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The Painting Techniques of Jackson Pollock

Learn about the drip-style painting techniques of one of America's most iconic and influential painters.  Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

Video transcript

Voiceover: Three years prior to the making of this painting, Pollock was working on a small easel painting. He had struggled on it for a while, and he decided to take that painting off the easel, place it on the floor, and then pour some paint on the surface to finish it. >From this deceptively simple decision, an entire set of creative possibilities opened up to Pollock, and he spent the next five years of his career exploring them. Now, in the studio, let's see exactly how Pollock worked. Placing the canvas on the floor, Pollock no longer remained in physical contact with the canvas while painting. Instead of using conventional artist brushes to push or smear liquid paint across the surface of the painting, Pollock now used things like sticks, even turkey basters or dried paint brushes, hard as a rock, that he variously dripped, drizzled, poured, or splashed paint onto the canvas below him from. Pollock used very fluid alkyd enamel paints, the kind of paint you could paint your car with, the kind of paint you could paint your radiator with. Because the paint was so fluid, Pollock essentially drew in space, so that drawing elements would happen quite literally in the air, before falling down to the canvas below, sometimes thick, sometimes thin. A rhythm of poured paint would develop across the surface of the painting. Now, if you know that the painting was painted on the floor, if you know that the paint has a very low viscosity, you can very easily imagine the kind of physical activities that would go into the making of this type of painting. Art historians, at the time, coined this kind of painting, action painting, because of this very idea that you could imagine quite viscerally the actions that went into the making of the painting. Now, specifically, we're talking about the actions of almost a dancer. You can imagine Pollock's feet shuffling around the painting. You can imagine rotations of the elbow and of the shoulder, variously launching or slowly drizzling paint onto the canvas below. For Pollock, the drama of making this painting on the floor meant that not only physically but emotionally he could be in the painting, stepping into the canvas, but also losing himself in almost this trance-like or zone-like type of painting process. Looking at the paint below you on the surface of the canvas, reacting to it, and adjusting whatever gestures you have to create this painting. Now, traditionally in painting, people would compose one shape according to another one. A little bit of red here, according to a little bit of blue there, according to a lot of yellow over here. Well, for Pollock, he threw that out the window, as he did so many things. Rather, Pollock is composing one line in juxtaposition with another one, and not in any haphazard way, but rather in an all over way, and this all-overness, if you will, becomes key for Pollock. Since looking at this painting, there's no one spot for your eye to rest. Traditionally, line had been used quite literally to delineate forms, to draw the outlines of forms, which would be filled in. You can imagine landscape paintings. The lines define the mountains, clouds, and so on. Well, here the line is not defining anything. Line becomes here autonomous, and for the first time is liberated from its historical role in painting of describing other shapes. In 1950, the drama of making this painting was actually captured by a photographer and film maker, so that the performance of making this painting captured the public's imagination as never before. Not only that, but other artists were profoundly influenced by this radically new way of working, not only painters, but, well, performance artists can be traced back to this very very formative moment, very important moment in American art history.