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.