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How to Paint like Helen Frankenthaler

A look at Abstract Expressionist Painter, Helen Frankenthaler and how to recreate the look of her painting Mountains and Sea

Helen Frankenthaler painting with her soak stain method

There is something about Helen Frankenthaler’s work that just gets me. She’s an abstract artist with a masterful sense of complimentary colors and organic shapes. Her work feels both happenstance, but also like nothing was left up to chance. Frankenthaler also knew something crucial, something that every artist must learn— she knew when to stop. Almost, maybe even every one of her paintings, has just the right amount of paint, lines, shapes, and colors.

Am I laying the compliments on a little too thick?

That would be opposite of Frankenthaler’s work, considering she is most well known for her soak-stain method which involved pouring thinned-out paint onto untreated canvas. The paint worked as more of a wash, staining the canvas, and bleeding across the natural fibers.

She first used this technique on her painting Mountains and Sea in 1952.

Helen Frankenthaler's painting Mountains and Sea

By using an unprimed canvas, we can see the balance that Frankenthaler created between intent and accident. She was able to place the paint where she wanted, but then, the absorbency and way the paint stained the canvas was out of her control. It was as if the painter and her materials were co-creating artwork.

Frankenthaler was a part of the Color Field Movement. It was a subset of the larger art movement Abstract Expressionism that originated in New York in the 1940s and 1950s.

The pioneers of Color Field were primarily focused on the expressive power of color. To get the full expression of the color, they often worked in large formats, looking to overwhelm and envelope the viewer.

However, Frankenthaler’s style and work are very different from the artists attributed with the start of Color Field— Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still. When you compare Frankenthaler’s first “soak-stain”, Mountains and Sea, with their paintings, the difference is obvious.

Instead of stark blocks of color, we see colors that dance, that have movement, that are freed

from the canvas and allowed to blend back in space or come forward with brightness. As opposed to a controlled preciseness, there is a spontaneity in her work.

Her work evolved to larger canvases with larger blocks of color, but overall, they never quite

lost the same qualities of movement, freedom, and openness that we see in Mountain and Sea.

Frankenthaler, inspired after visiting the Nova Scotia coast, created this piece which can be viewed as an abstract landscape. We can interpret the washes of blue as the Atlantic Ocean and other sections as the rocky shoreline.

Along with the color palette she used, I also admire the way she combined line and color for this composition. We get these wonderful, outlined sections of color that remind me of how Matisse would sometimes outline his figures.

The sections of color in Mountains and Sea are organic and natural, fitting together harmoniously as parts of a whole. The soft, muted colors, all in the same tonal family, are as harmonious as the shapes they create.

Frankenthaler’s “soak-stain” approach inspired other abstract artists. Kenneth Noland and

Morris Louis both went on to try her approach of laying down color on the canvas. And yes, you read that correctly, two men in the 1950’s were impressed with the artistic techniques of a woman.

There’s something about standing before a blank canvas with a paintbrush, willing abstract images and shapes to come to life, that can be a little intimidating the first time you try it. If you are new to painting in the abstract, trying Helen Frankenthaler’s approach might be a good place to start. There’s less pressure when using her approach and a lot more freedom.

The trickiest part to this approach (and it really isn’t all that tricky) would be getting your hands on the materials. You need untreated canvas, for one. When you walk into a boxy, big-brand kind of an art supply store, like Michael’s Arts and Crafts, you’re going to find pre-made canvases for purchase that had already been treated with gesso. Gesso has a similar look and texture to white paint, but you can think of it more as a primer. To get a painting to have the look and feel of Helen Frankenthaler’s work you’ll want to purchase untreated canvas, however. Most fabric stores or professional grade art supply stores would carry it though or you can find it online, of course.

Since you’ll be working with just fabric, you might want a way to display your painting when you’re finished. I recommend this tutorial here on how to create your own frame for the canvas.

But for now, you can lay out cut pieces of the fabric before creating a frame. Just remember to leave some space on the edges because those will be wrapped around any frame you make.

To paint like Helen Frankenthaler and in her soak-stain method you’ll need to thin out your paint. Mountains and Sea was painted with thinned out oil-paint, but many of her works were created with acrylic. You can learn about the difference between the two types of paint here. I’m using acrylic because it is water-based, making it easier to thin-out and get to work.

For a full demonstration you can watch me try this technique and paint like Helen Frankenthaler did.

Sometimes I can get caught up in wanting something to look good or look like the image I was inspired by. So, I think the important take-away from trying this technique, is to remember that what you create is up to you. You can experiment in any way you want. We aren’t recreating, we are creating. So have fun with this technique and see what happens.

Frankenthaler was a prolific artist with hundreds of paintings and works on paper that she created between the 1950’s and 2000’s. The way she found interesting and inventive titles for all these works alone is enough to impress me. Some of her more charming titles include Snow Basin, Borrowed Dream, Red Travels, and Flirt. Take a look through her work and gather inspiration and then try your hand at making some of your own.

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