Painting Methods that don’t Involve a Paintbrush

The youngest of the “big three” Mexican Muralist painters, David Alfaro Siqueiros, was also one of the first artists to publicly shun the paintbrush, calling the tool “an implement of hair and wood in an age of steel.” Seeking new painting techniques fit for the modern age, Siqueiros established the groundbreaking Experimental Workshop in New York City in 1936. There, young artists like Jackson Pollock gathered to pour, airbrush, scrape, and splatter pigments, incorporating industrial techniques into their artistic practices.

The youngest of the “big three” Mexican Muralist painters, David Alfaro Siqueiros, was also one of the first artists to publicly shun the paintbrush, calling the tool “an implement of hair and wood in an age of steel.” Seeking new painting techniques fit for the modern age, Siqueiros established the groundbreaking Experimental Workshop in New York City in 1936. There, young artists like Jackson Pollock gathered to pour, airbrush, scrape, and splatter pigments, incorporating industrial techniques into their artistic practices.

Splattering and Dripping

In February of 1956—exactly 20 years after the Experimental Workshop—Time magazine nicknamed Pollock “Jack the Dripper.” But while the artist may be most famous for flinging pigments across canvases, he was hardly the first to do so. Japanese Zen Buddhist painters, for example, experimented with splashed ink as far back as the 15th century, long before Pollock created his first action painting in the mid-1940’s.

Pollock’s splatter and drip technique, with its explosive results, captured the curiosity of the American public, especially after the photographer and filmmaker Hans Namuth published footage of the artist at work in his Long Island studio. Placing canvases on the floor, Pollock would incorporate metal rods, kitchen tools, towels, and sticks into his painting process, though these tools rarely touched the canvas directly. “It doesn’t make much difference how the paint is put on as long as something has been said,” the artist once explained. “Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement.”

Pouring

At the Experimental Workshop, Siqueiros also pioneered a method of pouring paint directly onto the canvas. His technique of “accidental painting” involved spilling different colors on top of one another so that the paint would coalesce into unexpected, swirling patterns on the picture’s surface. This effect inspired the art historian Sandra Zetina, along with physicist Roberto Zenit, to recreate Siqueiros’s painting process in the lab, publishing her findings just last year in an essay titled “A Hydrodynamic Instability Is Used to Create Aesthetically Appealing Patterns in Painting.”

Frankenthaler pushed this technique one step further in 1952 with her pivotal work Mountains and Sea, for which she applied thin washes of paint to an unprimed canvas. Instead of resting on top of the canvas, the paint in this image stained the canvas—a significant feat in an era when avant-garde artists were fascinated with the flatness of painting. More recently, the British artist Ian Davenport has poured stripes of paint down canvases using syringes, letting the colors mix and pool together towards the bottom of his abstract paintings.

Pulling and Scraping

The act of pulling and scraping paint is most associated with the Dutch Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning, who achieved this effect with a palette , and the German contemporary painter Gerhard Richter, who often used a squeegee. “With a brush you have control,” Richter once explained. “The paint goes on the brush and you make the mark…With the squeegee you lose control.”

Like Pollock’s action painting, the mystery of Richter’s scraping technique inspired the filmmaker Corinna Belz to take viewers behind the scenes. For her fly-on-the-wall documentary Gerhard Richter Painting (2011), Belz spent three years in Richter’s studio, capturing the artist pulling paint across the canvas in what appear to be physically draining gestures. Richter drags, smears, and scrapes layers of wet paint, leaving tracks of his movements across the surface and then covering them up.

Airbrushing

“To avoid a painterly brushstroke and surface, I use some pretty devious means, such as razor blades, electric drills, and airbrushes,” explained the painter Chuck Close in an Artforum interview in 1970. Originally a photo-retouching tool, airbrushes use compressed air to spray paint onto a surface, creating smooth gradations that are reminiscent of photographs.

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