Encyclopedia of Color Science and Technology

Editors: Ming Ronnier Luo

Color Field Painting

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-8071-7_240



Color Field painting is an art movement that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Artists whose works can be categorized as Color Field chose to focus predominantly on the use of color in their works almost to the exclusion of other visual elements. Color Field paintings of the twentieth century are mostly works on canvas, and some artists applied color in a formal, hard-edge manner, while others chose to apply color in a more organic, free-form manner. The focus on color as demonstrated by the Color Field artists continues to influence contemporary artists; however, contemporary artists often explore color across a wider variety of media.


Of the three main currents in art that emerged in the twentieth century, Expressionism, Abstraction, and Fantasy, Color Field painters were inspired by the developments in Expressionism and Abstraction [1]. The focus of Expressionism was the artist’s feelings and emotional responses via their conceptual content, subject matter, and painterly technique; and the focus of Abstraction was a more conceptual approach to the partial or complete nonrepresentational depiction of subject matter depicted with more formally structured painterly techniques.

Color Field painting emerged in the 1940s, and painters such as Mark Rothko (1902–1970), Helen Frankenthaler (1928–2011), and Morris Louis (1912–1962) focused on expressing emotion through painting, while Clyfford Still (1904–1980), Barnett Newman (1905–1970), and Ellsworth Kelly (born 1923) applied a more formal, structured approach to their conceptual content and composition. The predominant focus that all Color Field painters shared was the use of color as the key conduit for conveying emotional or conceptual content.

Art critic Harold Rosenberg suggested that abstract painting represented a new function whereby the canvas became an “arena in which to act… What was to go on the canvas was not a picture but an event” [2, p. 22]. From Rosenberg’s perspective, “a painting is inseparable from the biography of the artist” [2, p. 23]. These views were countered at the time by art critic Clement Greenberg who preferred to focus on the formal qualities such as shape, color, and line rather than the act of painting. Greenberg applauded the works of Still, Newman, and Rothko with their primary focus on color and marveled that their paintings “exhale color with an enveloping effect that is enhanced by size” [3, p. 226].

The approach of the Color Field painters reflected the nineteenth-century impressionist painter’s tradition of using patches of color to capture a scene’s ambience and convey a sense of movement plus capture a fleeting moment in time. This approach came about when Charles Baudelaire suggested that painters should “evoke reality, not by detailing its forms, but by using a line or patch of tone to stimulate the spectator to recreate reality through the act of imagination” (Baudelaire 1863, cited in [4, p. 9]).

Color Field painters translated the impressionists small-scale color patches to much larger fields of color, encouraging their viewers to engage with their paintings on a more intimate but still static basis. Color was used to convey ambience as well as universal emotions such as joie de vivre, tension, tragedy, and tranquility. Rothko suggested that painting represented a “portal … into the vast recesses of the human psyche” and the role of color was to generate an emotional response: “I’m interested in eliciting basic human emotions – tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on” (Rothko, cited in [5, p. 6]).

Using color as a form of communication or code, Color Field painters followed a long tradition. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) believed that color had the capacity to connect with the human condition: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of the human heart…” (Van Gogh, cited in ([6], p. 72)). In letters to his brother Theo, Van Gogh indicated that he attached emotional meanings to various hues and he clearly preferred strong, saturated color [7]. Similarly, Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and the symbolists believed that color could “act like words; that it [color] held an exact counterpart for every sensation, every nuance of feeling” [8, p. 129]. Likewise, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) used color and darker tones to help convey universal emotions such as anxiety, fear, or sorrow in paintings like The Dance of Life (1899) and Death in the Sickroom (1895). Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) also believed that color as well as form had the capacity to communicate, and he assigned certain connotations to specific colors; yellow, for example, represented warmth [9].

The conceptual and compositional approach of Suprematism and Russian Constructivism also had some influence on Color Field painting as evidenced by the patterns of similarity in the works of Kasimir Malevich (1879–1935) and El Lissitzky (1890–1941) and those of Rothko, Kelly, and Newman. While there may be some conceptual or philosophic differences between the movements, there are strong similarities in the use of simplified geometric form as per Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and Black Circle (1915) and Kelly’s Circle Form (1961) and White Curve (1976) (see Fig. 1).
Color Field Painting, Fig. 1

Patterns of similarity: Suprematism and Color Field painting

Mark Rothko (1903–1970) aimed to engage the viewer on a deeper, more personal level and “relied on large fields of color to produce solemn and elevated works” that had the power to convey something about the human condition [8, p. 314]. Eschewing other visual elements, Rothko suggested: “We may start with color,” which became the primary focus of his works (Rothko, cited in [10, p. 65]).

