Color field painting refers to the art of pioneering abstract painters working in the 1950s and the 1960s. Characterized by “fields” of flat colors, it transformed how people thought about American art and creativity.
This brief introduction introduces some of the most famous color field artists, their inspirations, and leading color field paintings.
Color Field paintings refer to artworks primarily using large areas or fields of color.
Irving Sandler identified Three American Expressionist painters, Barnett Newman (1905-1970), Clyfford Still (1904-1980), and Mark Rothko (1903-1970), "color field painters."
The name derives from a book written by Sandler in his influential publication Abstract Expressionism (1970); Sandler titled one chapter,r “The Color Field Painters,” and included the work of Rothko, Still, and Newman.
Clement Greenberg, an influential art critic of the time, also uses the term. Describing a new tendency amongst Abstract Expressionists for “all over color or color field,” the name stuck. Greenberg specifically used Mark Rothko’s painting Magenta, Black, and Green on Orange to illustrate this new approach.
Rothko claimed color was “merely an instrument” for his art, refusing to accept the terminology. Instead, he focused on intense emotions and religious experiences, saying that if his painting’s “color relationships only moved people,” they’d missed the point.
Originating in New York City, USA, in the late 1940s, color field artists took inspiration from both American Abstract Expressionism and European Modernism.
In terms of style, the key characteristic of Color Field painting was large fields of solid, flat tones. In addition, color field artists often spread color thinly across an unprimed canvas. Sometimes they merely stained the surface of the canvas (known as stain paintings), creating areas of unbroken pure color with limited thick impasto techniques.
Indeed, Color Field art placed less emphasis on brushstrokes and painterly effects. The technique is in stark opposition to the dynamism of Action Painting practiced by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Instead, form, composition, and process were vital.
The color was now free from objective and naturalistic concerns. Instead of a “tool” to depict people and forms, color became the painterly subject.
If there’s a single famous Color Field artist, it must be Mark Rothko. While he always avoided the Color Field label, his paintings are iconic examples of the genre.
Amongst Mark Rothko’s art, his best-known works are the Multiform paintings. These include works such as Number 8 Multiform (1949). Rothko communicated “basic human emotions” in their purest forms with these paintings. He focused on essential and extreme emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, fear, and doom.
Rothko’s paintings grew gradually darker from 1958 onwards. Indeed, in the early 1950s, bright yellows, oranges and reds dominated. Later in the decade and into the 1960s, however, this transformed into darker blues, grays, greens, and even blacks (for instance, in Black and Maroon).
By the mid-1960s, Rothko’s paintings (such as Untitled Black and Gray) were almost entirely composed of gray and black forms. These abstract creations increasingly took viewers into a dark, unknown world.
Rothko is the most famous Color Field artist today, taking deep inspiration from another artist, Clyfford Still. Still’s artworks are some of the finest Color Field paintings representing the movement in its earliest and purest form.
Still, ’s expansive native landscapes of North Dakota inspired his flat, minimalist compositions. PH-623 Prairie Winter and the enigmatic PH-113 are two such examples.
Still and Rothko met in the mid-1940s. They both taught at the California School of Fine Art in the late 1940s (now known as the San Francisco Art Institute) and briefly considered opening their school.
Unlike Rothko’s smoother, calmer compositions, Still’s paintings (for instance, PH-1184) often used quick flashes of contrasting colors. His paintings give the impression that parts of the canvas rip and tear apart, revealing a hidden world. His creations are irregular and angular, using heavy surface texture and painterly expression.
Intriguingly, however, the roots of the Color Field painting could run deeper. A later Color Field artist, Robert Motherwell, spoke of his inspiration from Henri Matisse’s art.
If one considers Matisse’s Porte-Fenêtre à Collioure (1914), many critical characteristics of Color Field art appear. With contrasting vertical bands of gray, blacks, and greens, Matisse thinly draws paint over the surface of the canvas. The result (with the just decipherable open window) is a highly suggestive, intriguing work.
While Color Field art primarily refers to paintings of the 1950s and 60s, the style took a new direction from the mid-1960s onwards. A new generation of Color Field painters, including Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, and Sam Gilliam, used an even more abstract approach.
These paintings are different from the earlier works of Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Clyfford Still, as emotional, mythical, and religious associations have disappeared. In addition, a later generation completely removed any expressive brushwork and individualized painterly touches.
Reflecting this shift, a Post-Painterly Abstraction exhibition launched at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1964. Organized by Clement Greenberg, it cemented the importance of the new 1960s generation of Abstract Color Field artists.
Color field painters were inspired, and the movement quickly spread to Great Britain, Australia, and Canada.
The creation of Color Field art required a key focus on color. Famous genre artists usually favored clean lines and what’s known as “gestalt.”
As a German word, this refers to geometric and graphic shapes. It’s about freeing art from “unnecessary” components such as specific settings, objects, and poses. Instead, painting becomes controlled, calm, and regulated, with color used in an abstract, psychological way.
To make a Color Field painting, focus on the emotions you wish to express and the color (or colors) that do this. You can experiment with the more painterly effects of Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still (for instance, in Newman’s Achilles or Euclidian Abyss) or opt for Mark Rothko’s stricter abstraction. Indeed, Newman later moved towards purer abstraction, with humorously named artworks such as Who's Afraid of Red Yellow and Blue (1967).
In terms of paint, however, oil painting on canvas produces the most stunning results. Leading Color Field artists often used oil paints and large canvases. So why not follow them? For this reason, our expert reproduction artists use oil paints to create their stunning replica fine art oil paintings.
If you love the simplicity and abstract beauty of Color Field art, explore our extensive collection of famous oil paintings.
Enjoy painting reproductions from all the leading Color Field painters. Discover Mark Rothko’s colorful paintings created during his early years and Clyfford Still’s energetic large wall art.
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