Unexpected Relationships

The thought-provoking mechanics of semi-surrealism.

Woman by red sun.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Pierre Appell.

by Jonathan Feinstein

posted on 07-21-2020

This year’s strongest creative trends reflect a new and uncertain world. Global political instability, climate change and, most urgently, both the COVID-19 pandemic and a worldwide reckoning with systemic racism, move us to reexamine everything we know.

As the world shifts, we respond and adapt, and, at times, look for forms of escape. It’s only fitting to see reflections of this in the work of artists, designers, and content creators in a time of both stress and hope. The idea of the semi-surreal, both as a visual trend for Adobe Stock and in a general sense, is now very different than it was three months ago. Still, its inventive nature provides a bright antidote of unexpected and otherworldly creativity.

The concept of the semi-surreal pushes directly at the limits of reality, yet it does not go too far out of bounds. Artists bring color to new dimensions, combine photos and illustrations, and use new effects to make dreamy, realistically unrealistic compositions. The trend has deep roots in 20th-century surrealism, but with a contemporary future-forward twist, characterized by the unexpected meeting of fantasy and real-world pragmatism. Often, semi-surreal works are illustrated with neon, pastel, or smoky hues. Over the past few years, set designers have taken note. For example, the design team for Hulu’s newly popular show “The Bold Type” has used surreal images to add a strange, inviting beauty in backgrounds across the set.

But the semi-surreal trend earned its spot on Adobe’s 2020 creative trends radar after Adobe Stock and Behance curators around the world noticed its prominence in work uploaded to their platforms, along with significant spikes in keyword searches in late 2019. Now, in 2020, as we move through a quickly shifting world, semi-surrealism has even more significance.

Semi-surreal then and now

Despite its modern leanings, semi-surreal art emerged in 1917 (though officially founded as a “movement” by Andre Breton in 1920), and extended through the 1950s, turning the art world on its head. The dreamlike painting, writing, and experimental films of the movement channeled the collective unconscious, and pushed against the establishment’s traditions and obsessions with realism. It was political and escapist, often responding — as many art movements have throughout history — to world wars. It was about chance, unexpected relationships, and using metaphor to distill the chaos of the world into art. As the French poet Comte de Lautréamont said, it was “the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” The work of Salvador Dali, in particular his “Lobster Phone” sculpture and hallucinatory paintings of melting clocks, is a prime example.

Brenda Mills, Adobe Stock’s principal of creative services, notes the stylistic similarities the trend shares with surrealism, but that the introduction of new and increasingly accessible technology has sparked creative deviations. “Thanks to developments in software tools and creative apps,” Brenda says, “a lot of the techniques required to create the effects that make visuals look hyper-realistic and fantastical are easier to create than ever before, so more creatives are able and excited to render projects in this style.”

You can spot the semi-surreal trend in Gucci’s Spring/Summer 2020 campaign, which resonated heavily with Brenda. In the strange yet whimsical photos, a horse wanders about in the midst of posed portraits of models displaying Gucci garb. “Gucci is consistently on-target with working creative trends into their work,” Brenda says. “The whimsy, imagination, freedom, and all-around bizarre nature of the images and videos in this campaign are so great.”

Modern takes

Image: Adobe Stock / Sandy Christ.

It’s not hard to find the influence of early surrealists in the work of Adobe Stock’s semi-surreal artists. In some cases, like the work of Germany-based illustrator Sandy Christ, the reference is direct, yet updated to reflect today’s world. “Smartphone Popsicle,” for example, could be today’s illustrated version of the aforementioned “Lobster Phone” sculpture. Like Salvador’s work, Sandy’s presents a strange and unexpected combination, making us think about the syrupy addictiveness in unrelated objects.

Image: Adobe Stock / Sandy Christ.

Another illustration, “Image of a Woman Shaving,” depicts a hand shaving a forest from a pastel pink leg. While that might initially read as creepy, the image playfully updates the classic combination of incongruous elements with a contemporary — and very familiar scene.

