What is Action Painting All About?

Posted by Robert Lange on

Action painting, also known as gestural abstraction, is a style of painting in which the act of painting itself becomes the focus. Not the meaning, not the final effect: the process. It emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and is closely associated with the abstract expressionist movement. Would you like to try action painting yourself? Or maybe you'd rather read about the history of action in art? We've got you covered!

Table of Contents

Action in Art. Core Concepts of Action Painting

Let's start with the basics: what is the core of the action painting movement? We're going to introduce you to the three crucial aspects.

1. Emphasis on the Process

Artists of action painting think that the process of creating art is more important than the final product. This is quite an uncommon approach, as you probably know that for most artists, the process is just a means to achieve the "perfection" that their final piece brings. The movement and energy expended in the act of painting are seen as integral to the work itself. This style values spontaneity and the artist's immediate response to their emotions, often leading to unpredictable and dynamic compositions. It's more expressive than the expressionism itself. 

What do artists love about this part? The unpredictability of the medium and techniques used can lead to surprising and unexpected results, which are embraced as part of the creative process.

2. Physical Engagement

The movement, the improvisation, the physical engagement: it's all here! Artists engage with their materials, often using large gestures and entire body movements to apply paint. This can involve dripping, splattering, and smearing paint onto the canvas. Sometimes, even brush strokes aren't necessary: the direct interaction with the artist's canvas, sometimes using unconventional tools or even their hands, allows them to leave a personal imprint on their work. The physicality of the process often leads to a deeply immersive state, where the artist becomes one with their work, losing themselves in the rhythm and flow of their movements.

3. True Expression Above All

The intensity of the artist's emotions is conveyed through their vigorous application of paint. Each mark, line, and splash represents an emotional gesture. And it's rarely serene or calm: each piece is a unique expression of the artist's inner state, often intense, tempestuous even! Artists describe action painting as an intuitive and almost primal experience. The lack of preconceived plans allows for a more genuine and immediate expression.

We highly recommend this article to you if you want to understand action painting better: How to look at abstract art?

Influential Artists in Action Painting

Now that you know how, it's time to learn who. Many renowned and skilled artists participated in the action painting movement, including Pollock, de Kooning, and Kline.

Jackson Pollock

Do you know the famous drip technique, often associated with the action painting movement? It's all Pollock's contribution to the art world! He would lay his canvas on the ground and pour or drip paint onto it from above, allowing him to engage with the work from all angles. The messy-looking canvas mirrored his state of mind and tore the art world apart, dividing the art critics into his lovers and haters.

  • Number 1, 1950 (Lavender Mist)
  • Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Willem de Kooning

His energetic and bold brushstrokes blurred the line between figuration and abstraction, capturing a sense of movement and raw emotion. Kooning's paintings were more colorful than Pollock's, sometimes even resembling Kandinsky's abstractions.

Notable Works:

  • Woman I
  • Excavation

Franz Kline

Kline is famous for his stark, black-and-white compositions. His work emphasizes bold, sweeping gestures that convey a sense of urgency and power. Some would call his art powerful, others: aggressive. If you're looking for black-and-white monochromatic art full of emotions, it's Kline's painting you're after.

Notable Works:

  • Chief
  • Painting Number 2

Other artists worth mentioning are Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell or Helen Frankenthaler.

The artists of action painting have left an indelible legacy, reshaping the landscape of modern art and underscoring its enduring power with its groundbreaking work.


action painting


Want To Try Action Painting? Here's How!

To start with action painting, you'll need a few materials. Get a large canvas or heavy-duty paper. If you're looking for a more affordable option, old bedsheets or drop cloths work well, too! Choose paints such as acrylics or latex paints, which are easy to use and dry quickly. Gather a variety of tools, including brushes of different sizes, sticks, palette knives, and sponges. You can also use your hands. 

Tip: For dripping and splattering techniques, squeeze bottles or syringes are useful.

Lay down drop cloths or plastic sheets to protect the floor and surroundings, and arrange your paints, tools, and canvas so they are easy to access and move around. Now, explore different techniques. For dripping and pouring, load your brush or stick with paint and let it drip onto the canvas from various heights. Pour paint directly from containers to let it flow and mix naturally. Swirling and smearing can be done with your hands, brushes, or other tools to create various textures by experimenting with different pressures and movements

As you paint, focus on movement. Use large, sweeping gestures, move around the canvas, and work from different angles. Embrace spontaneity by allowing mistakes and taking risks. Respond to the painting as it evolves, making intuitive decisions without sticking to a preplanned design. Experiment with different tools, techniques, and colors to discover new possibilities. Enjoy the process! Let it be fun! Just like that.

Action in Art: Artistic Freedom and Innovation

Action painting represents a radical departure from traditional painting techniques and aesthetics. It's a movement looking for artistic freedom, encouraging artists to break away from conventional forms and explore new ways of expressing their inner worlds. The movement has significantly influenced contemporary art, inspiring artists to prioritize authenticity, emotion, and the creative journey over the finished artwork.

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