How Jackson Pollock Worked

A view of the paint-splattered floor of an art studio used by artist Jackson Pollock.
A view of the paint-splattered floor of an art studio used by artist Jackson Pollock
Susan Wood/Getty Images

One of the most well-known, and quintessentially American, artists of the 20th century is undoubtedly Jackson Pollock. Even if you think of his famous "drip" technique as something so simple a child could do it, his fame has been firmly cemented in the American consciousness. Public and private collections all over the world include Pollock's work, and one -- "Number 5 1948," discussed later in this article ­-- is reportedly the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, with a price tag of $140 million [source: Pilkington]. Pollock's life has become nearly as famous as his paintings, due to his battle with alcoholism and untimely death. In 2000, actor and director Ed Harris released the biographical film "Pollock," which won critical praise and an Academy Award for the supporting performance of Marcia Gay Harden, who played Pollock's wife, Lee Krasner.

Though his body of work falls into a number of categories throughout his career, most critics associate Pollock with the movement known as Abstract Expressionism. As a participant in the movement's emergence in New York in the late 1930s and 1940s, Pollock sought to abandon the common tropes and methods of earlier artistic schools. The Abstract Expressionists (who were never a formal group, and only named so later) placed tremendous value on the process of creating art, something they saw as being of equal importance with the final product. Other artists in the movement included Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Barnett Newman, all of whom were inspired by European modernism. The work of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Wassily Kandinsky was exhibited in New York during the emergence of the Abstract Expressionist movement, and had a tremendous impact on the artists working in and around the city then [source: Metropolitan Museum of Art].


In turn, Jackson Pollock influenced scores of other artists. By popularizing the process of "action painting," he brought a level of performance to the art world that it had never seen before. And Pollock and his fellow Abstract Expressionists put their country firmly on the map of the modernist art landscape.

Jackson Pollock's Early Life and Influences

Paul Jackson Pollock was born on Jan. 28, 1912, in the small town of Cody, Wyo. At the time of his birth, Pollock's parents, Stella and LeRoy, were sheep farmers. After the family's attempts at farming proved unsuccessful, LeRoy Pollock took a job as a government surveyor, which led the family to places like Arizona and California. Pollock's travels in the American West left an indelible mark on the artist and his work. Native American sand painting arguably had the greatest effect on his practical process; like sand painting, Pollock's most famous works were done on a flat surface, where he could approach them from all sides. The emphasis on process, and not just the final product, became Pollock's signature style. Native American motifs also found their way into some of Pollock's earlier works. "Birth," for example, uses imagery from traditional Inuit art [source: Tate Collection].

At the age of 18, Pollock moved to New York City to study at the Art Students League. There he worked with a number of well-known artists, including Thomas Hart Benton and Mexican artists Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros. Pollock was drawn to their large-scale murals, a preference later reflected in his oversized works. Benton was particularly influential during Pollock's early time in New York, encouraging the young artist to study the Old Masters. Throughout the 1930s, Pollock observed, assisted and even posed for the muralists, letting their influence guide his own work. Pollock was invited to participate in his first exhibition, held at the Brooklyn Museum, in 1932. Five years later, he joined the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Program [source: The Art Story]. Part of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) programs were created to provide work for people during the Great Depression. The Federal Art Program (FAP) was specifically geared toward commissioning murals, canvases, posters and sculptures that were patriotic and figurative, rather than abstract. Pollock's own work reflects that trend, though by the time he left the FAP in 1943, his art was heading in a decidedly abstract direction.


Jackson Pollock's Success and Decline

Pollock sits with a dog at his Springs studio in New York in 1953.
Pollock sits with a dog at his Springs studio in New York in 1953.
Tony Vaccaro/Getty Images

One of Jackson Pollock's fellow artists in the WPA was a woman named Lee Krasner. Like Pollock, her work focused on abstract expressionism, and each was increasingly influenced by the other. In 1945, the two artists married and moved to Springs, N.Y., on Long Island. The move was financed by Pollock's patron and dealer, Peggy Guggenheim, at whose gallery his work would be introduced to the New York artistic elite. It was at the studio in Springs where Pollock began to cement what would become his signature style, known as "action painting." Pollock would roll out a canvas on his studio floor, tacking it down rather than stretching it on a wood frame, and then attack it with paint. Rather than using a soft paint brush, as most artists of the day preferred, Pollock used sticks, stiff brushes and even turkey basters to achieve the desired effect. Thus, the sticks and brushes were merely vehicles for the paint, and rarely (if ever) came into direct contact with the canvas. Though the resulting paintings looked random and accidental, Pollock insisted that he began each work with an idea of how it should look at the end.

The years between 1947 and 1950 became known as Jackson Pollock's "Drip Period." His work during the Drip Period caused a sensation in not only the art world, but also in the wider sphere of pop culture; Life magazine even published an article about his work in August 1949 [source: Pollock Krasner House]. The press nicknamed him "Jack the Dripper." But the window of his success was brief.


