Categories / Trend Reports

Design Trend Report: Action Painting

Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 13 min read
Action painting is a form of art where paint is recklessly applied to the canvas. Instead of careful and intentional application, the coloring materials are impulsively smudged, dotted or brushed onto the frame. As a result, these artworks frequently stress the physical force of painting as a crucial part of the entire composition. Visually, action painting is characterized by the random effects of the paint just spilling onto the canvas in various directions. It’s this dynamic quality of this style of design that gives it its name and produces an aesthetic that seems to have been created without much planning. This free-flowing philosophy is also what makes this approach such a pleasure to study. Popular many decades ago, action painting nevertheless can serve as the inspiration for your next creative project, so you can give it that standout effect.

The History of Action Painting

In the mid-20th century, this wild approach to design was all the rage. America back then had just emerged victorious in World World II, and there was a heady optimism sweeping the country. Soldiers were coming home, a housing and economic boom was about to get started, and peace had broken out. Life was good, and creative minds were able to focus on what was important to them: design.
Image Credit: Steve Johnson
Overall, the middle part of the 20th century was a highly invigorating moment for design, due to the sheer explosion of then-new styles: One of the new styles during this prolific moment in time was action painting. This was a style that differentiated itself from the other trends that were beginning to gain steam not due to its aesthetics, but, rather, the reasons behind these aesthetics. Put another way, it was the how of this trend that made people take notice instead of the finished compositions. That’s not to say, though, that this action-based style of painting wasn’t interesting to look at. An American art critic named Harold Rosenberg coined the phrase “action painting” in 1952, when he wrote the essay, The American Action Painters. His reference was to a group of intrepid artists who were abstract expressionists who utilized this style starting in approximately 1950. What was so interesting about this new group of artists was that they were influenced by an earlier design juggernaut that had already made its mark in Europe, a few decades earlier: Surrealism. In particular, the early devotees of this new approach to art were taken with the automatic drawing of the European movement. Some of the more famous names associated with this action-infused design trend include:
  • Franz Kline
  • Jackson Pollock
  • Willem de Kooning
  • Jack Tworkov
  • Walker Tomlin
Where action painting and surrealism differ is very noteworthy because it demonstrates the distinct approach that the former applied to design. While both styles used automatism—the American version was concerned with physical movement in paint application, whereas the European version focused on the unconscious mind in its compositions—their motivations differed. The action-based method was rooted in empowering creatives to release their imaginative juices and then share this directly with their audience; Surrealism’s goal was to stimulate any emotionally unknown or dormant associations or feelings within the audience. You could say that action painting puts the emphasis more on the artist while Surrealist design emphasizes the audience’s reaction. Here’s a look at several, choice digital assets that strikingly illustrate some of the unique characteristics of action painting:
In particular, it was Pollock’s so-called drip paintings, which he created in the late 1940s, that are regarded as setting the stage for the more dramatic aesthetics of this action-based design. By the 1950s, it was de Kooning’s Woman series, characterized by its frenzied brushstrokes, which typified this style. Interestingly, if we want to be really liberal in our history, we can legitimately go back much further than the 1950s to see how other design trends paved the way for action painting by laying the foundations of this style. Impressionism, a design trend that came into being in the late 19th century in France, was a precursor to this style because it stressed the physical force created during painting. Its adherents did this by refusing to conceal the rough brushstrokes that dotted the surfaces of their paintings. If we go back even further, we can see some of action painting’s traits in the works of Rembrandt, the famed Dutch visual artist. If we journey back 100 years earlier to the Renaissance times of Michelangelo, we can also see some of the spontaneous traits of this trend even in his artworks. However, it was Rosenberg who not only gave this style a name, but he also identified its telltale qualities in such a way that people understood what its artists were getting at. Even so, the American essayist and art critic, Clement Greenberg, was noticing the style of art that would turn into action painting long before Rosenberg officially coined it. Decades earlier, Greenberg had homed in on paintings’ “objectness” or their creative struggles. In his way of looking at design, he believed that all you had to do was look at the surface of any painting to see this creative struggle. In other words, for him, a composition was much, much more interesting based on the tangibility of an artwork’s oil-stained and clotted surfaces than the final visuals. Where Rosenberg’s critique comes into the picture is that he officially moved the discourse from the actual surface of a painting (read: the object) to the process of creating the art in and of itself. In his mind—and this would lead to the definition of action painting—the finished composition is nothing more than the palpable appearance of the real artwork. Said real artwork is actually to be found within the painting’s creative process and the story of its composition. To help you get a better understanding of action painting’s focus on the creative process leading up to the finished visuals, take a look at more dynamic and spontaneous digital assets from our marketplace:
By now, you realize that there’s a lot of the psychological at play with this method. As such, we also have to give credit to some of history’s most famous psychoanalysts for inspiring this trend: Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. We’ve already established that action painting went beyond what Surrealism intended, which is to simply evoke deeply rooted feelings in the audience. It actually capitalized on Freud’s and Jung’s concepts of the subconscious mind in its compositions. Many of the early action-based painters studied Jung’s work in archetypal images and utilized their personal and internal visions in their creative process. More on this as we explore this trend’s riveting techniques.

