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Action Painting, or gestural painting, is all about having fun with movement and creativity. We will take a look into exactly what action painting is all about, what materials you need for it, and how the painting technique is carried out.
Table of Contents
What is Action Painting?
Action Painting, also called gestural painting, is a style of modern painting that has its origin in America. In the 1950s and 1960s, this fluid painting technique was developed and influenced by Jackson Pollock.
Action Painting is a lot of fun, but also quite a mess. Basically, an action painting definition is that it’s all about getting liquid paint onto the painting surface by any possible means. You can let the paint run down for this, dribble it onto the canvas, spin it, spray it, or apply it in patterns with a paint container hanging on a thread.
The painting technique does not involve careful planning and design of the subject and does not include a figurative representation. The painting process itself is in the foreground – letting off steam with different paint media, letting the energies simply flow, and entering into a symbiosis with the picture. This is achieved without constraints and without a conscious goal.
The results are paintings that testify to great spontaneity, emotion, and stand confidently in the room. The application of the paints is about the involvement of the whole body, emotions, and achieving the relatively random result.
Origins of the Action Painting Style
Action Painting has its origins in the early 1900s when artists increasingly moved away from painting nature and figurative themes. The reason for this was rapidly advancing photography and film technology. What was the point of using paint to depict something that could be photographed in much more detail and with greater ease using a camera?
This encouraged some artists to move away from the outer appearance and to deal with the inner structures. They, therefore, advanced into abstract painting and created an action painting definition. Besides action painting, other art forms such as surrealism and dadaism developed. Action painting was also about giving artistic expression to sensations and feelings. Action painting is still used today for therapeutic purposes.
Jackson Pollock Action Painting
This method of painting is often associated with the artist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956). The American artist began by laying his canvases on the floor and experimenting with various forms of paint application. To do this, he dribbled the paint onto the canvas using a brush or wooden stick. This gradually developed into the dripping technique – something famously associated with Jackson Pollock action painting.
In order for the paint to run sufficiently, he used synthetic resin paints, which were essentially acrylic paint with solvents. He also used oil paints to some extent. Over time, Jackson Pollock refined his own style more and more, using only sticks to spray or drip paint without touching the canvas. He relied on large formats, which he did not prime, but directly painted untreated.
Not comprehensible to the viewer at first glance, Pollock pursued a concrete vision when painting his artworks. He had a very clear vision of the end result for his artwork. Well-known works by Jackson Pollock are “No. 5” and “The Deep”
“The Deep” from Jackson Pollock: (C) ADAGP, Paris [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
More Action Artists
The following action artists have influenced the style of action painting. The works of these action painters can therefore provide you with valuable inspiration and insights.
- Jackson Pollock
- Georges Mathieu
- Emilio Vedova
- Pierre Soulages
- Jean Degottex
- Franz Kline
- Bradley Walker
- Antonio Saura
- Gerard Schneider
- Robert Motherwell
- Henri Michaux
- Cy Twombly
Action Painting Materials
The most important thing in action painting is preparation. You need some materials which you should have ready before the actual painting process. These include:
- A large screen, which should be over 1 meter long and wide
- Plastic foil or newspaper, with which you can protect the floor from paint
- Painting clothes to protect your clothes
- Paint: This should be water-dilutable. For example, acrylic paint or gouache paint.
- Various brushes and wooden sticks, spatula, and possibly also sponges
- Container for mixing the paint with water
- Aluminum cans or other paint containers, which you can drill holes in and hang on a string
- A drinking straw or an air blower to further process the paint after application
Floor from the house of Jackson Pollock: Rhododendrites [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Action Painting Guide
Action painting draws its fascination from the joy of experimentation and spontaneity. The focus is on the fun of creativity and movement. Artistic freedom is above all. In the following action painting instructions, we will show you exactly how this approach works.
Various Action Painting techniques: Gmhofmann [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
- Action painters need space. A large floor with as much space as possible is ideal. This could be a cellar room or, in summer, the garden. If you want to use the dripping technique, you can also do this on a well-covered table.
- After the floor around the canvas is carefully covered, you can start
- Select the desired paints and dilute them with water until they have a good pourable consistency. When doing so, make sure not to add more than 50% water, so that cracks do not appear when the paint dries
- Now dip a brush or a wooden stick into the diluted paint and guide it with sweeping movements over the painting surface. Depending on the size of the brush or stick, you will get lines of varying thickness on the canvas. In addition, you also influence the thickness of the lines with the distance to the surface: The further away from the surface, the finer the lines become and vice versa.
- You can also pour the paint directly from the paint container in larger quantities onto the canvas. You can further influence the layer of paint applied in this way with a straw or an air blower. Alternatively, you can tilt the canvas and let the paints run into each other.
- Action painters are also welcome to experiment with other utensils. For example, painting spatulas or containers filled with paint, which you can cover with holes.
- The action is central to the whole creative process. So don’t think too much about technique, but rather focus on the action and follow your instincts.
Instructions For Dripping (Drip Painting)
Drip Painting is a technique of action painting. It was invented by Max Ernst, who recommended Jackson Pollock to try it out.
You place the painting surface on the floor or a table. The paint is not applied by hand but filled into a container, e.g. a tin, which is hung on a string above the canvas. You then drill one or more holes in this paint container and let it swing on the string. This can be either back and forth or in circular movements. When dripping, interesting, often geometrical shapes are created.
The appearance can be influenced as follows:
- The diameter of the holes determines among other things how thick the lines are
- You can also work with the consistency of the paint – the thicker it is, the sharper the lines are
- The distance between the paint container and the canvas also influences the line thickness – the further away, the finer the lines
Action Painting Ideas
There are countless possibilities to apply the paint on the canvas when creating action paintings. We have collected and summarized some of the best and most original action painting ideas for you.
Action painting with wine: Loimo [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
- Bubble wrap: Apply some paint to bubble wrap and dab it onto the canvas. You will get very interesting patterns in your action paintings. You can make this even better by sticking bubble wrap to your feet and running over the painting.
- Water syringe: If you have a water syringe, you can fill in relatively liquid paint and spray the paint on.
- Sieve and toothbrush: Pick up some paint with a toothbrush and then rub it over a sieve. This produces fine droplets on the canvas and is especially interesting for final details in action paintings.
- Water balloons: If you want to make a real mess, fill paint in water balloons and throw them on the canvas. You can also make a game out of it and make the balloons burst with a dart.
- Squeeze bottle: Fill squeeze bottles with paint, so you can spray the paint with relatively more control
- Furball: Dunk a furball in paint and throw or roll it over the canvas
- Wine: Some artists use wine for their action paintings
Action art is a great way for satisfying your creative ideas. This is a style of painting that is all about the process and feeling, and doesn’t focus technical skill. Action painting is fun to do and it produces some amazing results. This is an ideal style of painting for beginner artists to get into.