Research – Frottage – Max Ernst

Max Ernst Marine 1926 (oil on canvas)

Frottage was invented by Max Ernst in 1925. Find out more about how Ernst and others used this technique.

Born in Brühl in Germany in 1891 to a middle-class family Max Ernst was a German painter sculptor and graphic artist as well as a poet. Max’was inspired to take up painting by his father who was an amateur painter and had an interest in painting and sketching and nature.

Max enrolled at the University of Bonn in 1909 where he studied Philosophy, art history and literature as well as psychology and psychiatry during this time he visited asylums and developed a fascination for the art of mentally ill patients. He became an artist in 1911 and was influenced by the works of Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin.

Max Ernst’s early life was interrupted in 1914 by World War I when he was drafted and served on the Western and Eastern Front. Max was devastated by the effects of war and in his biography he wrote: “On the first of August 1914 M[ax].E[rnst]. died. He was resurrected on the eleventh of November 1918.” – Wikipedia. While on the Western front he was assigned to chart maps for a short time which allowed him to continue painting. World War I was a sad time for the expressionist movement with many of the expressionist artists dying in the trenches.

I recently watched two documentaries about the German Expressionist Movement, BBC’s ‘Art of Germany – In the Shadow of Adolph Hitler’ and ‘Degenerate Art, The Nazis vs. Expressionism’ a 1993 documentary which were both very interesting.

At the end of the war in 1918 Max returned to cologne and started the Dada movement in 1921, he is known as the pioneer of the Dada movement and surrealism.

In 1925 he invented frottage and developed it as a graphic art technique. Ernst got the idea after observing a washed-out wooden floor in his hotel in France on one rainy afternoon, which inspired him to transfer the texture of the floor to a sheet of paper using graphite. He also created textures from rubbing over objects such as textiles, bark and leaves and ‘Through precise selection, combination, control of texture and some discreet additions, he was able to build up delicate, surprising images of fantasy landscapes, plants and creatures.’ – Oxford Art Online.

Max Ernst Marine 1926 (oil on canvas)
Max Ernst Marine 1926 (oil on canvas)

The English Surrealist Maddox Conroy, (27 December 1912 – 14 January 2005) who discovered surrealism in 1935 and spent the rest of his life exploring its potential through his paintings, collages and photographs was also inspired by Max Ernst and also experimented with frottage as seen here in his Bird in the Hand (Watercolour on Paper).

Bird in the Hand (Watercolour on Paper)
Bird in the Hand (Watercolour on Paper)



Modern Museet

Bridgeman Education

Oxford Art Online

Experimenting with Texture part B – Frottage

Experimenting with Frottage - Crayon

The technique of Frottage was invented by Max Ernst in 1925 and involves placing paper over a rough surface such as grained wood and rubbing with a crayon or pencil. In this exercise I experimented with the technique of Frottage (which I always thought was just called rubbing) to see what kind of patterns and textures rubbing over certain surfaces gave me.

Up until this exercise I had done all of the coursework in my apartment and most of it at night, due to early evenings and work finishing times, this was a great opportunity to get outside and do something in the daylight.

Armed with charcoal and pencils I headed out to the swimming pool to experiment on tree bark, stone-chip floors and wooden sun chairs only to find that the paper in my new sketchbook was too thick or too rough and it wasn’t giving me any patterns/texture whatsoever.

It was another day before I finally got going on this exercise or should I say the next evening (fated to working at night) I took some pages out of my small sketch book, a white paper with less tooth and started with charcoal.

Experimenting with Frottage - Charcoal
Experimenting with Frottage – Charcoal

I tried the technique on stone chip floor, my apartment door, floor and even the draining board and then again with different colour crayons before heading downstairs to the lobby,

Experimenting with Frottage - Crayon
Experimenting with Frottage – Crayon

Unfortunately the bark of the trees outside did not give me good results which was both surprising and disappointing and down to the bark being very smooth (difficult to find great trees in Thailand). I did get some nice rubbings off other surfaces though including the joint of a breeze block wall, which looking at it now resembles a crucifix in the sunshine but the best results using both charcoal and coloured crayon were got from the grain of the wooden door of my apartment with different panels giving me different patterns.