For many of us, the idea of painting conjures up an image of someone tirelessly standing before an easel, carefully considering each brushstroke in order to transfer a preconceived image from their mind’s eye to the canvas. To make a photorealist painting, indeed, such a deeply cognitive process is often necessary. But painting—especially abstract painting—is often more about conveying what we feel than what we see. Art in this form can be absolutely non-representational and utterly freeing. If we allow our bodies to lead and our minds to quiet, painting can showcase states of mind, impulses, and emotions—even those hidden beneath the surface.
The notorious drip paintings of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock exemplify this type of intuitive abstraction. A post-war art movement of the 1940s and 50s, abstract expressionism is comprised of two main styles: action painting and color field painting. The former, which describes most of Pollock’s iconic works, focuses on (as its name implies) action and dynamic gestures. Sometimes dubbed “gestural painting,” action painting actually demands an abandon of several traditional painting techniques. For example, Pollock didn’t motionlessly scrutinize the individual components of his work, but instead moved wildly, dancing around and on top of his canvas, which he had placed on the floor. He renounced easels, brushes, and paint palettes in favor of sticks and trowels to drip and splatter paint onto his unstretched canvases—and sometimes he squeezed or hurled paint directly from the tube or bucket! His large-scale paintings are recognized for their thick and energetic textures, their general lack of rational subject matter, and their rhythmic nature.
In 1952, art critic Harold Rosenberg wrote that in action paintings like Pollock’s, the canvas had become “an arena in which to act—rather than a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object . . . What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event.” The unrestrained energy that Pollock literally flung into his canvases remains evident long after the work’s completion, and even after his death. Instead of prompting the viewer to think, Pollock’s paintings provoke a pre-verbal, pre-rational experience dictated by instinct.
Use Pollock’s approach to unearth your own primal movements and unrestrained energy—create a drip painting!
- Gather art materials. Gather a large, unstretched canvas or a large sheet of paper that is at least the length of your body, a few small cans of acrylics or house paint, and a selection of sticks, hardened brushes, or trowels. Set up the canvas/paper outside or in an area that can get messy and sustain flinging paint.
- Move. Begin moving around and on your surface, allowing your movements to loosen and become rhythmic or dance-like. Don’t think about how you look, just give into the process of painting and release yourself. If you find yourself criticizing or analyzing your movements or your painting, take a break to clear your mind.
- Paint. While moving spontaneously, apply paint to your surface. Your design should mirror your instinctive motions rather than any background-churning thought process. Don’t stop until your energy leaves you and in turn emanates from the painting. This creation is as much about the process as it is the result—it should openly reflect your physical experience.