Rothko said: “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions: tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on” [11]. The size of Rothko’s canvases, which often feature blocks of saturated color horizontally stacked, reveals his desire to create an intense experience for the viewer, and he suggested that the ideal viewing distance for his works was a close arm’s length distance from the canvas [5]. Rothko noted, “I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to paint yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass… However, to paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command…” [8, p. 320]. Rothko’s paintings are a presence in themselves, so large and intensely colored that one is expected to feel their “spiritual vibration” [6, p. 72].

For Rothko, “A painting is not about experience. It is an experience”; an experience that transcends time and space conveying universal primal emotional experiences irrespective of gender, age, and cultural experience (Rothko, cited in [12, p. 57]). Rothko noted “My art is not abstract, it lives and breathes” (Rothko, cited in [12, p. 50]). Key works by Rothko include Untitled [Blue, Green, and Brown] (1952), Ochre and Red on Red (1957), Light Red over Black (1957), Untitled (1968), and Black Form No. 8 (1964), as per Fig. 2.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 2

Color Field paintings, Mark Rothko

Barnett Newman (1905–1970) used the color palette of the De Stijl movement and the Bauhaus in a completely different way: “Why give in to these purists and formalists who have put a mortgage on red, yellow and blue, transforming these colors into an idea that destroys them as colors?” (Newman, cited in [10, p. 27]).

Newman commented that “The central issue of painting is the subject matter … my subject is anti-anecdotal” whereby a painting is more self-sufficient and independent with color and shape standing alone and prominent without reference to anything else [13].

Newman’s paintings often feature vertical lines that serve as “an act of division and creation” [between one color plane or reality and another] … the “zip” has become the single most dramatic event in the composition” [14, p. 77]. Key paintings by Newman include Dionysius (1949), Voice of Fire (1967), Whos Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? (1966), and Midnight Blue (1970), as per Fig. 3.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 3

Color Field paintings, Barnett Newman

Helen Frankenthaler’s (1928–2011) work became synonymous with a freer, more sensuous approach to Color Field painting [15]. Frankenthaler’s works are large, and she applied color in a technique known as soak stain, wherein oil painted was diluted with turpentine so that the color soaked into the canvas creating halos of color.

The free-form and more sensuous nature of her paintings prompted Hughes to suggest that “Landscape, imagined as Arcadia, remained the governing image in Frankenthaler’s work, and her titles often invoked the idea of Paradise or Eden” [8, p. 154]. Key works by Frankenthaler include Mountains and Sea (1952), Yellow Span (1968), and Nature Abhors a Vacuum (1973), illustrated in Fig. 4.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 4

Color Field paintings, Helen Frankenthaler

The use of color by the New York-based Color Field painters influenced the US West Coast painters as well as artists further afield, some of whom used new materials and techniques.

Karl Benjamin (1925–2012), whose work featured in the exhibition Four Abstract Classicists (1959–1960), contributed to the US West Coast response to New York Abstract Expressionists. Benjamin’s work shared similarities with the Color Field painters, and his works feature a sense of movement and vibrant optimism characteristic of the cool aesthetic of California during the 1950s and early 1960s.

The use of color in Benjamin’s work in conjunction with the repetition of shape and line creates works that are “fixed and stable” but in a state of “continuous flux” and convey a strong sense of movement and vitality [16]. Key works include Black Pillars (1957), #38 (1960), #7 (1966), and #7 (1986), illustrated in Fig. 5.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 5

Paintings, Karl Benjamin

Lorser Feitelson (1898–1978), whose works also featured in the exhibition Four Abstract Classicists (1959–1960), painted planes of color interspersed with a fluid use of line that imbued his layered abstract works with a strong sense of graceful movement, vitality, and dynamism. Key works by Feitelson include Hardedge Line Painting (1963), Untitled (1965), Untitled (1967), and Coral and Blue Abstract (1967), illustrated in Fig. 6.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 6

Paintings, Lorser Feitelson

Richard Paul Lohse (1902–1988) created color investigations that “deploy the full range of spectral colors in endlessly inventive series” [10, p. 43]. Lohse painted individual colors in large grid formations to illustrate the notion that “the crowd contains the possibility of the individual” and also to highlight that color juxtaposition had the capacity to annul the “sovereignty of the [individual] color square” (Lohse, cited in [10, p. 45]). Lohse’s works vary in scale from relatively small to very large, to enable an in-depth investigation of color and color juxtaposition [17]. Key works include Progressive Reduction (1942–1943), Thirty Vertical Systematic Color Series in a Yellow Rhombic Form (1943, 1970), and Thematic Series in 18 Colors (1982), see Fig. 7.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 7

Paintings, Richard Paul Lohse

In the twenty-first century, artists have translated the idea of patches of color and the approach taken by Color Field painters into a variety of new and different formats and mediums, often incorporating light, automated movement, as well as the mechanics of human perception.

