The Life and Work of Jackson Pollock

By discussing Jackson Pollock's painting techniques, students can engage in an exploration of what makes art, art.

By Daniella Garran


Jackson Pollock

Born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912, American artist Jackson Pollock was on the cutting edge of Abstract Expressionism. Though influenced to some extent by Surrealist and Mexican mural painters, Pollock developed a unique style that allowed him to “drip and splash” paint across a large canvas which had to be secured to the floor. Pollock himself was literally part of the painting; noticeable in most of his works are handprints, cigarette ashes and the like. Pollock married fellow artist Lee Krasner who was widowed when Pollock died prematurely in a car accident.

Students will need some instruction in the theories and tenets of the Abstract Expressionists before they start splattering paint on a huge canvas. Students should have a fairly structured lesson which explains the motivations and methods of the Expressionists and how they varied from country to country. Offer a brief lecture which explains that the themes inherent in the work of the Expressionists were spontaneity and improvisation. Explain that Expressionists were more interested in the process of creating the art than they were in the final product. Be sure to show students a range of Expressionist paintings including those done by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hoffmann and Robert Motherwell and sculptures created by David Smith and others.  

Students of all ages will relish the opportunity to engage in some Pollock inspired painting. Secure a large canvas or piece of drywall, if possible, otherwise an old sheet will work just as well. Give each student a chance to participate in the creation, perhaps assigning each student his or her own color of paint. Once the class has completed its work in the style of Pollock, have them write an artists’ statement to which all members of the class contribute. What follows are more lessons to go with a study of the artist Jackson Pollock.

The Life and Work of Jackson Pollock:

Inside Scoop: Jackson Pollock

This brochure published by the National Gallery of Art is designed especially for students who are learning about Jackson Pollock. There are brief readings which elucidate his style, methods and materials as well as a variety of activities that can easily be incorporated into a classroom curriculum. Students can gain experience with VTS (Visual Thinking Strategies) as well.

Abstract Expressionism: Action Painting and Color Field

Students explore not only the life and work of Jackson Pollock but also that of his contemporaries including Paul Klee, Helen Frankenthaler, Mark Rothko and Willem de Kooning as part of this lesson on Abstract Expressionism. Students will engage in a critical analysis of a number of different works of art in addition to creating their own work drawing on the same themes, skills, methods and media as those employed by the artists highlighted in this lesson.

The Influence of Jazz Music in Twentieth Century Art

This unique lesson allows teachers to draw comparisons between the art and music of the twentieth century by highlighting Jackson Pollock’s work and its relationship to music. Students discuss how the elements of chance and accident factor into art as well as into music.

The Theme of Rebellion in the 1950s as it Occurs in the Arts

For teachers seeking a broad-based and inclusive approach to American history, this lesson offers just that. Students consider the art, music, and dance movements of the 1950s and how they played a role in the social and cultural history and events of the era. Students also discuss how the social and cultural climate of America in the 1950s influenced the art, music, literature and dance that was produced during that decade.