, which might help you familiarise yourself and spot them a little easier:

  • Frottage – an automated, creative production characterised by rubbing as the basis for further artistic exploration
  • Decalcomania – is the technique of squeezing paint between two surfaces to create a mirror image. You probably tried this in art class at school, if you folded paper with different colours of paint in the middle, to create a ‘butterfly’.
  • Photomontage – the creation of a composition by overlapping, cutting, or rearranging two or more separate images, into one.
  • Aerography – a method where a 3D object is utilised for a stencil with spray paint
  • Involuntary sculpture – a sculpting technique characterised by absent-mindedly shaping an object; coulage is a form of involuntary sculpture produced by pouring molten metal into cold water to form a random shape.
  • Heatage – a method where an unfixed, but exposed photo negative, gets heated from underneath, producing emulsion, thus, an ensuing image develops randomly.
  • Fumage – an approach where impressions are produced onto a canvas or paper by the smoke of a lamp or candle.
  • Cubomania – an approach to making collages, where an image gets divided into squares and said squares are randomly rearranged.
  • Éclaboussure – a process where watercolours or oil paints are applied, followed by splattered turpentine or water. The turpentine/water is then soaked up, which reveals disorganised spots in the paint.
  • Grattage – a painting process in which wet paint is scraped off a canvas to reveal an image.
  • Automatism – a drawing technique, where the illustrator or painter surrenders rational control to his/her unconscious mind.
  • Parsemage – a method where dust from colour chalk or charcoal gets distributed on water’s surface, then skimmed away via stiff cardboard or paper, right beneath the water’s surface.
  • Triptography – an approach to photography in which a film roll gets used three times, to triple-expose it, so that no single image has a distinct subject.
  • Étrécissements – a so-called reductive approach to visual art, whereby pieces of an image are cut away to eventually create a new image.
  • Bulletism – a technique where ink is shot onto a blank piece of paper, and artists create images based on what they see.
  • Collage – a process where artwork is created by forming a bigger assemblage out of various forms.
  • Soufflage – a method of image creation, based on blowing liquid paint, to develop an image.

How is this art movement relevant today?

Brand Identity is everything when it comes to speaking to your clients and potential clients. Be warned though, your product quality needs to walk the talk too, but that’s a conversation for another blog. We live in an extremely fast-paced, information-driven era and because we are taking in so much information daily, something’s gotta stand out, right? Right. 

We are seeing a huge rise in the popularity of illustrations for web design, branding and ads, all over the internet and social media. It’s not uncommon to see disproportionate human figures with large legs and arms, small heads and torsos, minimal facial features, and skin colours that leave the rainbow with a bit of imposter syndrome, running across websites and social media posts. These are all modern extensions of Surrealism. 

Studies show that it takes the human brain a repetition of eight times to retain information and associate it with a particular visual. That’s under normal circumstances, meaning that when shown something we perceive as normal and run of the mill, it must be repetitively hardwired into our brains before we can autonomously associate it with something. I am willing to bet the few shillings I have, that you will find it very difficult to forget the pink giraffe with a bowtie you saw at the zoo that ONE time. 

How does this help gain market share, and turn a profit?

When we approach branding, we are looking for a certain personality trait that your audience can connect with and associate you with. Paula Scher, a graphic designer and partner at Pentagram, the worlds largest independently-owned design agency, says that your brand needs to be recognised, without even seeing your logo or name. So naturally, it becomes an ecosystem of visuals, that are continuously used when positioning the brand, to speak to the target audience without saying anything. 

I remember as a kid, I was obsessed with Kellog’s cereal boxes. Why? Each of them had been assigned an animal character. Those characters represented their own flavour and they were the custodians of that flavour. Later, the request was never about the flavour, you just knew which animal you liked, and that was your flavour of choice. Nothing else would suffice. This is the power of a memorable visual associated with a brand.

If I show you an image of a zebra and ask you to tell me the brand it belongs to, I’m willing to bet my absolute last little bit of shillings that your answer will be Investec (I have tested this in our office, and the science is clear).


For us, as creatives, it gives us immense pleasure to create outside of the confines of the conventional to bring brands to life, and to give them human qualities that can be easily digested and understood by a large portion of the market. Using surreal visuals that make people double-take, or using a mascot that would never actually be a real thing, are great techniques of creating brand recognition. It’s the first step in creating brand loyalty, which is what all businesses strive for. Don’t be afraid of colour, don’t be afraid of quirkiness, don’t be afraid to stretch the human imagination.

At Grindstone Advertising, this is something we love sinking our teeth into. Creating brand identities that live through eras, break boundaries, and speak without saying a word is what we chip away at every day. And we love it.

Esther Jacobs

Esther is a content producer by profession and a conservationist by avocation. She has gained an eclectic mix of skills throughout her couple of decades of working in copywriting and social media management. Esther’s passion lies in conservation and she controls the office naughty jar for anyone who dares bring single-use plastic to work. She also boasts being nominated as Scotland’s Ambassador of Rock through Hard Rock Cafe, once-upon-a-time.

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