Abstract, Otherworldly, and Organic: The Messy Magic of Decalcomania Art
Decalcomania is a surrealist technique that involves creating abstract patterns by pressing wet paint or ink between two surfaces and then separating them to reveal unique, organic designs. This method was popularized by Max Ernst, a German artist who pioneered the technique in the early 20th century via Oscar Dominguez.
In this article, we'll explore the history of decalcomania, how it was used by surrealist artists, step-by-step instructions to create your own decalcomania art, and a showcase of some of the most notable works of decalcomania art.
History of Decalcomania
Decalcomania is a decorative technique by which engravings and prints may be transferred to pottery or other materials. The technique was first used commercially in England around 1750 and imported into the United States at least as early as 1865. Its invention has been attributed to Simon François Ravenet, an engraver from France who later moved to England and perfected the process, which he called "décalquer".
The process involves applying ink, paint, or another medium onto a surface and, while still wet, covering it with material such as paper, glass, or aluminum foil. When removed, the material transfers a pattern that may be further embellished upon. The most common example of decalcomania involves applying paint to paper then folding it, applying pressure, and then unfolding the paper to reveal a mirror pattern.
In addition to its use in fine art, decalcomania has been used in commercial applications such as mass-produced commodity art transfers or product labels, known as "decals". Vitrifiable decalcomania is a type of decalcomania used for transferring decorations or inscriptions onto ceramics, glass, sheet metal, cast metal, or any other material which it is desired to furnish with an impression.
Decalcomania in Surrealist Art
The technique was adopted by the Surrealists to create imagery by chance rather than through conscious control. The surrealist Óscar Domínguez referred to his work as "decalcomania with no preconceived object". He took up the technique in 1936, using gouache spread thinly on a sheet of paper or other surface (glass has been used), which is then pressed onto another surface such as a canvas. Domínguez used black gouache, though colors later made their appearance. German artist Max Ernst also practiced decalcomania, as did Hans Bellmer and Remedios Varo. Salvador Dali dabbled, too — see below.
The technique allowed artists to create abstract, otherworldly landscapes, and creatures that challenged traditional notions of representation and reality. The resulting images often resemble landscapes, organic forms, or abstract shapes, and the technique relies heavily on chance and spontaneity.
The otherworldly or dreamlike patterns found in decalcomania suited the purposes of the Surrealists. Artists like Ernst would exploit the transfer effects revealing caves, trees, rock formations.
The colors, shapes, and marks of abstract art provide an innovative visual language that allows artists to communicate emotions, ideas, and experiences.
With less of a focus on the subject of the artwork, the processes and materials with which abstract art is created take on a much greater importance. Texture, depth, and particularly color become vital tools in conveying the artist's intention.
Creating Your Own Decalcomania Art
Creating your own decalcomania art is a fun and easy process that requires minimal materials. Here's a step-by-step guide...
- Start by preparing your work surface. Cover it with a layer of plastic or wax paper to protect it from the wet paint.
- Choose your paints. Acrylic paints work well for this technique, but you can experiment with other types of paint.
- Apply a layer of paint to one surface. You can use a paintbrush or palette knife to apply the paint. Make sure the layer is thick enough to create a pattern but not so thick that it will take a long time to dry.
- Press another surface onto the painted surface. You can use a piece of paper, canvas, or even another object like a leaf or a piece of fabric.
- Press down firmly and then lift the top surface away to reveal the pattern created by the paint.
- Repeat the process with different colors and surfaces until you are satisfied with the final result.
Notable Decalcomania Artworks
Decalcomania has been used to create some of the most intricate and awe-inspiring artworks in the history of art. Here are some examples of famous decalcomania artworks:
Attirement of the Bride by Max Ernst
Max Ernst (1891-1976) was a German painter and sculptor who was one of the leading advocates of irrationality in art and an originator of the Automatism movement of Surrealism.
Attirement of the Bride is an example of Ernst's veristic or illusionistic Surrealism, in which a traditional technique is applied to an incongruous or unsettling subject.
The painting depicts a bride in an elaborate outfit that seems to combine a very thick material alongside a spread of red feathers. The central scene is contrasted with its counterpart in the picture-within-a-picture at the upper left. Where the bride appears in the same pose, striding through a landscape of overgrown classical ruins that she herself is apart of...
Attirement of the Bride was completed in 1940, at a point where the artist had established a prominent position within the art world and was free to explore any avenue of his imagination.
Décalcomanie by René Magritte
René Magritte (1898-1967) was a Belgian Surrealist artist known for his witty and thought-provoking images, often placing familiar objects in unusual contexts.
"Décalcomanie" explores the concept of transformation and concealment. The painting tries to reveal the invisible by contrasting the artist's existence within the outer world with the artist's existence within his inner world.
The painting depicts a figure standing against a cloudy sky, while another section of the canvas reveals clouds that were previously concealed by a curtain. This juxtaposition creates a sense of ambiguity and invites viewers to question the relationship between the seen and the hidden, the real and the imagined. The use of negative space to represent the outline of the man allows the viewer to focus on both sides of the image and see the same thing.
Decalcomania involves creating abstract patterns by pressing wet paint or ink between two surfaces. However, in this particular artwork, Magritte does not seem to employ the traditional technique but rather uses the concept of decalcomania as a conceit to play with the ideas of transformation and concealment acting as two sides of our existential coin.
Untitled by Oscar Dominguez
Óscar Domínguez (1906-1957) was a Spanish surrealist painter known for his loosely rendered surrealist paintings. He devoted himself to painting at a young age after suffering a serious illness that affected his growth and caused a progressive deformation of his facial bone frame and limbs. Domínguez pioneered the automatist technique of decalcomania...
In "Untitled," Domínguez skillfully employs decalcomania to evoke a sense of fluidity and movement. This gouache transfer on paper created organic shapes and patterns that seem to emerge spontaneously, but we can see Domínguez has tactically used decalcomania to create the textural movement of the lion's mane in motion. The artist harnessed surprising formations to construct a dreamlike composition. Where boundaries between reality and imagination blur in the fluid motion of this lion on the hunt.
Decalcomania by Salvador Dalí
Salvador Dalí (1904-1989) was a Spanish surrealist artist renowned for his technical skill, precise draftsmanship, and the striking, bizarre images in his work.
"Decalcomania" was created by Salvador Dali in 1936. This artwork features a skeletal woman with a head of flowers, a motif that was prominent in Dalí's work during this period. The painting is in the Naïve Art (Primitivism) style and features a decalcomania arched landscape in the foreground. The landscape is made up of intricate, web-like patterns that evoke a sense of mystery and intrigue. With its central figure of an enigmatic skeleton, the painting showcases the raw versatility of the decalcomania technique. Its meaning open far and wide to interpretations of all sorts about life and death.
Sans titre by Hans Bellmer
Decalcomania is a fascinating and unpredictable surrealist technique that has inspired artists for decades. The organic and abstract patterns created by the method challenge traditional notions of representation and reality, allowing artists to create otherworldly landscapes and creatures that evoke a sense of mystery and intrigue.
Whether you are a seasoned artist or just starting, decalcomania is a fun and easy technique to try out. With a few basic materials and a willingness to experiment, you can create your own unique and unpredictable patterns that reflect your creativity and vision.