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Color Field & Action Painting

Aiden Ford, Christopher Muscato
  • Author
    Aiden Ford

    Aiden Ford has taught Earth, Life and Physical Science for five years in grades 6-8. Aiden has a Bachelors of Arts in Human Ecology from the College of the Atlantic.

  • Instructor
    Christopher Muscato

    Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Discover what color field painting is and learn about color field painting artists. Learn the difference between action painting and color field painting. Updated: 04/18/2022

Table of Contents


What is Color Field Painting?

In the wake of the World Wars, many artists broke away from traditional forms of painting and making art and came up with new ways of expressing their thoughts, ideas, and emotions. One of these new art movements was color field painting, which was one of the many fantastic movements to come out of the legendary New York School in the 1950s and 1960s. Color field painting is defined as the painting of large-scale works that are composed of large, flat fields of color with little to no form of figures included. Rather than depicting a subject in color, in color field painting, the color is the subject. Color field painters of the time were largely influenced by Surrealism and Expressionism. The color used in color field painting was carefully crafted and composed by the artists to elicit raw emotions without a subject getting in the way. In addition to emotion, color field painters were interested in spirituality, and the belief that artists have the right to express themselves freely without constraints of the market or the traditional art world.

Color field painting, along with action painting, is under the umbrella of Abstract Expressionism. Some artists claim that color field painting is not abstract art because the colors do not represent anything other than the emotion they are thought to elicit. Today, however, it is considered a subsection of abstract art. Artists who painted color field paintings were trying to uncover a primal and psychological reaction in the form of pure raw emotion by using color to elicit feelings of yearning, transcendence, and a sense of the infinite. Additionally, color field painting suggests that only the visual stimuli are important in painting, and subject matter only gets in the way of transcending into the emotional state that the painting intends to elicit.

Color Field Artists

Many color field artists were key contributors to the color field painting movement. The artist who is considered now to be the first color field painter was Clyfford Still. Still's work portrays the conflict between humans and nature, and Still was very passionate about both his work and the emotions he wished to instill in others. In one of his famous paintings, 1957-D-No. 1, Still uses black, yellow, and white to create one of the first color field paintings. The jagged edges where the yellow meets the black, and the enclosed black space with spots of brilliant white, show both enclosure and freedom, paradoxical but bound together.

A champion of both color field painting and Abstract Expressionism, renowned art critic Clement Greenberg was one of the most influential art critics of the 20th century and brought voice to many abstract and modern art movements. Greenberg was concerned with the kitschiness of some abstract art; he thought that the freedom and rawness of color field painting was a unique and authentic way forward in the art world.

Another key artist in the color field painting movement was Mark Rothko. Although he never called himself a color field painter, Rothko's evolution from surrealist figurative art to pure color field painting is emblematic of the movement, as was his philosophy of art. Rothko is well known for believing that all artists have the right to self-expression, and this belief sometimes led to conflict between Rothko and commissioners and gallerists. Despite this, however, Rothko's works are thought to be genius representations of how color can elicit deep emotion without the need for any figure.

A less well known but incredibly influential artist of the color field painting movement was Helen Frankenthaler. She invented the "soak-stain" technique, where paint thinned with turpentine was applied to an untreated canvas, which created a vibrant wash of color that permanently melded with the canvas. In this way, Frankenthaler's work was a perfect celebration of color, unmarred by three-dimensionality and without form. This work would be celebrated by Clement Greenberg, who invited several other color field painters to view her methodology and inspired them to create their works. Unlike other color field painters of the time, Frankenthaler's work was inspired by the natural world rather than existential crises of the spirit and mind, and her work is described as having a soft quality that has an organic feel.

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  • 0:01 Modern Abstract Art
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Action Painting and Color Field Painting

Action painting is a subsect of both abstract art and, to some extent, color field painting. There are many similarities between action painting and color field painting. Both include works that are relatively large to literally envelop the viewer in the colors depicted. However, while action painting focuses on the physical, sometimes violent, action of the painter as the painting is created, color field painting includes more subtle elements.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who is the famous artist of color field painting?

There are many famous artists who were influential in the color field painting movement. Some famous artists include Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Helen Frankenthaler.

What are the examples of color field painting?

There are many examples of color field painting. One example is the work of Mark Rothko, which shows simple yet vivid blocks of color in his paintings, such as Orange and Yellow.

What is the difference between action painting and color field painting?

The main difference between action painting and color field painting is what is valued in the act of making art. Action painting refers to a method of dripping and splattering paint, whereas color field painting values the use of color, rather than the methodology.

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