Surrealist art is one of the most moving art styles out there — permitting both artists and viewers to dive into the subconscious dreamscape to discover meaning.

Surrealist artists believe that a greater truth can be accessed through the exploration of the deep workings of the mind. They seek to remove filters and barriers between the subconscious and the canvas, resulting in absolutely stunning works that are deeply provoking.

In this article, we’re taking you through key characteristics of surrealism, so that you can understand the story behind these artworks as you consider introducing them into your home.

Are you up for a deep interrogation of your subconscious?

You don’t have to be. We’ll leave that to your therapist. But for now, let’s dive into the wide world of surrealist art!


One of the leading characteristics of surrealism is a process called automation — where artists construct a piece of work without any pause or consideration of their thoughts.

The result is usually placing seemingly irrelevant objects in juxtaposition to one other, which eventually work together to tell a profound — and oftentimes unsettling — story.

Think back to the last dream you can remember.

More likely than not, it didn’t make much sense. Images and situations were likely clashing with one another.

This is because your brain was naturally undergoing automation; working to piece things together that to the conscious mind might seem unrelated.

Automation allows artists to peel back the logical and the rational. They view these processes in the brain as constricting, therefore seeking to remove them altogether.

When you think of a surrealist trait — think automate.

Unavoidable Reality

I Love Myself by Di M

Much like conceptual art, surrealists seek to delve into a new mode of consciousness that isn’t focused on reality.

Unfortunately, even though the great artists could practically “paint in their sleep” — literally doing so is basically impossible.

That’s why one of the key characteristics of surrealism is reckoning with the “constriction” of reality by combining it with subconscious happenings.

But what do we mean by this, anyway?

Surrealist artists use dreamscapes and fantasy to render expressions of reality — not reality as we would normally encounter it with our naked eyes.

This is one of the greatest challenges that surrealists face — bringing the subconscious and conscious together in a meaningful way. But that’s what makes the art form so incredibly interesting!

Free Association

Con Caballo by Tomás Martín

Building off the process of automatism, surrealist artists frequently practice free association — meaning that there doesn’t have to be a logical line between two art objects.

You can garner a better understanding of free association through playing a quick game with yourself.

Start by picking one object — any object — in the room that you’re in right now.

Say it out loud, then say another word out loud. And then another. And then another.

Do this for a little while and you’re sure to find yourself in a completely different place than you started. While the object or thought that you end with likely has nothing to do with what you started with — they are still associated somehow by our brains.

It’s pretty mystical.

Artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst were famous for their promotion of free association, which led to some of the most prominent works of the 20th century. It’s one of the characteristics of surrealism that has been around since the inception of the art form itself!

Other Key Characteristics of Surrealism

Now that we’ve unpacked the ‘Big 3’ characteristics of surrealism, let’s give you some others that prominently appear in surrealist works.

  • Game and Techniques: Artists will seek to unsettle and randomize your mind through little games in surrealist works. You might not notice these games upon first look, but as you observe it more and more, you’ll start to discover them. This is what makes surrealist works so great for decoration — they keep on revealing new things!
  • Personal Iconography: Artists will frequently call upon their own subconscious to create meaning in their work. As a result, they’re able to tap in to the “collective subconscious,” which in turn allows us to learn more about ourselves as the viewer.
  • Uninhibited Sexuality: Surrealism is all about breaking down societal constructs that we’ve assembled through reality. To do so, surrealists will frequently tap into explicit sexuality and eroticism as a means of unsettling and challenging the viewer to think more deeply.
  • Primitive or Child-like Designs: When automating, much of what bubbles to the surface is held deeply within us, sourced from childhood and our ancestors. These sorts of figures are one of the prominent characteristics of surrealism, especially in more contemporary works.

Where to Find Surrealist Artwork

Sguardo a Sinistra by Gerardo Laporta

Think that a surrealist work could deliver value into your space?

You’re not alone. It’s one of the most commonly displayed artworks, especially when you consider that interpretations are nearly endless.

And luckily for you, you’ve come to the right place!

Gallerima is your one-stop-shop online art marketplace for all the best surrealist works. We source talented artists from around the world, ensuring that every style is represented.

Browse out stunning gallery of surrealist works and see if you can identify some of the characteristics of surrealism that we have laid out in this article!

You’re going to have a lot of fun scrolling through the many dreamscapes. Open your mind and let the associations roll in!