Make an action painting

“A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.” 

Elaine de Kooning, painter

What is action painting?

This activity shares how you can make your own action painting at home using paints, crayons, paper, and water.

Action painting is when an artwork is by splashing, dripping, pouring, and squirting paint to a surface rather than carefully applying it with a brush (Tate, 2021). This process is associated with the Abstract Expressionism movement made famous by American artists such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Jackson Pollock.

About this activity

Written by Jessica Lam (Pedagogical Coordinator at the Forest of Stars preschool, Malaysia), this post shares how parents can do this process-led art activity at home with children aged 1 year and up. Jessica describes the process of action painting as similar to ‘dancing’ with the paint:

“As the lightness of the watery colours leads to flowing, swirling, and dancing beyond our control, we have the power to stop the flow with our hands, with brushes, and with heavier media like acrylic paints and crayons. The experience of being with paint…in paint… it’s a process… an experiment! It is evocative and reflective of our experiences in the world. Letting go, having control, and experiencing the freedom, empowerment, and beauty that exists within the experience of painting.

Jessica did this activity at home with her 1 year and 11 months-old daughter, Anya. The following steps encourage children to explore paint’s unexpected interactions with water, chalk, pastel, and oil paints through play.

What you need to do your action painting

  • Floor protector (e.g. bedsheet, tarpaulin, or plastic covering)
  • Paints of various types (e.g. gouache paint, acrylic paint, water colours, food colouring). Offering children a variety of paints creates different opportunities for experimentation as each type interacts differently with the water. I recommend selecting one or two colours to start. Then introduce white and black paint in response to children’s play, this will all children to explore different shades, tints, and aesthetic effects on the paper.
  • Paint brushes of various sizes or just one brush will do.
  • Pastels (chalk and oil pastels work well)
  • Watercolor paper (At least 200gsm in weight, I used the A2 size)
  • Paint trays (jars, lids, and Tupperware lids work great)
  • Small water dispensers (i.e. squeeze bottles, pump bottles, spray bottles)

Setting up 

  1. Lay down the floor covering. Working on the floor allows for children to use their bodies and work collaboratively with other children.
  2. Lay the materials and tools out. I squeezed the paints into the jar lids and palettes and positioned them around the outside of the floor covering and in the middle of the paper. I then placed the water containers (squeeze and spray bottles) at the top ends of the floor covering and some of the brushes to the side as an option. Some children may prefer to use their hands. I also setup a mirror so Anya would be able to observe herself as she played. 
  3. Prepare for scaffolding: I put the chalk and oil pastels in a small bowl and places off to the side so I could introduce to Anya in response to her play.

Play prompts

The following open-ended questions can be used to prompt children’s play:

  • What is happening to the paint when you squeeze/spray/pump out the water?
  • What is happening to the water?
  • Do you notice the colours moving? What does the movement remind you of? 
  • How do you feel when the colours flow? 
  • How do you feel when you draw?

Art techniques that can be demonstrated: Squeezing paint, pumping, spraying, pouring, mixing, stirring, smearing, splashing, layering, brushing, splattering, squishing, poking, rubbing, drawing

Vocabulary that can be introduced: dissolve, flow, float, splash, splatter, flood, pool, smear, and swirl.

Connecting children’s action painting to contemporary art

Californian artist, Heather Day’s abstract paintings caught my attention when undertaking research for this activity. I greatly admire her ability to evoke a sense of freedom alongside her sensitivity towards the elements of colours, shapes and lines. To me, her work speaks of child-like wonder, complemented with, perhaps, more serious stories about the journey of life. Heather received her BFA from The Maryland Institute College of Art. Her art has been exhibited internationally including at The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and The Urban Institute of Contemporary Art, USA.

A quote from Heather’s website reads:

“Day makes abstract paintings comprised of scraped, smeared, and flooded pools of pigment. The compulsive energy of her work oscillates between rehearsed abandon and careful restraint. Her encompassing murals, large canvases, and intimate drawings study the mechanisms of sensory perception — mining what happens when the body interprets a sound as a texture, or a scent as a color“.

This post and activity was created by Jessica Lam from Forest of Stars preschool (Malaysia). You can follow Jessica on Instagram

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