What is Action Painting? | Definition, History, and Examples

This is a guide covering the action painting.

In this article, we will explore the action painting genre of the abstract expressionism movement, its definition, the signature style of action paintings, and what was the purpose of action paintings.

So let’s dive right in.

action painting

What is Action Painting (Definition)?

Action painting is a non-representational and abstract form of a painting style that uses aggressive brushstrokes and unconventional methods of applying paint to the canvas.

Ostensibly, the paintings are supposed to be a representation of the inner turmoil, feelings, passions, thoughts, and beliefs of the artist.

The action painters belonged to the New York School abstract expressionism artists in the 1950s and 60s.

“The gesture on the canvas was a gesture of liberation, from Value — political, aesthetic, moral.” — Harold Rosenberg (Art critic).

It is hard to give a definition of action painting that can comprehensively describe all of the styles and paintings of the artists that belong to this unique clique.

According to the great art critic Harold Rosenberg, action painting is not about the painting or art itself; it is an act of living; it is an event; a moment.

Without being too much philosophical here, the action painters were drawn to paint not to display their art in galleries, but to reveal something about themselves through the act of painting.

It was a journey for them into the inner recesses of their consciousness.

Jackson Pollock – Number 8, 1949, 1949. Oil, enamel, and aluminum paint on canvas. 34 × 71 1/2 in; 86.4 × 181.6 cm. American Federation of Arts. © 2020 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Why is it Called Action Painting?

The term action painting was popularized by Harold Rosenberg in an article in 1952.

Hearing the term for the first time, you might think to yourself, why would they call it that?

Action painters were famous for breaking the traditional rules of painting, i.e. painting in non-representational style, painting only with lines and colors, and painting with the canvas lying flat on the floor.

As we have mentioned earlier, painting for the action painters was not about the art or the finished product, it was about the act, the event, and the moment. It was a journey of self-discovery and revelation.

While painting the action painters moved around their work, instead of using carefully placed brushstrokes, they employed viscerally aggressive brushstrokes, often called “gestural brushstrokes” onto the canvas.

That’s why action painting is also sometimes known as “gestural painting.”

Along with the seemingly free brushstrokes, the action painters — the eccentrics of the art world that they were — also dripped, splashed, and scattered their paint onto the canvas.

All this unconventionality of style, the moving about, the application of paint in new innovative ways, and the highly tumultuous feel to their paintings led Harold Rosenberg to dub them as action painters.

Painting by Jackson Pollock

Who Invented Action Painting and When?

Jackson Pollock — the most acclaimed action painter — is said to be the founder of this extremely rebellious painting style.

He is also known to have invented the famous ‘drip technique’ of his of applying paint to the canvas.

At the time when the New York School — as the abstract expressionist used to call themselves — came onto the scene, the Cold War was in full swing between the US and USSR.

Communism was the enemy, conservatism was at its peak, and rebels were scorned.

It was at such a time that the action painters made their entry onto the scene to the utter dismay of the traditionalists.

The action painters broke all the roles of art, form, composition, et cetera, and made art into an avenue of expression.

It was the expression of thought, feelings, passions, inner consciousness, that made the action painters distinct from the European artists, and it also helped overthrow the monopoly of traditions in art.

Jackson Pollock
Jackson Pollock

Features/Characteristics of Action Painting?

One of the most famous Jackson Pollock out there is the Lavender Mist.

If you look at the painting, you will realize that there is no theme, no central idea, no subject; it is all a chaotic mishmash of colors and lines going in all directions.

For Pollock — and other action painters — art or painting was not about the end product, it was about how you got there. It was all about the action.

Jackson Pollock used to put the canvas flat on the floor, throw paint at it with the help of a brush, stick, or any other unconventional object for the purpose of smearing the white canvas with multiple paint colors and from each and every angle.

Action paintings can be identified by the use of these unconventional methods.

The squiggly lines in action painting, the drips, the splashes, and the handprints, all tell the story of the creation of art.

jackson pollock lavender mist
Jackson Pollock – “Lavender Mist”

What is the Purpose of Action Painting?

Most of the other action painters worked without any central theme to their paintings. The canvas was the recorder for whatever the painter was going through.

Harold Rosenberg pointed out that the life of the artist cannot be separated from his work because his life is always reflected in his art.

Similarly, the action painters sought to create art to express something about their lives, and art and life were not separate; the boundaries between the two disappeared when the artist was at work.

The art reflected the artist’s life.

Famous Action Painting Artists?

Action painting was at its peak in the 1940s and that popularity continued on till the 1960s. In that time frame, many great action painters made their mark in the abstract expressionism movement.

Following are the three of the greatest action painters.

1. Franz Kline

Franz Kline was known for his monochromatic painting style with black paint on a white canvas. He was part of the abstract expressionism movement or the New York School.

He was deeply influenced by Japanese calligraphy and emulated the same in his paintings.

2. William de Kooning

This Dutch-American abstract expressionist turned to abstractions in the 1940s when, unable to afford oil paints and painting tools, he turned to painting black and white abstractions.

He is famous for his ‘woman series’ that started in the 1950s.

3. Jackson Pollock

The greatest of all the action painters was Jackson Pollock.

He is famous for his dripping technique where he would splash and drip paint onto a canvas placed on the floor.

This horizontal painting style made him view his work from all angles enabling him to create mesmerizing art that caught your eye no matter from where you looked at it.

Jackson Pollock

Final Remarks

This art form was a part of the American abstract expressionist movement. Action painting was a product of the times.

It was more about the art of painting and reaching unconscious truths through automatism that the action painters were interested in.

Collectively, the action painters have created the most famous forms of abstract art ever painted.

Leave a Comment