The Art of Bulletism: Understanding Salvador Dali’s Vision

Black ink lithograph by Salvador Dali representing christ in crown of thorns

Have you ever played that game where you observe the shape of clouds and let your mind imagine an image in their silhouette? Salvador Dali’s “bulletism” closely resembles the concept of this game.

Dali joined the Surrealist movement in the late 1920s. He was also a pioneer of the Abstract expressionist and symbolist movement. Bulletism is a technique that allows an artist to create art that has features of surrealism, symbolism, and abstract expressionism.

What is Bulletism?

Bulletism involves creating ambiguous marks of paint or ink on a blank canvas and creating artwork that incorporates the paint blot and the artist’s imagination. While this technique was around for several years before Dali named it, he greatly popularized it.

In the words of Leonard Da Vinci, bulletism may be described as

“Just as one can hear any desired syllable in the sound of a bell, so one can see any desired figure in the shape formed by throwing a sponge with ink against the wall.”

Leonard Da Vinci

To create ink blots, Dali used an old rifle from the 1800s called the blunderbuss. This rifle features a flared muzzle at its tip. Another rifle that was used for this technique is a 15th-century harquebus. The harquebus is a large rifle that is supported by a tripod.

The artist would shoot ink-filled eggs or printer ink in a container to create a shape. Reportedly he would place the canvas behind the rifle and the blot is created by the splashback.

The psychological significance of Bulletism

Rorschach and Bulletism

The Rorschach inkblot test and Salvador Dali’s Bulletism technique are both related to the concept of the subconscious mind. The Rorschach inkblot test is a psychological test in which clients are shown a series of inkblots and asked to describe what they see. The test is used to gain insight into a person’s thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.

Dali’s Bulletism, on the other hand, is a technique in which the artist uses a gun to shoot ink or paint onto the canvas. The resulting marks are random and unpredictable, much like the shapes of the inkblots in the Rorschach test.

Both the Rorschach inkblot test and Dali’s Bulletism technique are ways of exploring the subconscious mind and the irrational. The inkblots in the Rorschach test are meant to evoke a subconscious response, while Dali’s Bulletism technique is a way of creating random and unpredictable marks that reflect the subconscious mind.

Dali, like many other Surrealists, was interested in exploring the subconscious mind and the irrational. Dali’s surrealist paintings often depict dreamlike, fantastical landscapes and distorted figures, which are thought to be influenced by the subconscious.

Freud and Dali

In addition, Dali was also influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud on the concept of the ‘uncanny’. “Uncanny” is the idea of experiencing something familiar but strange and unsettling at the same time. Dali’s paintings often depict everyday objects in distorted and unexpected ways, creating a sense of the uncanny that adds to the surreal effect of his work.

Freud’s book “The Uncanny” was published in the year 1919 while Dali joined the surrealist movement in the 1920s. The artist’s interest in psychodynamic psychology and the unconscious probed him to art that is more authentic to human experience. Dali’s surrealist paintings, with their dreamlike landscapes, distorted figures, and sense of the uncanny, are considered to be a direct result of his interest in the subconscious mind and his engagement with psychoanalysis.

Salvador Dali’s Bulletism

To create artwork using bulletism, Dali usually used black or blue ink however the process through which he made the ink blots was extremely unique. The artist would use rifles, snail shells and ink-filled containers to make random shapes on paper. Following are some of the most important lithographs created by Salvador Dali using bulletism:

L’aurore (Dawn, 1957)

Abstract painting of dawn in primary colors using bulletism
L’aurore (Dawn, 1957) by Salvador Dali. Fair Use

Dali’s 1957 painting titled “L’aurore” is one of his most colorful lithographs created through bulletism. What sets this work apart is the use of different colored paint instead of black ink to create ambiguous shapes on the canvas.

The blue spiral in the center is clearly an imprint of a snail shell dipped in paint and shot at the canvas. The other blue and red slashes at the bottom have been created with a stone and a sea urchin respectively. Small specks of white on the blue spiral and the yellow-golden scratches in the background give this painting a glimmer that represents the dawn of day.

