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What is Decalcomania?

Kevin Mathews
Kevin Mathews

Spanish surrealist painter Oscar Dominguez was experimenting with a new technique in Paris in the mid-1930s. He painted broad strokes of color on one sheet of paper and then covered it with a second sheet of paper. Gently pressing and rubbing the two pieces together produced stunning images. He named this surrealist technique decalcomania.

Decalcomania is the general term for the decorative technique of transferring a picture from paper to another material. This process existed before Dominguez used it for art, although it was primarily a method of engraving images on pottery and glass. In the mid-18th century, the Frenchman Simon Francois Ravenet invented a method of transferring images engraved on copper plates to ceramics. The image to be transferred became known as a decal, named for the French word décalquer, which means to trace.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

While Ravenet’s method was difficult and required a significant skill level to use, advances in papermaking and lithography had reduced the complexity by the latter half of the 19th century so the average person could use decals. This created a high demand for them, and a decal fad swept the public. In France, a new word — decalcomanie — was created from the words decalquer and manie, literally meaning "a tracing craze." Decalcomania is the English translation of that word.

Decalcomania is used in many contemporary art forms. In surrealism, it is used to produce images with no predetermined shapes or objects in mind. The process is often done quickly and repeatedly with the results left for the viewer to interpret. In addition to Dominguez, surrealist pioneer Max Ernst and surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer also used the process.

Georges Sand used it to produce pictures of landscapes and trees. Her work later led to the technique being associated with fractals. Yale University teaches a fractal class in which decalcomania images of finger-painting are shown to have fractal properties.

Richard Genovese invented the technique of overlaying photographs onto decalcomania images. SooYoun Seo applied the concepts to fashion. In a collection she called “absence of order”, monochromatic prints were made with a mostly, but not completely, axial symmetry.

Decalcomania has an unusual relationship to another English word: cockamamie. Evidence suggests that children created the word cockamamie from a corruption, or inability to correctly pronounce, decalcomania. Shelly Winters wrote in 1956 that the word "cockamamie," translated from Brooklynese in New York City, was the correct pronunciation of decalcomania.

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Discussion Comments


Decalcomania is one of the only artistic styles I retained from my many years in school. I especially remember doing decalcomania a lot in elementary school.

My favorite way to do decalcomania was to put paint in the center of paper, in different designs, and fold the paper in half.

It always seemed so exciting to see how the painting would look once I folded the paper in half and then opened the paper back up. It was like opening a present on Christmas morning, so exciting and neat to see the end result!

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