What Is Color Field Painting?

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  • Written By: Debra Barnhart
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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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.

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.


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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