Gestural is a term used to describe the application of paint in free sweeping gestures with a brush

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  • Hans Hofmann, 'Nulli Secundus' 1964
    Hans Hofmann
    Nulli Secundus 1964
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2136 x 1318 mm

    Purchased 1986© The estate of Hans Hofmann
  • Franz Kline, 'Meryon' 1960-1
    Franz Kline
    Meryon 1960-1
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2359 x 1956 mm
    frame: 2404 x 2000 x 47 mm
    Purchased 1967© ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002
  • Willem De Kooning, 'The Visit' 1966-7
    Willem De Kooning
    The Visit 1966-7
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1524 x 1219 mm
    frame: 1615 x 1303 x 78 mm
    Purchased 1969© Willem de Kooning Revocable Trust/ARS, NY and DACS, London 2002

The term originally came into use to describe the painting of the abstract expressionist artists Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Motherwell, Hans Hofmann and others (also referred to as action painters). In Pollock’s case the brush might be a dried one, or a stick, dipped in the paint and trailed over the canvas. He also poured direct from the can. The idea was that the artist would physically act out his inner impulses, and that something of his emotion or state of mind would be read by the viewer in the resulting paint marks. De Kooning wrote: ‘I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things into it – drama, anger, pain, love – through your eyes it again becomes an emotion or an idea.’

This approach to painting has its origins in expressionism and automatism (especially the painting of Joan Miró). In his 1970 history, Abstract Expressionism, Irvine Sandler distinguished two branches of the movement, the ‘gesture painters’ and the ‘colour field’ painters.

The term gestural has come to be applied to any painting done in this way.