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Frottage and Chance

Navigate Rubbing & Frottage
Frottage and Chance
Charla Puryear



In the 1920s, Surrealist painter Max Ernst used a rubbing technique to transfer to paper the wood grain pattern of old planks on his floor. What he liked about the process was the somewhat random nature of the result. Some artists like the idea of random choices (e.g. rolling the dice), of giving up a large degree of control in order to perhaps gain a more spontaneous and unpredictable result. The result of Ernst's rubbing then became a starting point for refinement by his human sensibility. The artists' term for such chance discovery is "aleatory" (see below). Frottage is French for "rubbing."

Max Ernst, like most surrealist artists, was influenced by the brief Da-Da movement in art, which elevated chance to a virtue. Da-Da found traditional artistic standards and processes too confning and outdated to accomodate the new postwar (WW One) consciousness.

Caution: Teachers, be aware that "frottage" is also a word used for sexual rubbing in an indecent manner. Avoid kids doing web search on this one.

A Small Gallery of Recent Frottage in Art

Breaking Point © Greg Simpson
Columbus © Greg Simpson
Antique lace tablecloth © Sherry Camhy
Via Negativa VI © Sue Pavlovich
My First Frottage © Jenjoh
Palmae © Kim de Vahl Baker
Cycads © Kim de Vahl Baker
Scribbly Gum © Kim de Vahl Baker
from eucalyptus bark rubbings
Also see Charla Puryear's fine frottage-based paintings on this Demo. page

A Note on Aleatory Art-Making
John Caddy


Composition depending upon chance, random accident, or highly improvisational execution, typically hoping to attain freedom from the past, from academic formulas, and the limitations placed on imagination by the conscious mind.

There is a tradition of Japanese and Chinese artists employing aleatoric methods, many influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism. In the west, precedents can be found among artists of ancient Greece, and later among artists of the Italian Renaissance.

Leonardo da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519) recommended looking at blotches on walls as a means of initiating artistic ideas. Aleatory was also employed by numerous twentieth century avant-garde artists. Followers of Dada and Surrealism produced numerous examples. Jean Arp (French, 1887-1966) made collages by dropping small pieces of paper onto a larger piece, then adhering them where they landed. André Masson (French, 1896-1987) and Joan Miró (Spanish, 1893-1983) allowed their pens to wander over sheets of paper in the belief that they would discover in those doodles the ghosts of their repressed imaginations.

From Wikipedia:

Aleatory means "pertaining to luck", and derives from the Latin word alea, the rolling of dice.
Aleatoric, indeterminate, or chance art is that which exploits the principle of randomness.

Effective art is filled with "happy accidents." Artists who are alert to unexpected possibilities take advantage of chance connections, associations and events. Unpredictability as such can be a blessing or a habit of self-indulgence.

Both science and the making of art rely on a kind of play, both mental and physical, that often becomes experiment--not always to test a hypothesis, but often simply to see what will happen.

Many 20th century artists deliberately used chance--a roll of the dice--to escape their own conscious minds, and hopefully connect with the unconscious. This way to use chance seems stubbornly controlling, quite different from an alertness to happy accidents and a willingness to use them to good effect.


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