Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tips & Tricks #13: Drips & Splatters - Pollock's Technique in the 21st Century

Jackson Pollock became an icon of Modern Art in the 1950's by daring to break down the concept of painting to an apparently random looking assortment of drips and splatters on the canvas. A first glance at one of Mr. Pollock's paintings has often elicited the response "My kid can paint better than that!", but upon further reflection and by investigating his body of work, one can clearly see that there was much more going on than it seems on the surface and that what looked to be a simple, mindless way of putting paint on a canvas was in fact far more complex.

Although one painting by itself may not appear to make much sense, viewing several of Pollock's paintings in a row, or better yet being surrounded by them in an exhibition, one can see the repetitive motifs that run through them - the broad arcs of paint that trace the extent of his arm's reach or the sinuous, vine-like lines that echo his signature flick of fluid paint off of the brush. If one chooses to step just a little bit further into Pollock's world, it becomes clear that there was a great deal of forethought and intention behind every mark and that the use of his controversial technique was another way to break down the barriers of the viewers preconceptions about what constitutes a works of art.

Jackson Pollock's paintings began with a primed, but unstretched, canvas laid out on the floor. The fact that the canvas was not on a frame was important since the scale of the work was usually very large, so it would be necessary for him to actually step on the canvas at certain times while painting. The brushes that Pollock favored were old house painting brushes that had hardened with dried paint until they became totally stiff. These afforded him the grip and balance of a brush, while allowing for a hard end like a stick that enabled greater control over the paint as it fell off the brush. Finally, his paint had to be thinned to just the right consistency to allow it to drip and flow freely, but still be thick enough to be easily guided by his hand and to leave coherent lines on the canvas. For most of his career, he used traditional oil paints that were thinned with the right amount of turpentine, but by the height of his output he was already experimenting with other mediums, particularly enamel paints that were usually used for house painting or industrial purposes. He liked the enamels because they were just the right consistency for his dripping and pouring technique right out of the can, so no thinning was needed, plus he took an interest in colors that had a metallic sheen, that were not available as pigments for oil paint at that time. Unfortunately, oil paints and enamels don't mix together, which is one of several reasons why Pollock's paintings are very fragile and difficult to maintain. There is actually a group of conservators whose entire job is to work on Pollock's paintings and make sure they stay in one piece! The materials of his time just weren't up to the standards that he needed to fulfill his visions.

If Jackson Pollock were alive and working today, the story would be quite different! Fluid acrylic paints would have provided much of the paint consistency he was looking for, pre-mixed into the full spectrum of colors required by fine artists and including a range of metallic colors. His techniques made no use of blending colors, so the switch from oil to acrylic paint would most likely have been very natural for him. In addition, there are now a couple of acrylic mediums that can be added to the paint that are specifically designed to create spectacular dripping effects, inspired by Pollock's example!

Tar Gel by Golden and String Gel by Liquitex are essentially two versions of a medium that, when mixed with fluid acrylics, gives a honey-like consistency to the paints. After adding the gel to the paint and mixing thoroughly, one should wait about ten minutes or so to let the air bubbles rise up and out before using it. Then, with a palette knife, or perhaps Pollock's favorite - the stiff, paint-hardened brush, you can scoop up some of the mixture and let it drip off to create long lines. Golden claims their Tar Gel has sufficient consistency to hold together in a solid line that reaches three stories! Both the Tar and String Gels are thick enough to allow for an unprecedented level of control when dripping, so the possibilities for intentional technique become much greater.

Liquitex has recently created another product called Pouring Medium which can, as the name suggests, allow the fluid acrylics to be poured more easily onto the canvas. Like the Tar and String Gels, color should be mixed into the medium first and then it should be left for a few minutes to allow the air to escape. The special qualities of the Pouring Medium will become more apparent as it hits the surface of the canvas, because the medium has been formulated to mix colors in a very special way. When one color mixed with Pouring Medium is dripped over another color mixed with Pouring Medium, the two colors will puddle together and form all sorts of organic lines and flowing shapes, an effect which is known as marbling.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which the work of a pioneering artist can help the evolution of art as a whole, opening up new techniques and methods of expression that we can all enjoy. Thank you Mr. Pollock!

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