Hirshhorn Plaza


These two paintings by Jackson Pollock, Composition with Pouring II, 1943 (left), and Number 3, 1949: Tiger, 1949(right), have been studied to gain a better understanding of the paints that Pollock used as he developed his drip paintings, the body of work for which he is best known.

Composition with Pouring II has been cited as one of Pollock’s first drip paintings in which he poured and dripped house paint directly from cans. Examination coupled with pigment and medium analysis has shown otherwise. In fact, Pollock executed much of this work in a traditional manner, by brushing swirls of yellow, blue, red, green, and gray artists’ tube paints onto a pre-primed canvas that was already mounted to a stretcher. The pigments in these paints are all relatively pure and reflect an artists’ palette, indicating that Pollock was using good quality tube paints. A paint sample taken from the edge of the painting and examined in cross-section under a microscope shows a clear division between the three paint layers applied over the white lead ground. The well-defined and progressive layering of these colors demonstrates that the artist allowed time while he was executing this work for one layer to dry before the next was applied. Only the glossy dripped black, one of the last paints applied, is definitely house paint. Based on drip patterns, these skeins of thick, glossy paint were applied with the painting laid flat, foreshadowing the technique that would come to dominate Pollock’s later paintings.

Painted five years after Composition with Pouring II, Pollock’s Number 3, 1949: Tigerrepresents a full-fledged breakthrough to his drip technique. With the unstretched fabric spread out on the studio floor, the artist dribbled, dripped, and poured colored paints in orange, silver, yellow, green, white, and black onto the fabric sometimes straight from the can, or with sticks and stiffened brushes. A close look at this work reveals the decisions the artist was making in the act of painting. Some of the paints are matte, while others are glossy, and the lines vary from thick to thin and drawn out. In a few places, the intricate network of colors is so complex that it is difficult to establish an exact order of their application, and it is likely that Pollock went back and forth between colors, using them at both early and late stages of painting. The wet-in-wet interactions of many of these paints, which can be seen on the painting’s surface where different colors blend and bleed into each other, suggest that they were applied close together in time—possibly in short, vigorous bursts of creative activity. Elsewhere, the lower paint layer was dry before another layer was applied.

With few exceptions, the paints in Number 3 have all been identified as oil-modified alkyd paints, relatively newly developed synthetic resin-based paints marketed for coating interior and exterior architectural structures. Pollock never spoke specifically about his paints other than to say that he preferred a “liquid, flowing kind of paint.” And, while acknowledging that he worked spontaneously with admitted chance effects, he asserted that he maintained control while making his drip paintings. This study of just two paintings shows the shift in Pollock’s use of materials, from his reliance on artists’ oil paints in 1943 to the predominance of commercial paints in his work by 1949. As his method of working was evolving and as he developed his dripped paintings, the new synthetic paints seem to have met the criteria he was seeking.

Susan Lake, Eugena Ordonez, and Michael Schilling, 2004. “A Technical Investigation of Paints used by Jackson Pollock in his Drip or Poured Paintings,” in Modern Art, New Museums, Contributions to the Bilbao Congress, 137–41, International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.

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