Research point: The Abstract Expressionists and Action Painting (Tachism)

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

8 January 2017. One should never try and guess at the meaning of a word from what you think you know. “Tachism” (French: tachisme) to me appeared obvious, derived from the Greek word for speed, tachos. But not so, the word comes from the French for stain, tache. It is similar to action painting and considered to be more or less synonymous with the Informel, a more intuitive, gesture-centred counter movement to the geometrical analysis of colour and shape as celebrated by e.g. Josef Albers (1888-1976, Germany/USA) and is the 1940/1950s European equivalent to Abstract Expressionism developed in the USA. In contrast to the latter its proponents were somewhat less aggressive and spontaneous in the use of paint (Tate, n.d.(a), Collins, n.d.(a)).
The term “Tachisme” was originally coined much earlier by art critics to describe a number of different approaches to using paint in a “blotchy” way, including Impressionism, while the movement itself developed into one of the largest in Post World War II Europe and comprises works or art “without predefined form or structure”. Mark-making includes everything from any sort of coincidental splotch to calligraphic elements, often directly from the tube (Collins, n.d.(a)). Many contributing artists were either French and/or based in France. Among the most influential artists of the 20th century was Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985, France), co-founder of the Art Brut movement. He is quoted to have said:”Personally, I believe very much in values of savagery; I mean: instinct, passion, mood, violence, madness.” (Collins, n.d.(b)), which to me appears to be at the centre of tachism, i.e. to capture the essence of being in the moment. Most well known Dubuffet became for his rough, provocative graffiti-like paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, e.g. “Grand Maitre of the Outsider” painted in 1947 (Wikiart, n.d.). Gestural painter Hans Hartung (1904-1989, Germany/France, (Tate, n.d. (b))) appears to have interpreted Tachism with a more subtle, delicate and sketchlike brushstroke (Artnet, n.d.; Setareh Gallery, n.d.), and a video showing his gestural approach (Ophanin, 2014). Georges Mathieu (1921-2012, France, (Collins, n.d.(c))) is known for his “spiky, calligraphic style”, which in some way appears related to that of Hartung’s, but its effects (and those of image cultivation, see a video (Warin and Batton, 1965)) greatly increased to quasi Baroque dimensions, in a style described as Lyrical Abstraction. Patrick Heron (1920-1999, UK), on the other hand, was influenced by colour field painting in the style of Mark Rothko and is outstanding in his ingenious use of vivid colour and sensitive compositions including abstract shapes derived from nature (Collins, n.d.(d)).
Franz Kline (1910-1962, USA) and Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, USA, (The Art Story, n.d.(b))) were two preeminent representatives of American Abstract Expressionism. The former trained as a graphical artist and illustrator and his abstract graphical black and white images are considered to be action painting in its purest sense ((The Art Story, n.d.(a))). His technique can be watched in a video here (The Museum of Modern Art, 2010): Kline preferred to use cheap brands of house paint, because their non-art qualities, including the low viscosity, bore a great attraction for him. Action painting as a record of the artist’s movements in time and space is of course present also in the work of Jackson Pollock. The sheer complexity makes the history of mark-making however hardly traceable in any one of his giant size drip and splatter paintings (The Art Story, n.d.(b).
Abstract expressionist has been at the centre of interest ever since its first appearance and the list of artists now working in an abstract expressionist or offshoot way is endless (Pinterest, n.d.). A great number of painters working now have developed the original idea further and combined it with or replaced it by the new techniques offered by the modern media.


Artnet (n.d.) Hans Hartung [image collection] [online]. Artnet, Berlin. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(b)) Jean Dubuffet [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(c)) Georges Mathieu [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Collins, N. (n.d.(d)) Patrick Heron [online]. Visual Arts Encyclopedia, Cork. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Ophanin, M. (2014) Radio Palettes – Hans Hartung [online]. Mathieu Ophanin. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Pinterest (n.d.) Abstrakter Expressionismus [image collection] [online]. Pinterest. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Setareh Gallery (n.d.) Hans Hartung. Painting – Gesture – Liberation [image collection] [online]. Setareh Gallery, Düsseldorf. Available at:—hans-hartung-.-malerei—geste—befreiung.html [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(a)) Tachisme [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Tate (n.d.(b)) Hans Hartung [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Franz Kline [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Jackson Pollock [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

The Museum of Modern Art (2010) The Painting Techniques of Franz Kline [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Warin, F. and Batton, J. (1965) Le “Cas” Mathieu [online]. British Pathé. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]

Wikiart (n.d.) Jean Dubuffet: Grand Maitre of the Outsider [online]. Wikiart. Available at: [Accessed 8 January 2017]


Part 4, project 1, exercise 2: From inside looking out: Hard or soft landscape

Updated on 19 March 2017 (Harvard referencing).

27 October 2016. In this exercise I would like to revisit the things I learned when investigating thermal imaging during Part 3 of this course and carry them over to capture the mood of my chosen landscape.

