I’ve looked at some works of Jackson Pollock and tried to work out how he has made these paintings; the order I which he painted layers, media he used, how he applied the media and so on. I made six paintings, each based quite closely on one of his; by copying, I was able to concentrate on how to achieve some of the effects without being distracted by issues of composition and colour too much. As each of my paintings unfolded, they took on their own life and developed on ways I hadn’t necessarily anticipated.
Gallery – click to view larger
The paint behaved in different ways according to media and substrate. Enamel paints ran together unexpectedly, creating blends and textures over which I added more marks. I soon learned Pollock’s effects are far from random, spontaneously expressive gestures, but are the result of extensive trial and error over time, and a fair amount of deliberate decision making and careful control in the execution – they certainly couldn’t be done by someone’s five year old! One of the trickiest things was to get the right consistency in the media to produce a clean pour as opposed to a line of drips; but on the other hand not to thin the media so much that it spreads and loses the clarity of line I wanted. Using iridescent paint and high gloss enamel as well as mat media in one painting (The Maenads) added a new dimension to my repertoire of effects.
There was for me a clear finishing point for each painting at a point where I felt the composition was satisfying, and the painting had enough interest and variety to look at. My earlier paintings (accidentally) departed quite a long way from the painting they were based on; as I gained experience and skill, I was more able to achieve the effects and outcome I wanted. Some are more successful than others. The first two have great contrasts and variety of line and texture. The black and red one has a strong focal point, like a vortex. The yellow and black one is more like Pollock’s “all-over” paintings. The next, based on Picasso, is less satisfying – it lacks a strong emphasis, the eye searches for and doesn’t find a resting place. The frieze still amazes me – how just by pouring paint from a spoon with an idea in mind, the shapes are easily identifiable as dancers; they even have a sense of abandonment, movement and energy! The off white painting with black shape is intriguing and satisfying; it has depth, suggests form. The last painting, with black runs, is the one I’m least happy with; the shapes and lines are messy and restless.
This exercise has been a wonderful journey of exploration and discovery for me. There’s a certain sense of freedom and play in applying paint for its own sake, the joy of it, without having to strive for a good representation of something. I discovered there’s a lot more to abstract painting than simply splodging paint on at random; the same fundamentals of composition, value, colour, shape, form, depth etc have to be considered to produce a satisfying image. I also realised for the first time an abstract painting, by suggesting energy, texture, ideas, maybe a subject, can be very intriguing and satisfying to contemplate.
I can exploit these effects in my future paintings, abstract or representational, to help express and communicate ideas by increasing the range of marks and texture.
Before attempting anything large I made some small tryouts on off cuts of cardboard using a variety of paints and consistencies.
1. Poured blue acrylic paint diluted with water (no more than 50% or adhesion is lost); I tapped the card sharply on the table to create runs at right angles to the main pour line. This dried quite quickly. Added red and yellow marbling paint (which is quite liquid and has a pipette like acrylic inks) in rough parallel lines and repeated the tapping to make the lines run together, then at right angles. A consistency like single cream is needed to get paint flowing.
2. Tried to drip white marbling paint from the bottle, but ended up with larger pools of paint instead of single drops. Painted it out and dripped brown and red acrylic inks on with a pipette. Tipped the card and allowed runs and merging in various directions.
3. Spattered – loading a stiff bristled brush with water diluted gouache (green) and tapping it sharply with a biro; loading a toothbrush (red) and spattering using fingers
I found paint mixed on the support, producing muddy blends when I tilted and tapped the support – I wanted the colours to stay more separate. Waiting for them to dry would interrupt the flow of work.
I also found I couldn’t produce lines with any degree of control by pouring the paint from the bottle, or applying it with a stick. Application with an acrylic ink bottle pipette was the nearest I got. Pollock, painting on a large scale, used turkey basters as giant pipettes, merging drawing and painting.
In their description of Pollock’s methods in One, MOMA mention he used industrial paints as they flow more readily, and sometimes thinned them even further “producing a delicate stain of colour”, so that they effectively became tinted medium. This would imply quick drying, as the paint would soak into the (raw) canvas. He may even have applied generous amounts of medium (paint thinner) independently, pouring it on to wet, layered paint so that edges of colours flow into each other.
Now I felt ready to start the larger paintings.
Pollock’s Number 23, 1948, is black and white enamel on 57×78 fm gessoed paper looks poured. The black looks quite calligraphic with its varying thicknesses of line.
