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What Is Color Field Painting?

Debra Barnhart
Debra Barnhart

Color field painting, an abstract art movement, was part of the New York School of Art that developed in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. Consisting of broad fields of color, this type of painting challenged viewers’ perceptions and notions about art. Members of the New York School of art felt that abstract art, particularly art that did not portray anything in the natural world, was the best way to express deep truths and emotions.

The color field artists were members of an innovative group of artists. Along with other artists in the New York School, they found their way to New York from Europe as well as various parts of the US and were responsible for shifting the center of the art world from Paris to New York in the 1950s. These artists developed a new philosophy of art based on design and composition.

Color field painting is an abstract art.
Color field painting is an abstract art.

Artists who practiced color field painting focused their creative energies on color and shape without any reference to objects in the real world. Known for applying large, solid fields of color to their canvases, they juxtaposed different colors to examine their effect on human perception and to, according to New York School philosophy, express deep universal truths. Sometimes color field paintings would appear to vibrate.

Color field painters juxtaposed different colors to examine their effect on human perception.
Color field painters juxtaposed different colors to examine their effect on human perception.

One of the first artists to be characterized as a color field painter was Mark Rothko. Originally a figurative painter, Rothko grew dissatisfied with representational art and began painting large, fuzzy rectangles in striking colors. He believed that color had the power to convey every human emotion. Another artist, Barnett Newman, painted entire canvases in one color and added vertical lines that he referred to as “zips.” These zips would appear to move between the forefront and background of the canvas based on their color and location.

Robert Motherwell had a more gestural approach to color field painting. Huge, dark shapes monopolized the foreground of his paintings. Ad Reinhardt, on the other hand, bypassed the use of shape in his paintings entirely and preferred to paint the full canvas in one flat color.

Color field painting like other types of New York School painting was intended to reflect deep universal truths about the nature of existence. Some art critics attributed mythical and supernatural implications to color field art. The huge size of some color field paintings, some as wide as 18 feet (about 5.5 meters) added to the overwhelming presence and sense of atmosphere that some of these works generated.

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Discussion Comments


@Fa5t3r - I think they were also trying to say something about the nature of art in general. It's not necessarily something that I would feel the need to fill my house with, but it was definitely something worth saying, and a lot of critics and buyers agreed.

I guess, to me, art is whatever people say it is. To one person, this might not be art, and that's fine. But it's just as valid for someone else to declare that it is art.


@croydon - Color theory is actually a really complex subject. It's not just a matter of slapping a few random paints onto a canvas. Often an abstract painter was attempting to create an experience rather than just a picture. Rothko, for example, suggested that people stand very close to his art in order to experience a sense of intimacy, rather than trying to take it in from a distance.

In order to get the effect the artist wants to achieve they would have to know a great deal about color theory.


I'll never be able to understand why people will pay such huge amounts for this kind of painting. There isn't any skill involved and it's basically just a flat plane of color. They could get the same effect with a bucket of cheap paint and a blank wall to paint on.

I guess sometimes it comes down to name recognition and fame, but the painter would have to develop that recognition in the first place, and I just don't understand how someone once took a look at a painting like this and decided it was something they wanted and they were willing to pay big bucks for it.

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    • Color field painting is an abstract art.
      By: Eugenio Marongiu
      Color field painting is an abstract art.
    • Color field painters juxtaposed different colors to examine their effect on human perception.
      By: mrallen
      Color field painters juxtaposed different colors to examine their effect on human perception.