First I started a mini series of sketches looking through the gaps of park benches. The “landscape” of natural and man-made materials one can find under a bench tells a lot about the people who use that bench, but after a few instances I found that the view would be too 2-dimensional for the purpose of this exercise. I might come back to it at a later point during Part 4 or as part of my personal project in Part 5.

To be honest I am no soft landscape person and I very much enjoy the rough aspect of rocky mountains and cityscapes. In preparation for this exercise I did something dangerous and totally irresponsible, I had my camera with me and took a series of pictures of our city while driving home from my son’s school. There is a major crossroads next to our favourite hospital, where the most prominent feature is a circular landing platform for helicopters on the roof of the emergency department and the very best view on that is from the car. This view is what I wanted to try in this exercise.

First I produced two sketches, one watercolour, the other acrylic (Fig. 1-2):

Figure 1. Sketchbook – hospital crossroads, watercolour
Figure 2. Sketchbook – hospital crossroads, acrylics

29 October 2016. After my two  preliminary sketches I decided that for the final painting I would try and stay with the rough mark-making, since it reflects the ephemeral impression I gained while driving, and carefully plan the introduction of colours corresponding to those associated with thermographic imaging.

But first a little research into contemporary art of a similar kind.
“Cityscapes” appear to be a favourite subject for countless artists, but I noticed that many of them are quite ugly, so I had to do some very thorough research in order to find what I was looking for. An overview over the history of the genre (Fernández, n.d.) traces the origin of the genre to Ancient Greece and Rome, where some very beautiful mural paintings prove its existence at the time. The changing styles in cityscape painting over the centuries reflect those found in all other genres, so that again everything has become possible in our time. Interestingly, the preferred subject – by far – appears to be New York on a rainy day and the next in the list is Venice on a sunny day, which always makes me wonder why. There are as many great views in our world as there are places to look from, but I guess that not everybody connects with everything in the same way.
An Austrian artist specialising in cityscapes – Venice mostly – who I have come across quite a lot in the book section of my favourite art shop is “Voka” (*1965), who created this own style named “spontaneous realism” (Voka, 2011). Although I do not feel comfortable with his prolific use of colour, I like his mark-making and hope to be able to introduce some of that into my own work, together with the beautiful handling of light using broad brushstrokes by Hsin Yao Tseng (*1986, Taiwan/USA) (Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara) (Fig. 3). So off to testing the effect of this sort of brushstrokes.

Figure 3. Sketchbook – printout of Hsin Yao Tseng “Bush Street in the Mist” to serve as help with testing loose brushwork

I soon found that in my sketchbook I would not be able to reproduce brushstrokes like that, not least because acrylic paint, no matter how good the quality, tends to level out the texture of any support with an increasing number of layers. Also for me the 25 x 25 cm format is simply too small to work in such a rough way – maybe this will come with time and practice. And in addition, which is probably the main reason, the street and houses below came straight from my head with no intention of creating a painting at all. Most importantly, I failed to be “consistently rough” by never gaining true control over my brushstrokes (Fig. 4):

Figure 4. Sketchbook – a meagre attempt at loose and accurate brushstrokes

The difficulties I encountered, however, were valuable hints for the preparation of my finished painting. Especially, I realized that I would need to feel the exact colour and place of every single brushstroke with care. My plan therefore was to find a largish glass plate, on which I could prepare the mixes I wanted to use. It is also immensely important to have a good idea of the wateriness of my mixes, because this has an immediate effect on the transparency and reaction with the dry paint underneath. Once the underlying layers are smooth throughout I find that a watery dilution will cause puddles of paint to form in any small dent in the paper – see last floor of small building on the left. It is fine if intentional, but not so if I want to create the illusion of an intact building. In Hsin’s painting above the roughness never leaves an impression of desolation. The buildings appear to be in very good shape despite the deceivingly careless use of colour. Mine on the other had appear to be crumbling without the “carelessness”. A weird effect. Need to find out while working on my finished painting for this exercise.

1 November 2016. I prepared the glass plate for mixing colours and found it wonderfully easy to use and clean (finally a working solution!) (Fig. 5):

Figure 5. My glass plate for mixing paint (nearly invisible on my table)

Next I started on the background for my final painting (A2 painting carton), intending to have some thermographic components to be included in the composition (Fig. 6-7):

Figure 6. Preparing the background (1)
Figure 7. Preparing the background (2)

3 November 2016. At first I found it immensely difficult to slow down and explore mark-making. Only when I had a relatively good idea regarding my choice of colours and after several background layers I was able to use the intended marks. Maybe this is the secret behind it all – have a decent working composition, then add the final marks. This is also what Hsin’s painting looks like.
Here is the long sequence for the last three days (but not quite there yet) (Fig. 8-12):

Figure 8
Figure 9
Figure 10
Figure 11

And this was where I felt that I was able to start loosening up:

Figure 12

Here finally are some of the marks I was after, wanting to use them throughout the painting (Fig. 13):

