Art Movements Throughout History: Color Field Painting

A painting done in the style of Mark Rothko.

Color field painting is a style within abstract expressionism that is characterized by large areas occupied by a single color. It is distinct from action painting and gestural painting. Color field painting began in the late 1940s and went on to the mid-1960s. The style was pioneered by several abstract painters such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman who were all based in New York. Their desire to establish a style of abstraction that represented modernity and expressed a yearning for spirituality was the main reason for the movement. By using the expressive power of various colors, the artists developed mythic pieces that used large fields of solid, flat color.

Key Ideas and Characteristics

The artists of color field painting focused on large and highly simplified compositions which relied on color without using lines or figurations. Less emphasis is placed on brushstrokes, gestures, or action but instead on creating a unified surface and a picture plane that is flat.

Color field painting was a result of the independent search of the spiritual and transcendental plane by the artists themselves. This new style would help in connecting with the ancient myths rather than the inherent symbols of myths. The style also aimed to do away with illustration painting.

The art critic Clement Greenberg championed for color field painting and was enthusiastic about the form and composition of the style, which he claimed represented the future of painting. He bemoaned the imitative nature of action painting and advocated for color field painting as the most progressive style.

Color field painting represented a new dimension of abstract painting by going beyond the confines of the background of the artwork. This was achieved through avoiding a stand-out form imposed against a background. Instead, the figure and background were unified to represent something continuous and endless out of the space of the picture and beyond the edges of the canvas. In this style, color is not just used for the objective context but it also becomes the subject of the piece of art.

Famous Works


Artist: Clyfford Still

Year: 1951-1952

In this pioneering work, Still uses a thick color applied using a palette knife to induce the effect of violence. The rich earthy colors of red are spread from each edge of the canvas to represent continuity and draw the viewer into the art.

No. 2, Green, Red and Blue

Artist: Mark Rothko

Year: 1953

Mark Rothko did not consider himself a color field painter, but his approach and style were like that of color field artists. He used color to serve a greater purpose on the spiritual plane and believed that color had the ability to invoke the most basic human emotions. In the Green, Red and Blue work, Rothko aimed to create a balance of the large portions of the washed colors by using lighter tones. Rothko also intended to communicate his current mood through color. When his mental health deteriorated he resorted to solemn colors of dark gray, blues and blacks. Depending on his emotions, different colors invoked different meanings.


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