How Studying Your Dreams Can Help Your Art Practice
For centuries, artists seeking inspiration have dipped into dreams—those strange, at times psychic visions, born in sleep, where reality’s grip on the mind loosens.
Salvador Dalí and his cohort of Surrealists most famously used dream analysis to channel the unconscious into trippy artworks depicting alternate realities, hybrid creatures, and uncanny objects. Renaissance and Romantic artists harnessed dreams as creative fodder, too. Take Hieronymus Bosch’s hallucinatory hellscapes, or William Blake’s paintings of ethereal, intertwined figures floating in interstellar fairy dust.
Even Post-Impressionist artists like Vincent van Gogh and 20th-century British painter Francis Bacon credited bursts of creativity to moments when their waking mind slipped deliciously into dreamworlds. “If I sit and daydream, the images rush by like a succession of colored slides,” said Bacon. Van Gogh once revealed, “I dream my paintings, then I paint my dreams.”
There’s little question of the ripe connection between artistic output and dreams. But how does one go about using these sleep-induced visions to fuel creativity, let alone remembering them after waking?
Dalí offered his own, typically eccentric, answers to these questions in 1948 when he published his famed guide to artmaking, 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship. In an early chapter dubbed “The Secret of the ‘Slumber with a Key,’” he prescribed a special brand of very short nap (“less than a minute”) to fruitfully access the dreamworld.
The trick to this siesta, he explained, is to hold a heavy key; it will tumble from your hand just after you fall asleep, awakening you in a moment when your dreams are still vibrant. In this way, the visions that materialized in sleep remain easily recordable and translatable into authentic, raw, original artwork. “What you prevent yourself from doing and force yourself not to do, the dream will do with all the lucidity of desire and without any of the blindness,” the artist explained.
Other instructions Dalí doles out for vivid dreaming include swathing your pillow with fragrances that “evoke concrete periods of your adolescence”; playing melodies “associated with a memory...quietly while you sleep”; or casting a “very intense light on our pupils” to induce more colorful dreams.
He even recommends a dream-inducing meal of “three dozen sea urchins, gathered on one of the last two days that precede the full moon.”
Of course, the Spanish surrealist hasn’t been the only one to conceive recipes for unlocking the creative power of dreams. More recently, a number of psychologists, psychoanalysts, and dream coaches have also offered suggestions on how to mine the unconscious for artistic inspiration.
Kim Gillingham, a former actor turned dream coach, has spent the better part of her adult life guiding artists through their dreams and developing strategies for shepherding the unconscious into creative work. Inspired by her studies with famed Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman, Gillingham believes that dream analysis can open up new creative channels. “If we’re deriving our work from the ego or the thinking mind, we’re almost destined and doomed to regurgitate and repeat what we’ve already taken in,” she explained. “But by diving down and making contact with the creative source—the unconscious—we have the chance to bring fresh material through.”
When Gillingham works with artists, she doesn’t “analyze or solve” their dreams, as she explained. Instead, she helps them identify the dream’s most vivid symbols—and how to incorporate them into artmaking. To start, all artists are asked to recall a dream, which they talk through with eyes closed, and explore its most potent imagery. Gillingham then guides them through movement and breathing exercises that help to surface “the different energies and symbols from the dream,” she said. Finally, students are encouraged to paint, draw, or sculpt with clay, “working intuitively with however [the dream] wants to come through.”
In this final stage, Gillingham encourages artists to work outside of their chosen medium. “If you’re a painter, then work with clay, or if you’re a dancer, then paint,” she explained. “Choose a medium where the ego is a little bit weaker so that the unconscious can lead the way.”
Many of Gillingham’s students find that these exercises help them tackle creative block or find a new way of working. Gillingham considers the greatest benefit of this type of work to be “the liberation available when you stop trying to be good or right, and instead switch your focus to be a surrendered instrument for the unconscious to come through.”
Generally, psychologists also believe dream analysis can spark creativity. “Dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state,” Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett has said. “In the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.”
Dr. Michelle Carr, whose research focuses on REM sleep and dreams, agrees. In a 2015 article, she dissected Dalí’s suggestions for dream analysis with a scientific eye. In her assessment, Dalí’s theory of “Slumber with a Key” was on point. The artist’s brief nap, it turns out, facilitated a hypnagogic sleep state: a type of sleep, just before awakening, when “the mind is fluid and hyper-associative, allowing creative connections to form, connections between seemingly remote concepts that you may not realize in the structure of waking thought,” she said. “In other words, in this state your mind is able to bring together distant ideas in a new way.” For most artists, that is a dreamy phenomenon indeed.