Studio Journal 


Top Five Principles for Painting Colour Fields

Gene Davis, Paul Feeley, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Alfred Jensen, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Raymond Parker, Larry Poons, Frank Stella, Larry Zox, and of course - my favorite, Mark Rothko.

All came out of the constraints of post-war 50's and 60's and followed on from Abstract Expressionism. Unlike their predecessors, colour field painters rejected any emphasis on gesture or emotive content.

It's all about the feeling that colour evokes with us. Rothko famously said he wanted viewers of his paintings to weep.

There's much more to the theory of Colour Field Painting that I'd love to discuss - but first - on with the painting!

Colour field paintings look simple, and yes in some ways that is so. They are a great way to play with paint, loosen up and just enjoy colour.

However, a whole world will blossom forth if we apply a few essential skills to our colour field paintings. In fact - for me - they continue to provide an endless line of fascination and discovery.

Based on my experience and observation here are 5 key principles an understanding of which will deepen appreciation and pleasure of colour field painting. By subtly shifting any one of these key principles the whole painting will be changed and with it the emotional impact of the piece.


Five Key Principles for Colour Field Painting

1. Size does matter

2. Edges are important

3. Colour theory is the key

4. Paint application and transitions

5. Opacity and transparency bedrocks

Meeting a Mark Rothko (Met. NewYork)

1. Size does matter.

The impact of colour field paintings increases proportionately by the size that you experience them. Nothing beats a colour field in the flesh. Seeing one on a computer screen is absolutely better than nothing, but it’s the equivalent of looking at a flower on the computer screen. You see something of the flower, but you don’t see it moving in the breeze, you don’t see the insects buzzing around it, don’t see the light bouncing off the petals, don't breathe in the scent - essentially you don’t experience it, as on the screen it is only visual.

Well surely that's OK as paintings are only visual right?

Wrong! with colour field paintings when you experience them face-to-face in their larger-than-life loveliness, it’s hard not to be immediately and viscerally affected. Added to that is the physiological effect caused by wavelengths of light and colour manipulating the back of your retina and vibrating at a frequency that affects emotion. These together have real physical impact. So size is important! Work as big as you possibly can when working on colour field paintings - therein lies their impact.

2. Edges are Important.

Careful manipulation of the paint around the edges of the blocks of colour that are often seen in colour field paintings can allow those blocks of colour seemingly float on the surface of the colour underneath. Careful observation will show that the edges can be smooth, can be round, could be jagged or frayed out. Rothko in particular was fond of leaving his edges frayed; deliberately so that you could see the painted layers underneath.

3. Colour theory is key.

One could spend a lifetime exploring colour theory and several wonderful scholars have. I’d recommend books by Joseph Albers The Interaction of colour as a good starting point for any student of colour theory.

In a nutshell, Albers concludes that "In visual perception a color is almost never seen as it really is—as it physically is. This fact makes color the most relative medium in art. In order to use color effectively it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually."

Carefully chosen colours, placed next to or on top of each other have a visible impact and a visceral affect on the viewer.

Even a basic knowledge of colour theory will help transform any colour field painting from a seemingly random collection of colours into something really very special.

4. Paint Applications and Transitions.

As important as the choice of colours when creating a colour field painting is the application of paint. The choice of whether to put the paint on the canvas with a cloth, a pour, a wide brush or with the fingers all impact upon the important visceral feeling that comes across from the painting.

Once again, using Rothko as an example -he applied paint in very diluted thin veils - very, very fine layers, smoothly and roughly, with drips and dribbles that connect the viewer to the artist's hand.

Transitions are another important aspect of colour field painting - the transition between one colour and another - is it soft, is it hard, is it smooth? and the transition between a transparent paint passage and an opaque passage - again, soft, hard, jagged, blended? these make for endlessly fascinating nuances.

5. Opacity and Transparency.

The bedrocks of colour field painting because without transparent paint applied in very thin layers the subtleties and the vibrations of the underlying colours would not occur.

Pigments are chosen for their transparency or opacity, as well as to complement, enhance or even jar against underneath layers. The paint is applied very thinly so that it is possible to see the layers of paint on the colour underneath. Colour theory again comes into play here, because you get visual colour mixing occurring through the thin layers, dependant on the choice of colours.

BLACK. That's what's on my mind. LOL - not in a depressing way though. Black is a colour (or non colour as my art teacher used to say - we didn't see eye to eye and I left the art class soon after) that I use daily.

I've just put together a large paint order and I am indulging in some extra chunky extra creamy super pigmented R&F oil sticks. They come in four colours of black. They are rather pricey so I wanted to make sure that I got one that would have the effects I wanted when it's smudged - essentially would it be a cool black that took on a bluish tint when smudged or a warmer black that had a browner tint?

