Recreating Jackson Pollock: The Blue Poles Project
The seemingly impossible ask. To follow the principles of the original for a client who happens to own some original Pollock artworks. No pressure then.
The Blue Poles project came about from an email sent by a client who’d seen my work (on this website) and decided they would very much like to own a painting similar to that of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.
At the time I didn’t think this would be possible, so I said I couldn’t do it.
However, when he told me that he happened to be the world’s largest private collector of Jackson Pollock’s original work I changed my mind pretty quickly.
The original Blue Poles hangs in the National Gallery of Australia; purchased by the gallery in 1973 from the legendary New York dealer and collector Ben Heller. My client, who commissioned this painting, owns 36 of Jackson Pollock’s original works. Obviously, he is not in a position to own this original but his desire to own a painting done in the style of Blue Poles prompted him to get in touch.
Unfortunately for my client, he is unable to take any of his original works outside the USA, due to limitations on insurance cover, so he asked if I could create something along the lines of Blue Poles for a property in Europe. After some careful consideration I said yes, I’d give it a go.
Having done some drip painting in the past I thought it would be straightforward. However, deconstructing the original proved to be a whole lot more difficult and painful than I could have ever imagined.
‘MORE BLUE POLES’
2015/16, enamels on canvas, 253cm x 138cm, hand-routed tulip wood frame, weight 46kg
DECONSTRUCTING THE LAYERS
The original Blue Poles
One of the most critical aspects of deconstructing Jackson Pollock’s paintings, especially his drip works (Blue Poles is widely considered to be one of his last great drip works), is understanding how each individual component layer, flick, dash and drop was applied to the canvas, in what order, with what colour paint and how it relates to all the other applications that are placed around it.
‘Blue Poles’ by Jackson Pollock
One of Pollock’s great mysteries, and one that has been pulled apart by academics for the last 60 years, is his ability to contain fractal like movements within an overall composition. Whether this was consciously done or not will no doubt remain a mystery.
I’ll explain that another time, but for now let’s just say that each small part or microcosm of a painting is often replicated in the entirety of the composition, so in the effort to try and deconstruct Blue Poles I spent my time analyzing as many hard copy photographs as I could.
Unfortunately it wasn’t possible to fly out to Australia at the time and look at it for myself (I think if I spent a day sat in front of it the security department might start to get a bit funny), so I bought myself a couple of books and studied its composition intensely for a several weeks.
One of the other considerations in this project was that my client wanted smaller version than the original, which measures over 4 metres long. His painting was to be no more than 2 ½ metres long. This meant digitally re-manipulating the original into the shape that the client required, which is slightly taller for the length if you see what I mean.
One of my biggest concerns was being able to space the poles to ensure that their angles were proportionately accurate. These form the backbone for all the other paint applications, even though, I might add, Pollock doesn’t appear to have painted it that way.
Proportionately, the overall shape may be marginally different, but the gaps between the poles and their angles are exactly the same as the original.
RECREATING THE PAINTS AND MATERIALS
Next stop on the merry-go-round of re-creating the legend that is Blue Poles, was material selection. For a discerning collector like my client, who is fully aware and conversant with what the originals look like, my desire was to try and get as close as possible to replicating the original materials that Jackson Pollock would have used. In this day and age, replicating his canvas accurately has been very difficult. However, I’ve kept to my normal Belgian primed canvas which suits my paints very well.
While we’re on the subject of paints, let’s look at that, as it’s probably the most important part of the material acquisition.
My paints are enamels which are, thankfully, the same kind of chemical composition as those Jackson Pollock would have used. This is purely a coincidence. I like using them and have done so for eight years. However, some of his paints were quite unusual. One of the silver (aluminium) paints he used was actually an automotive item manufactured by Du Pont (under their Duco brand), which had been popularized in the early 40s by some of the Detroit car manufacturers.
Recreating the original paints
I managed to find some information on the internet regarding the kind of silver paint Du Pont manufactured around the late 50s and I’ve used that to re-create the silver as close to the composition and characteristics that Pollock would have use. I’ve had to bring it up to date slightly though as I have to be considerate of the other paints that are applied.
The silver that is used on my version of Blue Poles doesn’t contain any chemical dryers. The original paint was intended for use in very thin layers for car body spraying. Without putting a chemical drying compound in, when it’s applied in thicker layers, air and temperature have little effect as they’re unable to penetrate through the curing surface. This means that the thicker the layers that are used, the longer it’s going to stay liquid.
What I’ve done with my interpretation is to use a very accurate reproduction of Pollock’s silver paint without the chemical dryers added to it. This has resulted in a drying time of around 5 ½ months since I first applied it. In fact, in some parts (because of the nature of how enamel paint dries), there will be elements of the painting that will never fully cure. Although I can’t find information to suggest that this is the case with the original Blue Poles, I think it’s kind of neat that we’ve got a painting that may never completely dry.
The knock on effect of this has been a reaction with the chemical compounds in some of the other paints that I’ve applied. With regard to the other paints I’ve used, I’ve modified my existing enamel paint base very slightly by reducing a couple of the compounds in them to try and get closer to the original paints that Pollock would have used. Trust me, I’ve got every aspect of the paint as close as I possibly can.
The outcome has been quite extraordinary and has given me a fresh insight into how he would have used his paints and, bearing in mind the effects that they produce, I can now better appreciate why he would have made some of the decisions he did while he was painting. The paint, whilst being extremely flexible, does have some rather constraining properties. This has been a very interesting experiment to see just how this slightly different versions of the paint behaves. One thing is generally agreed upon though and that’s that pollock created Blue Poles over a period of time, often leaving it then revisiting it. I have followed the same principle.
THE FIRST PAINTING SESSIONS
(OCTOBER – NOVEMBER 2015)
And so to the initial painting sessions. Let me just clarify what a session is because it will help you quantify how much work has gone into the painting.