The Characteristics of Action Painting

The characteristics of this style can be separated into two camps: the visual and the psychological. In other words, they appear both in what you see on the canvas and the unseen techniques that went into the creative process to arrive at the finished composition. Let’s tackle what you see on the canvas first since it’s easier to address the visual aspects of action painting. While this style focuses on the techniques more than on the finished artwork, it’s still important to detail the elements at play in the final composition. To that end, here’s what to visually expect when studying a creation in this style:


  • Extreme individuality, as each action painter generally exhibited his own style
  • Closely linked with abstract expressionism
  • Spontaneity, vigor and a certain wildness in the brushstrokes, smears, dribbles and splashes of paint
  • Dynamism
  • Randomness (lack of planning) in composition
  • Vibrant colors
  • Color contrast
The psychological traits of action painting are just as fascinating as the visual clues into the artist’s creative process.
Image Credit: Steve Johnson
Here are the qualities of the unseen part of this style:


  • Reciprocation or “dialogue” between the painter and the canvas, where each mark influences the next mark and so on
  • Existentialism due to the painter creating the self through composition
  • Influenced by both psychoanalysis (the subconscious) and quantum mechanics
  • Automatism (automatic drawing, popularized by the Surrealists)
The psychological traits of this trend stemmed from the fact that many action painters were quite brainy. They took the time and made the effort to ponder at length both the nature of art and the existential side of it, relative to the value this form of composition brings to the world. If we look at the chronology of this design trend, this would be the sequence:
  1. Art has existed for many centuries, focusing more on the object or the finished work of art.
  2. Surrealists come along and focus instead on awakening dormant feelings within the audience through the emotion of their aesthetics.
  3. Action painters emerge and take this up another level by aiming for the audience’s subconscious mind via their spontaneous (read: unconscious) brushstrokes, hoping to awaken the collective and archetypal design language within them.

Action Painting in Visual and Graphic Design

Whether you call it visual design or graphic design proper, the best place to see action painting in all its unplanned glory is in the artworks of the original savants who brought this style into the public conscious back in the 20th century. There are many famous creations that bring the viewers into the world of this unique method.

Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948

Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 had the distinction of being the world’s most expensive painting when it was sold for a then-record $140 million in May 2006. While other works have since been sold for a higher price, No. 5, 1948 will always exhibit the telltale traits that make action painting so memorable.
Image Credit:
Capturing the chaos and spontaneity of this style so well, the piece was created on fiberboard with liquid paints. A popular and repeated observation is that No. 5, 1948 looks like a bird’s nest, complete with messy twigs and other materials needed for construction. This effect was created by taking yellow, white, brown and gray paint and drizzling it over the canvas, a perfect example of one of Pollock’s drip paintings. Technique-wise, the placement of the fiberboard on the floor allowed Pollock to utilize any angle as well as range of motion he desired to create this look. The movement of the colors are inconsistent, too: In some areas, they pool together while in other areas they lash out in various directions.

