Jackson Pollock's Materials and Techniques

Restoration of Jackson Pollock's 'Alchemy' Painting

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The drip paintings of the abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) are among the best-known paintings of the 20th century. When Pollock moved from easel painting to dripping or pouring paint onto a piece of canvas spread on the floor, he was able to get long, continuous lines impossible to achieve by applying paint to a canvas with a brush.

For this technique, he needed a paint with a fluid viscosity (one that would pour smoothly). For this, he turned to the new synthetic resin-based paints on the market (generally called "gloss enamel"), made for industrial purposes such as spray-painting cars or household interior decorating. He would continue using gloss enamel paint until his death.

Why Gloss Enamel Paint? 

In America, synthetic paints were already replacing traditional, oil-based house paints in the 1930s (in Britain this wouldn’t happen until the end of the 1950s). During World War II (1939–1945) these gloss enamel paints were more readily available than artists' oil paints and cheaper. Pollock described his use of modern household and industrial paints, rather than artists' paints, as “a natural growth out of a need.”

Pollock's Palette

The artist Lee Krasner, who was married to Pollock, described his palette as "typically a can or two of…enamel thinned to the point he wanted it, standing on the floor beside the rolled-out canvas" and that Pollock used Duco or Davoe and Reynolds brands of paint. (Duco was a trade name of the industrial paint manufacturer DuPont.)

A lot of Pollock’s drip paintings are dominated by black and white, but there are often unexpected colors and multimedia elements. The amount of paint in one of Pollock’s drip paintings, the three-dimensionality, can be appreciated fully only by standing in front of one; a reproduction simply doesn’t convey this.

The paint is sometimes diluted to the point where it creates a little textural effect; at others, it’s thick enough to cast shadows.

Painting Method

Krasner described Pollock’s painting method thus: “Using sticks and hardened or worn-out brushes (which were in effect like sticks) and basting syringes, he’d begin. His control was amazing. Using a stick was difficult enough, but the basting syringe was like a giant fountain pen. With it, he had to control the flow of the paint as well as his gesture.”

In 1947 Pollock described his painting method for the magazine Possibilities: “On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and literally be in the painting.”

In 1950 Pollock described his painting method this way:

“New needs need new techniques.…It seems to me that the modern cannot express this age, the airplane, the atom bomb, the radio, in the old forms of the Renaissance or of any other past culture. Each age finds its own techniques.…Most of the paint I use is a liquid, flowing kind of paint. The brushes I use are used more as sticks rather than brushes—the brush doesn’t touch the surface of the canvas, it’s just above.”

Pollock would also rest a stick on the inside of a tin of paint, then angle the tin so the paint would pour or drip down the stick continuously, onto the canvas. Or he would make a hole in a can to get an extended line.

What the Critics Said

The writer Lawrence Alloway said, “The paint, though subject to exceptional control, was not applied by touch; the paint impressions we see were formed by the fall and flow of liquid paint in the grip of gravity...onto a surface that was not hard and firm like a primed canvas but soft and receptive as sized and unprimed duck [cotton canvas].”

The writer Werner Haftmann described it as being “like a seismograph” in which the painting “recorded the energies and states of the man who drew it.”

Art historian Claude Cernuschi described it “as manipulating the behavior of pigment under the law of gravity.” To make a line thinner or thicker, “Pollock simply accelerated or decelerated his movements so that the marks on the canvas became direct traces of the artist’s sequential movements in space.”

New York Times art critic Howard Devree compared Pollock’s handling of paint to “baked macaroni.”6

Pollock himself denied there was any loss of control when painting: “I have a general notion of what I’m about and what the results will be ... With experience, it seems possible to control the flow of paint to a great extent … I deny the accident.”

Naming His Paintings

To stop people trying to find representational elements in his paintings, Pollock abandoned titles for them and started numbering them instead. Pollock said someone looking at a painting should “look passively—and try to receive what the painting has to offer and not bring a subject matter or preconceived idea of what they are to be looking for.”

Lee Krasner said Pollock "used to give his pictures conventional titles…but now he simply numbers them. Numbers are neutral. They make people look at a picture for what it is—pure painting.”

Alloway, L. "Pollock’s Black Paintings.” Arts Magazine 43 (May 1969). Quoted in Cernuschi, p. 159.

Friedman, B.H. “An Interview with Lee Krasner Pollock.” In “Jackson Pollock: Black and White,” exhibition catalog, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, Inc. New York 1969, pp. 7-10. Quoted in "The Impact of Modern Paints" by Jo Crook and Tom Learner, p. 17.

Friedman, B.H. “Jackson Pollock: Energy Made Visible.” Quoted in Cernuschi, p. 89.
Friedman, B.H. Interview in “Pollock Painting.” Quoted in Cernuschi, p. 129

Pollock, Jackson. “My Painting.” In “Possibilities I” (Winter 1947-8). Quoted in "Jackson Pollock: Meaning and Significance" by Claude Cernuschi, p. 105.
Wright, William. Pollock interview for the Sag Harbor radio station, taped 1950 but never broadcast. Reprinted in Hans Namuth, “Pollock Painting,” New York 1978, quoted in Crook and Learner, p. 8.