A group of applications that I put on to the canvas that requires the paint to be mixed beforehand, chemical gloves and breathing apparatus to be put on and then to the point at which I can do no more on the canvas until that part I’m working on has sufficiently dried or cured to enable me to continue.
I first began by sketching out the poles. Having spent a considerable amount of time assessing exactly how this was constructed, I needed to get some idea of proportion once the canvas had been cut. I measured and scaled up each individual pole and put that in relation to the next one and so on, across the canvas. At this stage I decided to cut two canvases.
The point of this is that, just like any other commission, I always start with two variations for the client. Although this one was a little bit special and a voyage into the unknown, I wanted to have two so I could interpret Blue Poles in slightly different ways, with the hope that one of these would appeal to my client. That’s why some of the photos show two canvases being worked on at the same time.
Having sketched out the poles, I continued by putting the first series of blue paint where the poles were going to be. At this stage I knew that these early versions of the poles would get covered up by the paint layers that go over the top, but I also knew that as long as I could keep their structure correct and keep them in sight then I could fill them in and reconstruct them at various points as the painting continued in its development.
I am also aware that black and green can be seen on the original but, after careful consideration, I decided out leave these two colours out. I just felt they weren’t needed. Right or wrong that was the decision.
HANG ON A MOMENT! The ‘other’ Blue Poles is for sale
What am I talking about you may ask? I always paint TWO canvases for any commission – meaning there’s one that is available to buy if your pockets are deep enough
December brought about a sequence of layering that the painting required to give it its depth; this intermediate phase was all about building areas of colour and form. One thing that struck me about the original was that there was little canvas showing through. The volume of paint applications is bewildering. I knew I was going to need a lot of paint.
I knew my enamels wouldn’t allow me the luxury of getting this done quickly so that’s why I needed to literally make every application as authentic and correct as I could then leave it alone and get on with the next one. Knowing when to stop and stand back has been excruciating at times. On a commission like this it’s easy to ruin the whole thing if I’m not careful.
So at this stage I have several sessions of silver done, all the blue underpinning and that crucial first wave of orange.
I have also included an aged white (as well as bright white) as the painting tends to lean towards a slightly yellow look. I may be wrong but I suspect that the paint has a natural ageing effect and this may well be most noticeable on the light colours. Getting this effect is achieved simply using a combination of the two whites. The aged version (which contains an oil that discolours it slightly) was applied first so that the white could be accented later on – that way I can control the overall ‘yellowness’ by reducing its impact with white.
It’s at this point I am starting to have issues with the silver.
THE FINAL PAINTING SESSIONS
(JANUARY – MARCH 2016)
Three months of gradually building up to the final layers. The silver isn’t drying at all though which is causing me a headache. It’s OK to have it skin over as that allows me to preserve the integrity of its shape and carry on with everything else, but moving it or hanging it long enough to photograph is not possible just yet.
There’s a couple of things worth noting at this point. Now you can see the ‘poles’ clearly again – by this stage I have perhaps repainted them five times. They are the foundations that allow me to build the whole painting and they had to be respected. As paint went on they got covered up so being able to paint them back in has been a recurring theme.
By now I am turning my attention to the complex shapes that you can see at the very front of the painting. It is perhaps the most critical phase in terms of paint volumes – too much in any part makes it heavy and unbalanced (something the original most definitely isn’t).
Last applications and the final blending and crossing over of colours are now at their most critical. Pollock had an uncanny ability of weaving colours so that you don’t really know what order the paints were applied in. There really isn’t any proper clue to the painting’s construction – you kind of have to disassemble small parts at a time and just go with it until it starts to look like something. I’ve kept with the logic of reverse sequencing for the final layers.
Simply, it’s a way of organizing my brain to log a progression of backward steps. Let me give you an example (Geek Alert!)
If I see that orange is under white that’s two steps – orange first then white. If white has blue on top but is under yellow then it follows that yellow must go before blue. The next small part of the painting may have that third layer of blue under the orange which may be over white. Now I have to go blue, white and orange on that bit but not link it to the part I just started with.
However, I now have a 4 and 3 sequence where I can quickly work out which order to apply and then which ones to go back over to produce the layered effect once the initial applications have skinned over. Sorry if that all sounds like crap but it does work. It’s very involving painting like this but remarkably rewarding, oddly enough.
Basically I can see the order in my head without trying to write it down (thanks goodness!).
13 litres of paint, 1 gallon of thinners, 115 paint sessions, five months to paint
DRYING, CURING AND FRAMING
Great! Job done. Very happy with the finished painting.
But the f*****g thing refuses to dry. I mean, really? After nearly five months it’s not dry? The silver. That bloody silver paint will not cure. Air dry enamels need, um, air! When the top and bottom skins form around the dollops and drops the air cannot get in so well, so it doesn’t dry.
And believe me I tried everything. An electric blanket (you never know) and a raised platform to enable air to circulate underneath. Nothing happening. In the end I resorted to piercing every wet droplet of silver paint with a scalpel to let air get into it. And voila! it worked. This process took about five weeks to complete but it did at least get the silver dry enough to hang up.
The frame was specified by the client. A handmade tulip wood outer frame (30mm) with a matt black MDF inner (50mm). The stretcher bars were custom fabricated for this painting so every aspect of this commission is bespoke and a one-off. And as you can imagine, that amount of time, care, and effort doesn’t come cheap.
Mind you, it is still a tiny fraction of what the original would cost if it ever came up to auction (I think I’m right in thinking it’s insured for $500m AUD?).
Well done for reading to the end!
‘Blue Polls’ is for sale
Love the original, love Pollock? Excellent! Then you could be hanging this in your home within a week if you get in touch today