Dali added an angelic feature leaning on the blue spiral and a set of clouds around the angel’s feet, giving it a surreal tinge. Finally, the red splash at the bottom may be representative of a scarlet sun on the horizon, about to rise. Salvador Dali expressed his surrealist vision of universal poetic and literary themes through his vast repertoire of images, characters, and allegories. In his characters Dalí revealed himself as an indisputable master of graphic arts, always renewing his technique, his drawings, and his colors.

Tolle, Tolle, crucifige eum (1964)

Christ on the cross lithograph made with bulletism
Tolle, Tolle, crucifige eum (1964) by Salvador Dali. Fair Use

In this 1964 painting , Dali used a single blot of black ink in the center of the paper and let his imagination do the rest. The protagonist of this piece is Christ on the cross, his head represented by the large ink blot. Art analysts suggest that the woman on the right represents Dali’s wife.

“Tolle, Tolle, crucifige eum” (Away with him, away with him, crucify him) is an artistic exploration of identity, religion, and mortality. This self-portrait is a representation of the artist’s fascination with the duality of human nature and the tension between our earthly and spiritual selves.

The dreamlike quality of the painting also adds to its emotional impact, making the image of the crucified Christ all the more haunting and memorable. The somber blue-green tones in the background serve to heighten the emotional impact of the image of the crucified Christ. At the same time, the bright yellows used in the foreground add a sense of energy and vitality, suggesting that even in the midst of sacrifice and suffering, there is a glimmer of hope.

Behold The Man (1967)

Black ink lithograph by Salvador Dali representing christ in crown of thorns
Behold The Man (1967) by Salvador Dali. Fair Use

“Behold the man” (Ecce homo! ) by Salvador Dali is one of the finest examples of the bulletism art technique. The painting is almost completely made of spontaneous ink blots with little to no signs of deliberate brush strokes.

This lithograph features the head of a man emerging from a series of elliptical shapes. Since this work is part of the Biblia Sacra Portfolio, it has a clear biblical reference. The man represents Christ, while the elliptical shapes on his head may be his halo or a crown of thorns.

The dual nature of this element is what makes this piece so special. While on the one hand, you may think of the ellipses as a halo and see Christ in divine and holy light, on the other hand, the crown of thorns represents human pain and suffering. 


Dali’s use of bulletism was not limited to a few paintings, it was a recurring element in several later works. The technique was used to create a sense of realism and detail in his surreal imagery. This also helped to create a sense of tension and unease in his work. The technique served to highlight the contrast between the dreamlike nature of his imagery and the precision of the details.

In addition to the visual impact, Dali’s bulletism technique also had a profound impact on the art world. This technique helped establish Dali as one of the most important and influential artists of the 20th century, and it continues to inspire artists today. The technique also established the surrealist movement as one of the most important art movements of the 20th century.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Salvador Dali’s style called?

Salvador Dali’s style is called Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. Surrealism is an art movement that explores the subconscious mind and the irrational world of dreams. It uses unexpected and irrational elements to create a dreamlike, irrational atmosphere. Abstract Expressionism, on the other hand, is a form of abstract art that emphasizes spontaneous and unconscious brushstrokes and marks to express emotions and feelings. It is characterized by gestural brushwork and the use of large canvases.

What is Salvador Dali’s most famous piece?

Salvador Dali’s most famous piece is titled “The Persistence of Memory”. It is a surrealist painting completed in 1931. The painting features drooping pocket watches in a barren, dreamlike landscape and has become a symbol of the surrealist movement and Dali’s artistic style.

What is the term for an artistic process that involves shooting ink at a blank piece of paper?

Bulletism is an artistic technique that involves shooting ink at a blank piece of paper and allowing your imagination to complete the painting while incorporating the ink blots in your work. While this method had been used for a few years before Dali named it, he immensely popularized it.

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