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Colour Field (Color Field) Painting

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.


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