Imagine yourself standing in front of a giant canvas, watching as a painter flings and drips paint across the surface with wild abandon. The colors swirl and blend together in a frenzied dance, creating an explosion of energy and motion that draws you in.
This is the world of action painting, a revolutionary style of painting that emerged in the mid-twentieth century and challenged the traditional ideas of what art should be.
In this article, we’ll explore the definition, history, and key concepts of action painting, as well as some of the most famous examples of this dynamic and exciting style.
Whether you’re an artist yourself or simply appreciate the power of art to move and inspire, learning about action painting can open up new ways of seeing and experiencing the world around you. So, let’s dive into this thrilling world of creativity and self-expression.
We’ll be covering the following topics in this guide:
What is Action Painting?
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.
To see action painting in action (no pun intended), we recommend checking out this video by Jonas Gerard:
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 a 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 action painters.
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.
To learn more about Jackon Pollock and his “drip technique,” we recommend checking out this video by Imperfect Paintings:
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, and inner consciousness, that made the action painters distinct from the European artists, and it also helped overthrow the monopoly of traditions in art.
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, and 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, and 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.
To learn more about Pollock’s Lavender Mist, we recommend checking out this in-depth video by Art History 101:
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 of 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 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 of the New York School.
He was deeply influenced by Japanese calligraphy and emulated the same in his paintings.
To learn more about Franz Kline, we recommend checking out this video by ArtNature:
2. Willem 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 paint black and white abstractions.
He is famous for his ‘woman series’ that started in the 1950s.
To learn more about Willem de Kooning, we recommend checking out this video by Phaidon:
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 where you looked at it.
To learn more about Jackson Pollock, we recommend checking out this video by The Art Assignment:
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, action painters have created the most famous forms of abstract art ever painted.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is action painting called today?
Action painting is still called by the same name today, as it remains a distinct style of painting that emphasizes the physical act of painting and the creative process of the artist. While it has influenced other art forms and styles, such as performance art and abstract expressionism, it continues to be recognized as a unique and influential movement in the history of modern art.
What art style is action painting?
Action painting is a style of abstract art that emphasizes the physical act of painting, rather than the representation of recognizable forms or subjects. It often involves large canvases, bold colors, and dynamic brushstrokes that capture the energy and movement of the creative process itself.
What do action painters focus on?
Action painters focus on the process of creating art rather than the finished product. They believe that the physical act of painting, with its spontaneity and energy, is just as important as the final result, and that art should be an expression of the artist’s inner emotions and experiences.
Harriet Maher a freelance writer based in Otautahi New Zealand, where she grew up. After completing an Honours degree in Art History at the University of Canterbury in 2014, she was awarded a full scholarship for a Masters in Art History at the University of Melbourne, which she completed in 2017. She has a lifelong desire to learn, so she’s passionate about new and innovative art practices, and she’s always seeking out new ways to look at and understand art. Her writing attempts to make the invisible seen, and the unsayable said. You can find more of my writing on my website https://www.harrietmaher.com/