What is Psychedelic Art?

There are many earlier examples of artists taking drugs in order to heighten their awareness and enlarge their mental vision, but it was the hallucinatory effects of LSD that had such a powerful effect on artists in the 1960s.

Day-glo and anti-naturalistic in color, psychedelic art often contained swirling patterns, erotic imagery and hidden messages. The works referenced the changing states of consciousness while under the influence of the drug. Much of the art grew out of the hippy community in San Francisco. Artists Stanley Mouse, Rick Griffin and Alton Kelley were commissioned by the rock promoter Bill Graham to produce posters for the bands The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and The Big Brother Holding Company.

Originating in the mid-1960s, Psychedelic Art was a graphic art form that created visual displays inspired by the experience of psychedelic drugs and hallucinations. Also known as psychedelia, artworks created typically featured a full spectrum of vivid colors along with cartoons and animation in order to provoke a type of psychedelic experience when looking at the work. The evolution of Psychedelic Art is considered to be a direct predecessor to the development and subsequent popularity of all imaginative art that is in existence today.

Psychedelic Art refers to all artistic creations emerging from the late 1960s that attempted to portray the inner world of the psyche through incredibly graphic and visual depictions. In doing so, art that appeared to be recreating experiences and hallucinations that were common after ingesting psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin were known to be “psychedelic”.

The term “psychedelic” was conceived by British psychologist Humphry Osmond after his extensive work with psychedelic drugs. Osmond stated that the word was used to imply a type of “mind manifesting” that occurred after the consumption of drugs, with his term going on to represent the emotions felt after viewing psychedelic artworks. Psychedelic is also a concept derived from the Ancient Greek words “psychē”, meaning “soul” and “dēloun” which means “to reveal.”

In addition to the experience of viewing Psychedelic Art, the name of the genre made reference to the drugs that were popular within the youth culture at the time of the movement’s peak. Artworks that emphasized incredibly distorted and almost surreal qualities through the use of excessive color were considered to be psychedelic, as they were thought to depict the inner workings of the mind.

Within the Psychedelic Art period, a variety of different creative mediums were taken into account along with artworks. This included rock music, album covers, concert posters, murals, comic books, and liquid light shows to name a few. Despite all belonging to the creative world, these art pieces were connected by their common attempt to create kaleidoscopically swirling patterns of color that evoked LSD-type illusions.

Psychedelic Art History

The origins of Psychedelic Art are said to relate back to the discovery of LSD by Albert Hofmann in 1943. Hofmann was researching potential derivatives from lysergic acid and began synthesizing LSD, in an attempt to obtain a respiratory and circulatory stimulant that had no repercussions whatsoever on the uterus. After setting the drug aside for a period of time, Hofmann began re-experimenting with the drug and accidentally absorbed a small amount of it, which led to him discovering the potent effects it had.

The development of psychedelics allowed artists and poets to explore, with this new form of trippy art being quickly and fully accepted into art communities. This was because artworks stood for more than just mere visual representations of artists’ hallucinatory experiences, as the artworks experimented with numerous visual styles and corporate advertising techniques synonymous with the 1960s. While many associate Psychedelic Art with drugs and rock music, this art form was present before psychedelic rock even appeared on the music scene.

Psychedelic Art thus supported the notion of creating works that defied traditional limitations associated with formal art, which was something that many artists in previous movements had tried out. Heavily inspired by the previous movement of Art Nouveau, which protested the revolutionary changes associated with the Industrial Revolution, the Psychedelic aesthetic adopted the concept of rebellion within artworks created and disputed the military-industrial complex of the 1960s.

Viewed as an alternative to mainstream design, artists borrowed elements from other styles and included psychedelic patterns and drawings so that it emerged as a completely new form of art. Artworks made using this Psychedelic aesthetic favored intensely contrasting colors that had the ability to make viewers’ eyes vibrate after looking at the work, which was a clear reference to an LSD trip. The frameless technique of psychedelic drawings also imitated the experience and mind-altering state associated with a high.

Artists embraced the emergence of Psychedelic Art, as it existed as one of the first truly liberating movements that gave artists the liberation they craved from traditional art society. Artworks created during this time mirrored the type of freedom that only drugs could provide, which allowed artists the opportunity to openly explore different avenues in order to find their inspiration.

However, this connection between trippy art and hallucinogenic drugs was not always well received, which led to strong criticisms of the art style itself. Some critics thought that artists were simply recreating their own visual experiences of taking drugs, which gave their art very little aesthetic value.

Op-Art proved to be a big influence on the development of Psychedelic Art, as the style achieved significant success through exploiting the principles of optics and illusions, which made artworks appear to be vibrating and moving. Another great influence was the Pop Art movement, which promoted the expanding culture of commodity and created mass reproductions of identical and well-known images. Both of these artistic genres were crucial predecessors to the budding Psychedelic Art scene, as they had a major impact on its style.

The 1960s Psychedelic Art movement made a strong impact on comic book artists at the time, who went on to create an alternative and revolutionary type of comic book art that became known as “Underground Comix.” The creation of comic art also led to the emergence of concert posters and record album covers for bands and artists such as The Who and Jimi Hendrix, with Psychedelic Art being seen as a major influence in the development of these artistic expressions

Both comic book art and music-related art made use of the iconic traits typically associated with famous Psychedelic works, which were very satirical in nature. Psychedelic Art was described to have a visually captivating quality despite some individuals believing the art to seemingly promote the use of illicit substances. As Psychedelic Art was associated with drug culture, music festivals such as Woodstock became a typical example of the type of psychedelic drawings and posters that were created using this trippy art style.

The early examples of Psychedelic Art were more literary than visual but after movements such as Surrealism, the genre slowly morphed into a more visual medium. With the development of Psychedelic Art picking up as the digital age was further explored, this 1960s aesthetic has gone on to make its mark within popular culture, design, and corporate advertising.

Psychedelic Art went on to influence numerous aspects of popular culture, such as lifestyle, language, literature, philosophy, art, music, and clothing throughout its dominance and is considered to be one of the most visually exploited styles in design.

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