It took me a while to think about and work out and I wrote a note to help me - which I hope you may find useful too:

Warm and Cool Black Pigments

Mars Black: Slightly warm in its tint, this leanest (more matte) black dries quickly. Mars Black has approximately three times the tinting strength of other blacks and is very opaque.

Carbon Black pigment is formed from partial combustion of natural gas and is a nearly pure form of carbon. It is the strongest black has a slightly cool undertone.

Bone Black, an ancient colour is formed from the burning bones, where impurities provide a slightly warmer undertone.

Lamp Black is a semi-opaque black with a cool, blue undertone. It is great when you want bluer shades and cool blue greys.

Ivory Black is a warm, all around great black. Add Ivory Black to warm colours to maintain a warm colour temperature.

Attrament black a greenish tinted warm black. My personal favourite.

1. Creativity is good for children's mental health

2. Creativity can be taught

3. Creativity, and builds self belief, and resilience

For many years I have been visiting primary schools and working on projects with classes, year groups and sometime even whole school.

My hat is off to teachers! I don't know how they do it. In my experience of spending time at schools it has been the most rewarding and the most exhausting time.

Over the last 12 months I have developed a format that transposes my teaching with primary age children into an accessible, inclusive online format.

Taught over the course of a day or week, my Creativity Classes for Children take the following format.

1. An introductory session for the whole year where I introduce the paints, my process, who I am, and what I paint. An opportunity to discuss ‘art' and ask questions. This session is live, via my zoom account (or the school's own hosting site) and takes about 45 minutes.

2. Following on from that, a pre-recorded session sent to you, of me painting using simple shapes and techniques and explaining my process and encouraging the children can copy my process, and learn from how I’m working to make their own pictures and paintings.

The subject of these paintings is flexible -subjects such as 'my friends' or 'my house' or 'my school' or 'the countryside' or even - my favourite 'the dog show’. I’m happy to include your ideas.

This section is a recorded session that downloadable and shareable with the children, so that they can watch it and pause the film when needed to enable them to work at their own pace. The film is about 45 minutes in total.

3. This is followed by another live session in groups of about 10 children at a time, so that I can see their work, engage with questions and encourage them with their creativity, painting and drawing. Each of the sessions would be about 30 minutes.

Sessions are live from my own studio - itself an interesting and vibrant place to see.

I have many years of experience teaching creativity to both adults and children and have worked online with children and in schools. I found that the key to helping children develop their artistic practice is to give them the skills to increase their confidence. Their confidence to try new things, and to realise that there is no possibility of getting it wrong in art.

I encourage students to take creative chances and to enjoy what feels good in the creative process. It’s a great way of children being able to start to understand that sometimes we have a voice inside of us that tells us that what we’re producing is not good enough. It’s a great way to examine that and to start to question it and to look for the positive voice that tells us ‘wow, look that’s good, I did that and I like it’.

I help students (in my adult classes as well as children’s) to focus on the things that they actually like in their paintings and build on those. This is possible because of the acrylic paints that I encourage students to use. Painting using acrylic paints on cheap cardboard boxes enables a process of 'painting over ‘, of layering, of reiteration and of gradual refining and improving on technique. The way I teach children art and creativity means there is no possibility of getting it ‘wrong’ - because unlike maths or English, in art there is no ‘incorrect'. There’s only ever reiteration, adjustment, and focusing on what’s enjoyable in the process.

My teaching experience reaches back over 25 years into my career with the Home Office, where I taught change behaviour with offenders! I understand the psychology of behaviour and I also understand that for children especially, it is very important to encourage positivity and the skills of wanting to keep trying that help build psychological resilience.

The acrylic paint that I recommend using is the most forgiving and easy to use type of paint. When it’s dry it forms a complete plastic layer - a barrier - this means that it can be painted over time and time again. It’s great to see children are encouraged to experiment in this way; leaning into their inate and unique creativity and learning that they will not get everything right the first time, but that they can keep trying, and improve and enjoy with each experiment. The materials that I use for teaching are chosen as they will produce the maximum results early on, and getting good results then encourages further trial, further trial leads to more success and thus ‘creative confidence’ is developed. That’s my focus, with adults and children alike. I had a book published on this subject titled

in 2015, and I have taught this process in schools and to adult groups for over 10 years. My teaching process has also been featured in art magazines, as well as in ‘Psychologies' magazine.

Contact me if this appeals to you and together we really can make a difference to young minds.

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© Helen Elliott