I put newspaper on the floor, took an A3 piece of gessoed foam board and set out to make a black, grey and white mesh of lines like Number 23. I used Marshall enamel paints, dripped and flung with a long metal kebab skewer black, white and a grey mixture (the two last thinned slightly with synthetic thinner), then a small amount of red. A few drips of Blue Dyo marine paint added. Unexpectedly the lovely white and grey lines merged and spread in the thinners I’d added, so I ended up with a grey background instead of black and white lines. The support isn’t absorbent as Pollock’s canvas would have been, so the result was a blend of fluid paint floating on the surface, only the red and blue staying separate. So I abandoned the black and white plan and continued adding paint, with red becoming the predominant colour. Again the black, white and even blue eventually bled together. The wind then blew the newspaper onto the sticky surface, creating interesting textures when I eventually pulled it off. I let it all dry, then continued pouring lines, blobs and spatters in black white and grey, drying between each colour bore adding another. In this way my earlier layers became a background to the later marks.
Tried again with a new piece of foam board (painted all over warm yellow with hobby acrylic paint) to realise my original idea, using the same enamel paint and colours, straight from the pot without thinners. The lines bled less than before, but after a time the white started slowly bleeding into the black. The red, unaccountably as it’s supposedly the same paint, stayed completely separate. I’d imagined Pollock worked on a painting from start to finish without stopping…this can’t be the case, as layers would have had to dry to avoid unwanted muddying of colours.
Pollock’s painting, Untitled, was made before his 1950s drip paintings, around 1943, in oil, pen and ink, and watercolour on 33×50 cm paper. It’s dripped, poured, spattered and brushed. It seems the bright primaries have been painted first in fluid oils, then watercolour poured on in two areas as unblended mixtures which are allowed to run and merge on the paper forming organic shapes. The whole sheet is spattered with fluid paint or ink. The pen and ink drawing looks to have been added afterwards, inspired by the outcome of the painting.
Close parallels have been drawn between some of Pollock’s compositions and Pablo Picasso’s – there are analogous forms and lines between them. I took this idea and based the shapes for my next painting on one of Picasso’s compositions for Lysistrata, below
So using the process in the first Pollock I described, Untitled, (link above), I made some initial shapes on A3 gessoed cardboard in simple broad brush acrylic colours, then when dry poured and spattered watercolour over in a few places, allowing it to blend and dribble organically. When dry, more spattering with Sepia ink, and white line added with Rotring White Chinese ink, drawing with the nozzle. When dry, drew gestural lines in response to the Picasso drawing, with dip pen, calligraphic nib and sepia ink.
Summertime was painted by Pollock in oil, enamel and house paint on canvas in 1948, and is a huge 85×555 cm! Mute colours are spattered on to a white ground. Black and grey lines are poured on. Some shapes enclosed by these lines are coloured in with primaries. I love the frieze format, it creates a painting with a time dimension, as my eye slowly scans from left to right – I had a similar feeling when looking at Ivon Hitchens wide format paintings in part 4. Pollock’s painting has a rhythm and energy and hints at an underlying frieze of figures in motion. In calls to mind a Bridget Riley painting I looked at in part 2, Red on Red, which while being abstract was partly appropriated from a Renaissance frieze painting of figures by Mantegna.
I cut a piece of foam board and attempted a frieze, 85cm long, based on the Maenads Dance frieze, using Pollock’s methods in Summertime, which could be based on a similar image.
I placed Iridescent bronze, and sap green marks on lower edge. Spattered sap green and Prussian blue tints. Added grey skeins of enamel poured from a spoon. Let dry!! Black-green enamel poured on with a spoon, in blobs, lines and curves suggesting a slightly abandoned dance of seven women holding hands. Random shapes made by the criss-crossing lines coloured in yellow, blue, crimson, mauve.
Pollock’s The Deep looks like white paint over a black ground. The black shape has been likened to an abyss, but I think it corresponds to the proportions of a figure…head, shoulders, torso, legs can be identified.
I painted with black acrylic over a canvas I used in part one for tryouts . When dry dribbled a few skeins of white acrylic and white ink across the middle – when I looked a bit later, they also assumed the proportions of a seated nude female figure…not intended at all. Then applied at random, pale tints of emerald green and lemon yellow with short stabs of a flat ended palette knife, and let dry. Scraped zinc white (with a touch of lemon yellow) all over, leaving black negative space in the middle, leaving marks unblended.
Looking closely at Yellow Islands I had a go at following Pollock’s process. First, black ink painted and spattered on A3 watercolour paper, the support tilted to create drips, dried. Sharp, thin white lines added with rigger brush, dried. White acrylic added in blocks with a wide, flat brush, dried, then yellow, crimson acrylic added, dried, then partly covered with black inks poured on. Finally a great black splodge in middle, allowed to drip.