What Is Action Painting?

Angela Farrer

Action painting is a type of modern art that involves the random splashing, dripping, or even throwing of paint onto a large canvas without a prior image concept in mind. Artists who work with this technique place more importance on the movements of their arms, hands, and bodies during the process of making a painting. This type of painting is often closely tied to the art movement of abstract expressionism because of the emphasis on underlying emotions as the driving force behind the spontaneous movements of action painting. Some action painters also create their pieces before a live audience, which adds an element of performance art to their work.

Action painting is a type of modern art.
Action painting is a type of modern art.

This method of painting is also known as gestural abstraction, and it became especially popular during the mid-20th century due to the changing attitudes of this time period. People began placing less emphasis on formal art paintings that depicted figures and images from real life. They instead responded to the unique patterns of paint in abstract pieces because this kind of art allowed the subject matter to be completely open to individual interpretation. Many abstract imagists who create action paintings believe that viewers respond to their work on a deeper subconscious level.

Action painters are typically familiar with color theory.
Action painters are typically familiar with color theory.

Various techniques of action painting usually differ among individual artists. Many have a preferred type of paint such as oil, acrylic, or even the types of paint found in home improvement stores. Some artists also use implements other than traditional artist brushes. Paint can be applied to a canvas with a wisk broom, sponge, or even the artist's bare hands. The only universal rules that apply to action painting include having an understanding of color theory and continuing to experiment with creative ways to splatter and splash paint on the canvas.

Action painting often uses dripping, splashing or throwing paints onto a canvas.
Action painting often uses dripping, splashing or throwing paints onto a canvas.

Although traditional methods of action painting are done with brushes and canvases, this type of contemporary art can also be done with digital art software and interactive video installations. Some artists create museum exhibits of their finished digital action paintings with a projector that displays their work on a screen or even on an entire wall. Others upload files of their work to large liquid crystal display (LCD) monitors that play rotating slide shows of their paintings. Digital action painting can even involve the viewers with displays that allow them to add color to a screen by holding a digital brush that tracks each hand movement.

Artists may use traditional brushes to create action paintings.
Artists may use traditional brushes to create action paintings.

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Discussion Comments


@bythewell - I'm a fairly average person and I can still understand that action painting would take a large amount of skill to get right. For all of those people who claim they could do the same thing, very few of them actually attempt it and those that do never seem to be able to achieve the same effects as a talented painter.


@Fa5t3r - This kind of debate always makes me think of those people who claim that there is such a describable difference between different kinds of wine. It might be true, and maybe an expert can tell the difference in a blind taste test (although I've read studies that suggest not) but ultimately it comes down to whether someone thinks the painting is valuable or not, not whether there is any actual skill involved.

For the average person, they can just enjoy the work or not as they choose.


This is the kind of painting that people always seem to point to and declare that their toddler could make something better. Occasionally that's the truth, but action painting can be very beautiful and interesting if it is done by someone who knows how to paint and has a good grasp of color theory.

It's not always entirely abstract either. I've seen some very beautiful action paintings that were intended to describe a cityscape or a portrait. If anything, that would be much more difficult than an ordinary painting.

Abstract art is an attempt to make something that is itself, rather than being a representation of something else. In order for the mind to really let go enough to do this, it needs a little bit of help from the body. That's where action painting can really shine.

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