Pollock's troubles with alcohol and depression began in his teenage years. For brief stretches of time, he remained sober, but inevitably Pollock slid back down into the battle with alcoholism. His sudden popularity and the accompanying demand for more paintings led him to suddenly abandon his action paintings in 1951. He returned to the more figurative works of his early career, and used darker colors more frequently. His relationship with his wife, Lee, became strained. On Aug. 11, 1956, Pollock was driving less than a mile from his home, with his girlfriend Ruth Kligman and a woman named Edith Metzger in the car. Pollock was drunk and crashed the vehicle. No other cars were involved. Both Pollock and Metzger were killed in the crash; Pollock was just 44 years old.

Jackson Pollock Paintings

Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner enter the barn door of their Springs studio.
Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner enter the barn door of their Springs studio.
Tony Vaccaro/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"Landscape with Steer," painted between 1936 and 1937, illustrates the innovations with which Pollock experimented during that time. In the spring of 1936, Pollock frequented the "Laboratory" of David Alfaro Siqueiros, who was interested in using non-traditional painting techniques like airbrushing and pouring. Pollock used the airbrushing technique in "Landscape with Steer," adding an abstract wash to the more realistic landscape [source: Warhol Stars]. The titular subject matter is also important to note, as it reflects both the influence of the American West and the thematic choices of Pollock's fellow WPA artists. This painting resides at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Jackson Pollock worked with Jungian psychoanalysts to deal with his alcoholism and depression. The therapists used Pollock's art as part of his treatment, and one of the resulting works was "Male and Female." Pollock was drawn to the process of psychoanalysis as it related to his painting; he felt that tapping into his subconscious gave his work more authenticity and symbolism [source: New World Encyclopedia]. The subjects of this particular work are, as the title suggests, male and female figures. Both are highly abstract and portrayed in bold primary colors. During his period of Jungian analysis, Pollock closely studied the works of the Surrealist artist Joan Miró and the Cubist Pablo Picasso. Both artists distorted the human form in their work, just as Pollock did in "Male and Female." This one's in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


During his Drip Period, Pollock abandoned the use of titles for his paintings, and instead identified them by number and year. Pollock's reason for this was to avoid distracting the viewer with his own personal bias, allowing their own ideas about the painting to come to the fore [source: Columbia University]. One such numbered painting is "Number 5 1948." In many ways, this painting is the archetypal Pollock, with its bold colors, large size (4 feet by 8 feet, or 1.23 meters by 2.44 meters) and frenzy of paint drips. Paintings like "Number 5" have led scientists to study Pollock's technique in terms of fractals, mathematical ratios considered to be perfect and found most often in nature. Mathematicians have been able to chart the evolution of Pollock's drip technique using fractals, accurately authenticating and dating the paintings based on the mathematics hidden within [source: Connor]. Currently, "Number 5 1948" is owned by a private collector.

For lots more information on Jackson Pollock and other influential artists, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Conner, Steve. "Some method in Pollock's chaos." The Independent. June 3, 1999. (April 12, 2010)
  • Cotter, Holland. "Jackson Pollock at the Guggenheim: Works of Swirls and Pixie Dust." The New York Times. May 26, 2006. (April 5, 2010)
  • Hardt, Athia L. "The Art of Navajo Sand Paintings." The New York Times. Oct.2, 1988. (April 5, 2010)
  • Art We Love. "Jackson Pollock." (April 7, 2010)
  • Koppelman, Dorothy. "Jackson Pollock-and True and False Ambition: The Urgent Difference." TG Online. (April 6, 2010)
  • The New World Encyclopedia. "Jackson Pollock." (April 6, 2010)
  • Paris Muse. "Jackson Pollock and Shamanism." (April 5, 2010)
  • Paul, Stella. "Abstract Expressionism." The Metropolitan Museum of Art. (April 5, 2010)
  • Pilkington, Ed. "Mexican splashes out record $140m for Jackson Pollock's drops of genius." The Guardian. Nov. 3, 2006. (April 6, 2010)
  • Pollock Krasner House and Study Center. (April 11, 2010)
  • Prescott, Judith. "Jackson Pollock and the Native American Unconscious." RFI. Oct. 24, 2008. (April 6, 2010)
  • Remer, Ashley. "Jackson Pollock." The Art Story. (April 4, 2010)
  • Schatz, Jean Ershler. "Biography for Jackson Pollock." (April 7, 2010)
  • The Tate Collection. "Birth, circa 1941." March 2007. (April 6, 2010)
  • The Visual Media Center. "Jackson Pollock: A Monograph." Columbia University. (April 4, 2010)
  • Warhol Stars. "Abstract Expressionism, 1936." (April 4, 2010)
  • Wolf, Justin. "Works Progress Administration (WPA)." The Art Story. (April 5, 2010)