Willem de Kooning’s Woman III Series

Willem de Kooning’s Woman series of paintings is considered a defining moment in action painting’s history. With the first piece created in 1950, the series explored both heavy Cubist and Pablo Picasso influences and the female form. Woman III from 1953 was sold for $137.5 million in late 2006, making it among the most expensive paintings ever sold.
Image Credit: New York Times
The composition displays the chaos associated with this style although it’s obvious that its blocky and jagged lines and edges have a lot in common with Cubism. The way the female figure has also been broken down by de Kooning and then reassembled in a very abstract manner is an homage to Cubism. While this piece is more muted in color than No. 5, 1948, you can still see the use of color contrast throughout.

Franz Kline’s Painting Number 2

Painting Number 2, created in 1954, is a good example of how action painting doesn’t need to involve much color to still get its point about technique across. A designer who liked to work in black and white quite a bit, Kline limited himself to only these two colors for this artwork so that he could focus exclusively on the spontaneity of his brushstrokes without being distracted or influenced by different colors. The result is a piece demonstrating many straight lines and square edges, where the physical force of his marks and the ensuing zones in the action painting are all the more apparent.
Image Credit: Museum of Modern Art
It’s interesting to note that, in hindsight, we know today that Kline actually created small-scale studies and illustrations for many of these larger paintings. He wasn’t being 100% spontaneous although this artwork still effectively shows off the chaos and randomness of this style.

Action Painting in Web Design

With the never-ending, new possibilities that the Internet brings us, it’s no surprise that we have numerous examples of action painting all over the web. Here are some of our choices for the most memorable examples of this 20th-century style that’s now at home on the web.

Action Painting Lite

Anyone who’s ever wanted to try their hand at this approach, but didn’t want to literally get their hands wet with paint is in luck. We’ve got the perfect app for you. Action Painting Lite allows you to imitate the works of Jackson Pollock and other action painters from the dry user interface of your iOS devices. Available in the App Store, this tool is easy-to-use software that lets you virtually draw these spontaneous and wild strokes, dribbles and smears on your screen. With a few, simple gestures, you’re well on your way to creating artworks that may just rival the action painters of the mid-20th century.
Image Credit: The App Store
Begin your masterpiece by tapping the Play button. When you’re done, just shake your device to instantly clear your virtual canvas. Want to change your background color? It’s as easy as tapping and holding for three seconds on the screen.

Ian MacLarty’s Action Painting Pro

For a minimalist approach to this design style, you should check out Ian MacLarty’s offering. This piece of imaginative software is meant for use on Mac, Windows and Linux home computers. Designed with the user in mind at all times, getting into this program to paint like Franz Kline and other action-painter greats is as easy as picking up and playing your favorite video game.
Image Credit: Ian MacLarty
The UX of this immersive game has you painting a wall (your canvas) from the standpoint of an artist on scaffolding. An homage to side-scrolling design, the game features an artist jumping from platform to platform, leaving a trail of wild and spontaneous smears and smudges (brushstrokes) on the wall as he creates his action painting. It combines the mechanical and creative processes of artwork in a way that’s intuitive and entertaining to play.

Ready, Set, Action (Painting)!

The 1950s period of design in America was a transcendental moment in history. With the chaos and uncertainty of World War II over and the peacetime boom happening in the country, creatives could again concentrate on their artworks with more devotion. It’s no coincidence that a lot of design trends sprang out of this era. One of the most dramatic ones that celebrated the physical influence of the creative process and the psychological aspects of art’s effects on the audience was action painting. Revolutionary for its time, it forced audiences to appreciate art differently, shifting the focus from the final artwork or object to the inner workings of the artists’ creative process. The end result was a design trend that made excellent use of dynamism and movement to tell the story of its painters as well as prompt dormant, emotional responses in its audience.
Products Seen In This Post:
Lettering Worksheets
Getting started with hand lettering?
Free lettering worksheets

Download these worksheets and start practicing with simple instructions and tracing exercises.

Download now!
About the Author
Marc Schenker

Marc is a copywriter and marketer who runs The Glorious Company, a marketing agency. An expert in business and marketing, he helps businesses and companies of all sizes get the most bang for their ad bucks.

View More Posts
Go to My Shop
Related Articles