The History of Psychedelic Visual Arts

illustration of a shaman

Art inspired by psychedelic experiences rose to prominence in the late 1960s counterculture. It impacted the design of concert posters and album covers, influenced the world of advertising, and has affected our memories of the era today. Many assume that psychedelic art is a recent phenomenon, but it’s actually been around for a very long time.

The Stone Ages

Prehistoric cave paintings, from all over the world have frequently been found to contain geometric patterns such dots, circles, spirals and wavy lines. Archaeologist David Lewis-Williams first proposed that these paintings depict the visual hallucinations cavemen experienced under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

A 2013 paper by cognitive scientists at the University of Tokyo endorses this hypothesis. The idea of cavemen using psychedelics is supported by other cave paintings depicting prehistoric humans with mushrooms.

The Sixties

In the 1950s, French poet and artist Henri Michaux made a series of sketches inspired by his experiences with mescaline. But it was in the following decade that psychedelic art achieved its iconic form.

Experimentation with LSD was widespread in the 1960s counterculture. The altered states of consciousness experienced when using LSD became a huge influence on the work of San Francisco-based artists.

Their art used bright “dayglo colors” and winding lines which eventually defined the hippie movement. Wes Wilson used letter forms that appeared to be moving or melting. Victor Moscoco used contrasting colors, of equal intensity. His designs appeared to vibrate—a common visual hallucination during LSD trips.


Psychedelic art experienced a revival during 1990s rave culture. Psychedelic experiences continue to influence artists today.

Digital artist Tofer Chin has made work inspired by mescaline. The use of ayahuasca by the Shipibo people was the basis for a mixed media piece by artist Tanya Harris. Painter Alex Grey’s “psychedelic realism” was the basis for a four-year-long exhibition. Psychedelic art continues to be created to this day.


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