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Design Trend Report: Action Painting
Marc Schenker September 2, 2021 · 13 min read
The History of Action PaintingIn 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 JohnsonOverall, the middle part of the 20th century was a highly invigorating moment for design, due to the sheer explosion of then-new styles: 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
The Characteristics of Action PaintingThe 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
- Randomness (lack of planning) in composition
- Vibrant colors
- Color contrast
Image Credit: Steve JohnsonHere 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)
- Art has existed for many centuries, focusing more on the object or the finished work of art.
- Surrealists come along and focus instead on awakening dormant feelings within the audience through the emotion of their aesthetics.
- 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 DesignWhether 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, 1948Pollock’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: Jackson-Pollock.orgCapturing 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 SeriesWillem 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 TimesThe 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 2Painting 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 ArtIt’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 DesignWith 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.
Image Credit: The App StoreBegin 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. 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 MacLartyThe 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.
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