Figure 13. Finally some purposeful loose mark-making

5 November 2016. That was the idea, anyway. I should have known that I would not be able to remain focused on consistent mark-making, the format was too large for me. But it was the first time ever that I felt in absolute connection with what I did, and I enjoyed every bit of those few square centimetres. This I will try and remember throughout the rest of the course and always.
Here come the final two stages of the painting (Fig. 14-15):

Figure 14
Figure 15. Finished painting

So, overall, I am happy about some important discoveries made. Also, the mood of the place is about right, I wanted it to feel both real and at the same time disconnected in an eerie, somewhat threatening way. Not not so pleased with the technical aspects, however, especially the erratic mark-making and failing to capture the ephemeral quality of the impression. This came about, probably, because I wanted too many things at the same time.


Fernández, G. (n.d.) Painting the City: The History of Cityscapes [online]. online art magazine, [n.k.]. Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2016]

Voka (2011) Venezia – Auf der Suche nach dem perfekten Bild [online]. Voka, Puchberg am Schneeberg. Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2016]

Waterhouse Gallery (n.d.) Hsin-Yao Tseng [online]. Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara. Available at: [Accessed 29 October 2016]



Part 1, project 1, exercise 3: Painting with pastels

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

24 February, 2016. Since during Drawing 1 I used both oil pastels and soft pastels extensively I decided that I would go straight for the suggested small painting. I felt I needed to paint something very gentle and peaceful for once. Choosing a photo we had taken last Christmas I developed my layout from there. On a 40 x 40 cm square painting carton, a size I quite like for reasons I can only guess at, I prepared the background first and painted the figure of my son on top of that. With pastels this technique will already lead to a 3D impression. Since the goal of the exercise is to practice both mark-making and blending, I decided to make the background indistinct while combining both painting and drawing in the figure of my son (Fig. 2 below).

Figure 2. Christmas 2015, soft pastels on painting carton

This was the first time I used a painting carton with soft pastels and I soon discovered that the surface, at least of the brand I had chosen, would not take up the pigment quite as readily as the pastel paper I normally use, in fact found it impossible to blend the colours with a brush. All of them literally fell off the canvas – apart from vermillion that is, which turned out to be practically indelible. So I used my fingers for blending, which I normally prefer anyway, but this meant that I was unable to correct the fine detail on my son’s face, so mouth and chin are not totally correct.
To illustrate the difference between “all over” blending and mixing painting and drawing I include two close-up photos (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 below):

Figure 3. Blended colours only, glass rocking horse on Christmas tree reflecting candlelight
Figure 4. Blending combined with drawing elements

Looking at the result I am pleased not to have subdued the bright background colours. I think that they help convey the feeling of joy associated with seeing the candles burning on the Christmas tree.
If I use pastels on a painting carton again I will try and prepare the surface of the carton with a layer of paint or something similar. Another surface I have been planning to use and did not have time to during Drawing 1 was fine-grained sand paper, which during tests proved extremely versatile. I am not sure, however, whether that would count as painting.

Part 1, project 1, exercise 1b: Getting to know your brushes – landscape from memory

Post updated on 18 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

15 February, 2016. Last year I had a dream, in which I was flying, for the first time since my childhood. It was an incredibly vivid, colourful, 3D experience. I flew over a rocky ridge made up of Mars-coloured giant blocks. The ridge was bordered on the left side by a savannah-like landscape and dropped off to the right. It travelled more or less up to the horizon, where on its farthest outcrop there sat a giant, Mars-coloured chanterelle with two window-like openings. This is the landscape I have been planning to paint since the dream and I will take the opportunity to make a first sketch for this exercise (see Fig. 1 below):

Figure 1. My dream chanterelle

I found it relatively difficult to capture a true likeness of my dream image, since it was only a second long at the time, during which I flew over the landscape at high speed. On the other hand I was free to fill the gaps with whatever my imagination came up with. I had lots of weird ideas reminding me of Hieronymus Bosch (The Netherlands, 1450 – 1516), whose incredibly imaginative work I love and whose 500 year anniversary is celebrated this year (National Gallery of Art, 2017). The most well-known of this works is probably “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, oil on panel, ca. 1480-1505, source: Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

16 February, 2016. I decided, however, to leave the idea of a more extended version of my above sketch for later in the course, when my skills have improved.
In the above, in order to continue the experience gained in the mark-making experiment I tried to make use of most types of brushmark, except for the footprint-like marks often used for foliage, which I personally do not like for the evenness of the result. For me, most mark-making and the interaction with its results has been more or less intuitive so far, but I will start making a habit of observing closely and learning how to best translate into my personal painting language the effects of different marks, in particular by studying and comparing the ways of contemporary artists before attempting an exercise.
So, off to painting a piece of fruit next.


  1. National Gallery of Art (2017) ‘Bosch, Hieronymus. Biography’ [online]. National Gallery of Art, Collection, Artists 17 Feb. Available at [Accessed 17 February]