Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art is a Hot Mess

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art is a Hot Mess

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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.

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess

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...

  1. Start by preparing your work surface. Cover it with a layer of plastic or wax paper to protect it from the wet paint.
  2. Choose your paints. Acrylic paints work well for this technique, but you can experiment with other types of paint.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Press down firmly and then lift the top surface away to reveal the pattern created by the paint.
  6. 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

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess


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

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess


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

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess


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...


Domínguez referred to his works as "decalcomania with no preconceived object". He initially used gouache on paper or glass, and then proceeded to squeeze it onto the canvas.

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

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess


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

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Decalcomania Art Is a Hot Mess

Hans Bellmer (1902-1975) was a German artist, best known for the life-sized pubescent female dolls he produced in the mid-1930s. Historians of art and photography also consider him a Surrealist photographer.
In the landscape of the mind depicted in this work, "Sans titre," AKA "Untitled", we see the melding of thought and desire. The intricate patterns and contours resemble the topography of a brain... and women's anatomy. Bellmer intentionally blurs the boundaries between the psychological and the physical, inviting contemplation of the complex relationship between desire, identity, and the subconscious.



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.

Frequently Asked Questions

Decalcomania is a French word that refers to the process of transferring pictures or designs from specially prepared paper to wood, metal, glass, or other materials. The word is derived from the French word "décalquer," which means to trace or copy, and "mania," which means madness.

How do you use decalcomania in a sentence?

Decalcomania is a technique used by artists to transfer designs from specially prepared paper to another surface, such as glass, wood, or metal. Here are some examples of how to use decalcomania in a sentence:

  • She used a wide range of materials and methods, such as decalcomania, fumage, frottage, and collage.
  • He also explored with the technique of decalcomania, which involves pressing paint between two surfaces.
  • Decalcomania, a technique used by artists such as Max Ernst, can produce fractal-like patterns.

Decalcomania is an art technique that originated in the 18th century, developed by French-English engraver Simon François Ravenet. Initially, it was a method of transferring designs from specialty paper to pottery or glass, but it later evolved into a technique used by artists to create abstract patterns by transferring paint or ink from one surface to another.

In the early 20th century, decalcomania was adopted by the Surrealist movement, with artists like Óscar Domínguez and Max Ernst using the technique to create abstract and otherworldly landscapes and creatures. Surrealists were drawn to decalcomania because it allowed for the element of chance in their artwork, reflecting their interest in the subconscious and the unexpected.

To create a decalcomania artwork, an artist would apply thick paint or ink onto a surface such as paper or canvas, then cover it with another material like paper or aluminum foil while it was still wet. The covering would then be removed, revealing an abstract pattern that could be further embellished upon. This process allowed artists to create imagery by chance rather than through conscious control, which was central to the Surrealist movement.

Decalcomania can be used with various types of paint, including acrylic, oils, and watercolor. Here are some examples of decalcomania with different paint types:

  1. Acrylic: There are several demonstrations and tutorials available that show how to use acrylic paint for decalcomania, such as this video by Peter Gric.
  2. Oils: Max Ernst, a prominent Surrealist artist, used oil paint for his decalcomania artworks. A YouTube video demonstrates the use of oil paint with plastic wrap to create Max Ernst-style textures.
  3. Watercolor: Although specific examples of famous watercolor decalcomania aren't readily available, watercolor can be used for this technique.

Overall, decalcomania can be adapted to various paint types, allowing artists to experiment with different mediums and create unique textures and patterns.

Decalcomania is usually associated with abstract art because it is often used to create random patterns that can be interpreted in different ways. The Surrealists used decalcomania to create imagery by chance rather than through conscious control. However, the technique can be used to create representational art as well.

To create representational art using decalcomania, the artist can use the patterns created by the transfer process as a starting point and then add details to create a recognizable image. For example, Surrealist artist Max Ernst used decalcomania to create textured landscapes and mythical creatures.

How long does it take for decalcomania paint to dry?

The drying time for decalcomania paint can vary depending on the thickness of the paint and the humidity of the room. When the humidity is high, the paint is exposed to a greater amount of water vapor, which affects drying not only of acrylic and latex paints but also of decalcomania paint 2 3

With more moisture in the air, it takes longer for the water in the paint to evaporate. This can cause the paint to dry more slowly and can also lead to surfactant leaching, which is brown or white discoloration on the surface of the paint 1

The thickness of the paint can also affect the drying time. Thicker paints have more pigment and binders, which take longer to evaporate, and therefore, take longer to dry 4.

Other surrealist techniques you can experiment with include frottage, automatic drawing, and collage.


Frottage is a surrealist painting technique that involves laying a canvas prepared with a layer of oil paint over a textured object and then scraping it. The technique was developed by Max Ernst in drawings made from 1925.

Frottage is the French word for rubbing, and Ernst was inspired by an ancient wooden floor where the grain of the planks had been accentuated by many years of scrubbing.

The patterns of the graining suggested strange images to him, and he captured these by laying sheets of paper on the floor and then rubbing over them with a soft pencil. The results suggest mysterious forests peopled with bird-like creatures, and Ernst published a collection of these drawings in 1926 titled Histoire Naturelle (natural history).

Automatic Drawing

Automatic drawing is a method of art-making in which the artist suppresses conscious control over the making process, allowing the unconscious mind to have great sway.

Early 20th-century Dadaists, such as Hans Arp, made some use of this method through chance operations.

Surrealist artists, most notably André Masson, developed automatic drawing in his later work, particularly in his etchings and lithographic suites of the 1960s. In applying chance and accident to mark-making, drawing becomes to a large extent... surrealist.


The basic mechanism of collage is irrational juxtaposition. Or the bringing together of radically incompatible things. Foundational principles for Surrealism, and fundamental to the way dreams work.

Both Surrealist poets and artists used collage techniques. Like automatic writing, collage allows writers and... emphasizing the final image’s “reality” rather than the procedures and materials of its creation.

Salvador Dalí combined collage and oil paint in some of his early Surrealist works, and the Surrealists saw collage as a means to transform reality in unexpected and yet recognizable ways.