Action Painting: Definition & Characteristics

Instructor: Jennifer Keefe

Jennifer Keefe has taught college-level Humanities and has a Master's in Liberal Studies.

Action Painting is an art movement that began in the 1940s, and challenged the traditional ideas of using familiar objects and themes in paintings. In this lesson, learn about the characteristics of this movement, and take a quiz to test your knowledge.

Action Painting Defined

When you look at a painting, you expect to be able to identify things in it, like people, sunsets, or even beaches, right? If that's the case, you are probably most familiar with representational painting, a kind of painting that depicts familiar objects to help you get an idea of what it is about. But not all paintings rely on this for its subject matter. Abstract painting conveys its subject without the use of such identifiable objects, and is more open to your own interpretations.

Action painting, sometimes called Abstract Expressionism, evolved in the 1940s and 1950s, during a time of unrest following World War II. There was much anxiety about the potential impact of the Cold War, and the possible spread of Communism worldwide. The action painting movement reflected this turmoil of the time. It was also known as 'gestural painting', because it involved the vigorous, sweeping application of paint to the canvas. This style was more about the physical act of painting, and showing the emotion of the artist, rather than accurately depicting realistic scenes and recognizable forms. When looking at an action painting, your eyes tend to constantly move back and forth across its surface, as you take in the expressive and unconventional effects the artist has created.

Here is what an action painting looks like:

Example of Action Painting
Action Painting Example

You probably don't see much more than lines and splashes of color, do you? This painting was made using a drip-paint technique in the style of American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Pollock used sticks and even a device he made that looked a lot like an old coffee percolator to get his paint on to the surface. He put the canvas on the floor so he could get closer to his art, and used common house paint instead of oils or acrylics. Other members of the movement included Lee Krasner, Willem and Eliane de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Motherwell, Franz Kline, and Norman Lewis.

Here is one of Willem de Kooning's action paintings:

Willem de Kooning Woman VI, 1953
De Kooning Woman VI

Do you see the differences between this one and the Pollock-style action painting above? This painting has an abstract vision of a woman, whereas the Pollock-style is more about lines and colors created by the aggressive application of paint, with no discernible subject matter. But even though you can somewhat identify a familiar subject in the De Kooning, its heavily abstract composition and expressive brush strokes still classify it as an action painting.

If abstract lines and colors are what you will find in an action painting, here's an overview of what you won't find:

  • Recognizable composition - You won't see the same traditional flow that you would in a representational painting. The artist hasn't created a sense of logical order of how the eye should move across the image.
  • Identifiable content - You aren't going to find things like people, beaches or sunsets in these paintings.
  • Recognizable themes - You won't be able to easily define the subject or meaning of an action painting.

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