Gerhard Richter (born 1932) adopted the grid format of the early modernists and imbued this with an abundance of color that could be grouped at random, as per the series of large-format paintings: 256 Colors and 4900 Colors [10]. Richter’s random grouping of color mimics the complexity of color in nature, and he painted several versions of 256 Colors (1974) plus recolored them in the 1980s. The work 4900 Colors (2007) comprises 196 equal-size panels each containing 25 squares of color, as depicted in Fig. 8.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 8

Paintings, Gerhard Richter

Robert Owen (born 1937) also prefers depicting color via a grid format as it is “capable of providing infinite variations” and suggests that his paintings are “about levels of feelings, orders of sensation, shifting sequences of time and rhythm” [18, p. 9]. In Cadence (2003), Owen has depicted the range of his emotions measured using a color tabulation. Responding to a competition for a public work by the Bureau of Meteorology, Owen said: “I thought, if they can measure atmosphere, I must be able to measure emotions. So, using a color tabulation, I intuitively picked how I felt every half hour during the day” [19]. The juxtaposition of color and constant variation triggers a strong sense of movement across the work. Sunrise #3 (2005), painted in situ in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, explores the impact of color by taking the Impressionists notion of patches of color and translating this into a much larger work (Fig. 9).
Color Field Painting, Fig. 9

Paintings, Robert Owen

Dion Johnson (born 1975), whose works are reminiscent of the works of Benjamin and Feitelson, focuses on the interplay of color (Gliger, 2011). Colors converge and sideswipe each other, setting off color juxtapositions that add a sense of dynamism and vitality to Los Angeles-based Johnson’s large-scale canvases. Works such as Velocity (2012) and Wild (2012) feature hard-edge yet malleable color, as depicted in Fig. 10.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 10

Paintings, Dion Johnson

Rebecca Baumann (born 1983) has adopted the Color Field painters approach to color but added mechanized movement. In Automated Color Field (2011), the automated movement brings ever-changing random juxtaposition to Baumann patches of color. Baumann is interested in the way “color is both universal and subjective” with the capacity to “move people beyond cognitive and conscious thought” (Baumann, cited in [20]). Baumann acknowledges the changeable nature of human response, and her artworks feature “apparently random change(s) across the field, suggesting the flux in both our inner emotions and the outside world” (Baumann, cited in [21]).

Brendan Van Hek (born 1968) uses found neon such as remnants of advertising signs and symbols to create works like Color Composition #3 (2013). In doing so, Van Hek subverts the original neon messages to create works that reflect the visual landscape and clutter of the twenty-first century: “Color Composition #3 started as an idea about landscape – a horizon line and the movement of forms along, below and above it. What the work has developed into is one that describes a landscape of noises, activity, words, streaking taillights, constant action and movement – the city” (Van Hek, cited in [22]) (Fig. 11).
Color Field Painting, Fig. 11

Works by Rebecca Baumann (left) and Brendan Van Hek (right)

Color Field Painting: The Influence on Design

The unique approach to color by the Color Field painters influenced graphic design in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century. Film posters designed by Saul Bass feature a hard-edge, Color Field painting aesthetic: The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Anatomy of a Murder, by Saul Bass (1959), The Cardinal (1963), and The Human Factor (1979), illustrated in Fig. 12.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 12

Film posters designed by Saul Bass

Similarly, posters for Before Sunrise (1995), The End of Summer (2013), and Rush (2013) as well as recent ECM CD covers including Keith Jarrett’s Back Hand (1974) and Rio (2011) are reminiscent of the Color Field paintings of Barnett Newman and Ellsworth Kelly as well as Mark Rothko, as illustrated in Fig. 13.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 13

Poster and CD cover design inspired by Color Field painting

Color Field painting also influenced textile and fashion design. The impact of this art movement continues with the fashion trend for color blocking that emerged in 2010 as well as the textile designs of Satu Maaranen (2011), Marimekko Sabluuna dress, Spring 2013, and the Gucci Spring/Summer 2013 collection, illustrated in Fig. 14.
Color Field Painting, Fig. 14

Fashion and textiles inspired by Color Field painting

Color Field Painting: The Impact on Immersive Color Installations

The Color Field painters have influenced many subsequent artists, who create works that focus on color with the aim of connecting with the viewer and encouraging a deeper level of engagement often on a more intimate, immersive basis as per the works of Verner Panton, Peter Jones, Olafur Eliasson, Gabriel Dawe, Matthew Johnson, and James Turrell. A common theme of these artists is exploration of the interface between color and human response in ways that leave the viewer enriched with a greater understanding about color.

Immersive works and projections are not viewed at arm’s distance but often envelope the viewer and elicit not only emotional response but trigger perceptual responses that form part of the work as a whole. While some of these works remain static, some works, such as those of Olafur Eliasson, involve a degree of radical subjectivity on the part of the viewer, thereby making their perceptive subjectivity a component of the work [23].



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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Architecture, Design and PlanningUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia