Comparing Techniques of Abstract Expressionist Painters

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  • 0:01 Abstract Expressionism
  • 1:00 Action Painting
  • 3:00 Less Expressive Techniques
  • 3:55 Color Field
  • 5:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The process of creation is a very important aspect of Abstract Expressionist painting, so Abstract Expressionist painters came up with some pretty interesting techniques. Explore these in this lesson, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Abstract Expressionism

If you've ever been to an art museum, you may have noticed that most pieces of art have a little plaque next to them. And on that plaque is the name of the piece, the name of the artist, and then the materials used to create it. Why? Well, the materials used to create art has a pretty big influence on the outcome.

But, you know what else can really affect art? The technique. This is just as important as the materials. How you make your art not only influences the final product but the meaning as well. In the mid-20th century, right after World War II, an artistic movement emerged that was all about technique. Abstract Expressionism focuses on the act of creating art, which means that the art can get pretty, well, expressive - also, abstract - and it all came from their techniques.

Action Painting

Alright, so we may as well start here, with the technique most often associated with Abstract Expressionism. Action painting is pretty simple, it just means that paint is spontaneously dribbled, splashed or smeared onto the canvas. While this sounds calm enough, the actual process usually looks something like this. So, why? Why do this?

Action painting technique
actionpaintingexpressionism

Like I said, Abstract Expressionism was very focused on the act of painting, but this is because these artists saw art as a way to understand the act of creation itself. Yeah, that got deep. You see, for the action painters, their art was motivated by the subconscious, revealing a deep, intimate, and personal portrait of the psyche. The artist releases control over the painting and just lets the subconscious take over, using colors and lines to create a work of pure, raw emotion.

The most famous of the action painters is Jackson Pollock, the man who really made this technique famous. Pollock was one of the first to take the canvas off of the easel, and put it on the floor! Gasp! For the art world, this was shocking! For centuries, the canvas sat upright on an easel, but by laying it down, Pollock was able to walk all the way around it, dripping and slinging paint into various assortments of color and line. This was Pollock's personal style.

Other action painters, like Joan Mitchell, used their fingers to smear art onto the canvas, replacing the traditional role of the brush with their hands. Action painters could throw entire cans of paint at a surface, drip it, smear it, sling it or fling it, but the goal was always the same: to make painting an action that was as physical as it was emotional.

Less Expressive Techniques

So, the flinging and the twirling and the splattering, that was only one way that Abstract Expressionists explored chaos and the subconscious. I mean, look at this painting. See the chaos? Ha - trick question! While this painting, created by the Abstract Expressionist painter Franz Kline, looks a lot like Pollock's, the technique was actually very different.

Kline painting
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Kline only wanted his paintings to look spontaneous, but they are actually very carefully planned out. He sketched the designs, plotted them and then carefully committed the paint to canvas. So, does this mean he was not really an Abstract Expressionist? Not at all. Kline's paintings still explore the action of creating art and reflects a personal, primeval subconscious. He simply had a much different technique for achieving it.

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