For Temi Coker, Adobe’s 2018-2019 creative resident, the trend plays out in the combination of photography and illustration, which is a constant in his work. The Nigeria-born, Texas-based photographer and digital artist fuses photos, patterns, and bold colors to create new forms of expression. Flowers blossom from photographic portraits; groups of people pose in front of hot pink clouds. Temi’s ethereal style comes through in personal projects like “20 Days of Posters” and “The Mother’s Day Project,” as well as in his work for top brands like Estee Lauder.

Image source: Adobe Stock / Zamurovic.

Ivan Zamurovic finds semi-surreal, dreamlike elements in the everyday, and turns them into new, even wilder objects and visuals. Tropical leaves drip with splatters of blue paint on pink backgrounds. Tulips emerge from a clean paintbrush. Psychedelic lighting turns foliage into something uncanny,.

Ivan’s work is all about looking at the familiar with a new set of eyes. He describes looking at alternate realities as a form of relief to scenarios like the COVID-19 crisis. “Every time we think about something, new ideas emerge,” Ivan says. “In these troubling times, as many things are on our minds, thinking about new ideas and creating something out of it could be a great escape.”

While many of Ivan’s pieces play on minimalist trends, they involve many production steps to get to their final form. After brainstorming an idea, Ivan and his team “go shopping” in the real world. This can mean picking leaves, flowers, or branches from a neighbors’ garden, or actually purchasing props related to the shoot’s theme. Lighting plays a significant role, too — Ivan uses gels and foils for trippy, unreal effects, or creates soft shadows by bouncing a light off of an adjacent wall. Next, he imports the images into Adobe Lightroom, applies custom-made presets, makes some minor adjustments, and sometimes manipulates elements with the “liquify” tool to give his images an extra sense of the surreal.

Semi-surrealism isn’t present only in photos and illustrations. The trend also makes its way into the work of artists like Diana Hlevnjak (aka Polar Vectors), who creates prefabricated design templates for small businesses that want to stay ahead of design trends, but may not have the means to start from scratch. Her ready-made templates make subtle references to space and futurism, combining patterns, textures, and shapes for clients to use in their branding, packaging, and merchandise.

Some of Diana’s designs, like her “Mid Century Retro Party Flyer,” are more obvious, full of stylishly retro illustrations of planets and spaceships. Others are a subtler, futuristic mix of sacred geometry and calming pastels. “It comes naturally to me to experiment with dreamy visuals, geometric shapes, and unexpected effects,” Diana says, “so I am thrilled that semi-surreal is getting so popular in the design world.” The artist recently created a set of free templates for Adobe Stock, one with dynamic, liquid abstractions in vivid gradients, and another of cosmic Zodiac sign logos with circular backgrounds. Both works engage a wide color spectrum, enhanced by 3D effects that create an illusion of movement.

Visual connection

Now marks a time when many of us are looking for new ways to connect with each other, and to share our stories, perspectives, and calls to action. Semi-surrealism is an enticing ingredient. It’s in the dark worlds of dystopian, often allegorical, works; it contrasts stark imagery with pops of bright, dripping, and unreal color, urging viewers to take a closer look. Most of all, it invites conversation and connection — vital to us now, and always.

_Browse our collection for more semi-surreal inspiration.
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At Adobe, we believe that everyone deserves respect and equal treatment, and we also stand with the Black community against hate, intolerance and racism. We will continue to support, elevate, and amplify diverse voices through our community of employees, creatives, customers and partners. We believe Adobe has a responsibility to drive change and ensure that every individual feels a sense of belonging and inclusion. We must stand up and speak out against racial inequality and injustice. Read more about the actions we’re taking to make lasting change inside and outside of our company.

We also know many people are still impacted by the current COVID-19 crisis and our thoughts are with you. The entire Adobe team wants to thank you, our customers, and all creators around the world for the work you do to keep us inspired during this difficult time.

Topics: Creative Inspiration & Trends, COVID-19

Products: Stock, Creative Cloud