The method of free association has no linear or preplanned agenda, but works by intuitive leaps and linkages which may lead to new personal insights and meanings: 'the logic of association is a form of unconscious thinking' (Christopher Bollas, The Evocative Object World (2008) p. 21).
When used in this spirit, free association is a technique in which neither therapist nor patient knows in advance exactly where the conversation (or artistic creative process) will lead, but it tends to lead to material that matters very much to the patient. 'In spite of the seeming confusion and lack of connection...meanings and connections begin to appear out of the disordered skein of thoughts...some central themes' (Eric Berne, A Layman's Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis (1976) p. 269).
The goal of free association is not to unearth specific answers or memories, but to instigate a journey of co-discovery which can enhance the artist's integration of thought, feeling, agency, and selfhood.
How to utilize Free Association in art
When creating an art piece, the goal isn't perfection, rather, a method of conflict-resolution by which the artist begins in a particular mental or emotional state and ends in another, more positive one. The key is to create without a specific plan, but to "go with the flow", so as to speak, thereby creating something that brings resolution to the inner conflict which resided within prior to the piece's completion. Any medium can work with this method and I encourage the artist to utilize a variety of tools, objects and materials in order to free oneself from restrictions.
“Imagination is tapping into the subconscious in a form of open play. That is why art or music therapy, which encourages a person to take up brushes and paint or an instrument, and just express themselves, is so powerful.” ― Phil 'Philosofree' Cheney
Free Association in Action
As an artist who has battled a great deal of inner turmoil and anxiety, this method has brought some of the largest breakthroughs in my life. Often, I begin a painting feeling tense, distracted and frustrated, but when I allow myself to just create and see where the process takes me, I end up with an art piece which gives me satisfaction, resolution, and even turns out better than other paintings which were more meticulously planned. Additionally, those feelings or the confusion I felt melts away and I am left with greater clarity and peace.