(Mostly) Mess-Free Sam Francis Painting


  • Paper (watercolor paper or mixed media paper, thick enough for paint)
  • Washable liquid watercolors or tempera paints
  • Paintbrush, popsicle stick, or spray bottle (for watering down and dribbling paint)
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Elmer’s glue and/or scotch tape
  • Salad spinner (Be sure to use washable paints! Even washable paints might leave behind a hint of color, so test in an inconspicuous area. Or, order an inexpensive salad spinner for making art!)

Sam Francis is an American artist whose work is characterized by colorful drips and abstract forms. Francis was born in 1923 in San Mateo, California. In 1941, he began studying botany and psychology at the University of California at Berkley. However, in 1943, he entered flight training in the Army Air Force. He suffered a severe accident and spent the next four years recovering from a back injury. During this time, he was immobilized and often had to lay on his stomach. He passed the time by painting with watercolors and studying light as it reflected off of the ocean. When he returned to his studies in 1948, he switched his focus to art history and eventually earned his MFA. In the 1950s, he would see the work of Jackson Pollock, whose use of drips and splashes of color would have a great influence on him. Francis would continue to focus on using bright, vibrant colors and by the 1960s, these paintings started to grow in size. Untitled, painted in 1986, is eight feet tall and seven feet wide!

Look carefully at the above painting. What do you notice first? Probably the bright splashes of mustard yellow, deep red, and bright almost-magenta purple. How do these colors make you feel? Now, look below the drips. Do you see the rectangular shape outlined by green? Sam Francis’s interest in light caused him to leave white areas on his canvases. In this case, he probably masked off the rectangular area to block it as he painted. Then, he removed the mask and dripped paint on top of it. This creates the different layers that you see.

Let’s try painting like Sam Francis!

Step One: Cut your paper into the shape of your salad spinner (the one pictured is a circle). It should be just slightly smaller than the inside of your salad spinner. Make several circles because you’ll probably want to make more than one!

Step Two:
Mask off a shape. You can apply scotch tape to create simple rectangles (great for younger artists). Or, you can outline and fill in a shape with glue—we used an old paintbrush to paint a shape with glue. If using glue, allow to dry.

Step Three:
Choose colors that represent your mood today. If using tempera paints, mix them with a small amount of water so that they drip and run. Place your paper inside the salad spinner.


Step Four: Use a paintbrush, popsicle stick, or the paint bottle to drizzle liquid watercolors all over your paper. Place lid on salad spinner.

Step Five: Spin!

Step Six:
Check your painting. Need to add more paint? Add it! Paint isn’t running? Spray it with water! Spin again. Try spinning the opposite direction. Repeat as necessary.

Step Seven:
Remove painting from salad spinner. Allow to dry.

Step Eight:
Remove any scotch tape. Glue will remain on paper but will dry clear.


How did your mask(s) work? How is it similar to Untitled? How is it different?

Note: areas where glue was applied won’t be completely masked off, but will be shiny and create a different texture.

Step Nine: Share your work with us at #OKCMOAathome!


Credit: Sam Francis (American, 1923–1994) Untitled, 1986, Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 84 in. Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Museum purchase with Fred Jones/Jerome Westheimer and Friends Acquisition Funds, 1987.012