Seattle artist Jesse Higman, who has a history of designing album covers, T-shirts and other rock 'n' roll merchandise, has turned to action painting. His first gallery exhibition, "Illuvium," is up through Jan. 30 at Vermillion.

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“Curiosity, confidence, and play lead to beauty.”

Words to live by in the new year, written by Seattle artist Jesse Higman to introduce his first-ever gallery show, greeting you at the door of Vermillion on Capitol Hill, where his work hangs until the end of January.

In 20 or so works of various size, “Illuvium” — a scientific term for the dispersal of sediment by running water — presents Higman’s unique painting technique of pouring diluted, translucent paint over black Masonite canvases laid horizontal, their surfaces painstakingly contoured with rolls and swales by weights attached beneath. The silicated paint flows gracefully, coaxed by gravity, suggesting biology and geology, specters floating, deltas bifurcating, amoebas swimming in frozen motion. Around these forms is complete blackness, evocative of crushing weight and pressure as much as the emptiness of space: outer space or oceanic abyss.

Higman’s art, however, is not just what ends up on the gallery walls. The process is as compelling as the finished product. Every painting emerges from elaborate, undulating support tables he custom-builds to bend the Masonite canvas according to his vision. One of those tables, used for the painting “Wave,” is on display at Vermillion. It took three years to build and looks like an alien musical instrument, its black upper surface tilted and warped, its innards numbered and slotted, its underbelly adangle with wine bottles, pennies, nails on strings. Last summer, “Wave” was included in a collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C.

At the show’s opening night at Vermillion, another painting, “The Thinker,” was purchased by Ann Wilson of the rock band Heart.

Wilson’s not only a fan but a collaborator: Higman painted the cover art for Heart’s 2010 “Red Velvet Car” album.

You could say that rock ‘n’ roll design is Higman’s day job. His emergence onto the Seattle arts scene began in the early ’90s when he moved to the city from Spokane. His own black leather jacket was an early medium: Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley saw Higman wearing one he’d custom-painted at a 1990 concert at the Moore and the two struck up a long-term friendship. Higman went on to design album covers, T-shirts and posters for Alice in Chains, Soundgarden, Heart, Pearl Jam and more — detailed, representational work done in ink, oil paints or airbrush. The ’67 Stratocaster guitar he custom- painted for Mother Love Bone’s Bruce Fairweather is on permanent display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

That was how Higman made his start. After developing his paint- pouring technique 10 years ago, this is how he’d like to make his mark — with big, transcendent works that may fly in the face of the zeitgeist.

“In a time when we’re humble and honest and things have to be stuck up with a thumbtack to have credibility, I feel the opposite — sort of an arena-rock feeling,” Higman says by phone from his Capitol Hill apartment.

The bottomless black backgrounds of these “action paintings,” as he calls them (a term first used in the ’50s to describe the work of Jackson Pollock and others), are reminiscent of black leather. Higman sees other similarities between his graphic art and gallery art, rock music and painting.

“These things exist in a void,” he says of the “Illuvium” paintings. “There’s something very powerful about that, like a crunchy guitar. I love simple, kick-ass compositions. … But I’m interested also in what’s going on in life all around us and how we fit with it. A building up and a letting go — that pulse in the universe is where things are sorted, brought together and broken apart. That’s where I see life.

“That’s what’s great about an arena full of people,” he says. “We’re individuals and we’re alone but we’re equally social, and life is about relationships, too.”

Jonathan Zwickel: