by Susan W. Pidgeon
Let’s be honest, we have all been in a gallery and said, “I could do that”. We all have said, “it looks like a child did that”. But we never attempt to do the same artwork and learn the intricacies of that particular style.
Color Field painting
What exactly is Color Field painting? Color Field painting is the style of painting developed from the late 40’s until the 1960’s whereby color and simplistic shapes dominant the canvas. You know the ones – they are usually big canvases and only one color with a stripe or a circle or square in attendance.
They appear very doable to non-artistic people. Upon further study however, it is like I once read: “a painting is as much about what is NOT there, as about what IS there”.
When I was younger I dismissed this style of work. As an artist I found it insulting. It appeared to say that anyone could accomplish that particular method of expression. I mean who can’t paint a circle, square, or rectangle? Artists like to be seen as doing that which is deem
ed impossible to common man. So a quick glance at a Color Field Painting and I was done. Like many of you still are, I would imagine.
Developing an appreciation for the form
Perhaps it was growing older or having a little bit of study into the movement of Color Field Painters that led to a new appreciation for this form of art. Simplistic yes, easy no.
Color Field painting evolved around 1947 as a result of the combination of the arrival of acrylic paint and the continued efforts of artists to decree recognizable objects no longer welcome on the canvas. Works became merely about color, shape and emotion.
Major artists that contributed to this movement were Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko as well as Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. It was highly endorsed by an art critic of the time known as Clement Greenberg. He referred to the movement as “Post Painterly Abstraction”. The beauty of it according to Greenberg was that the foreground and background become one and color dominates. Artists like Rothko emphasized the emotional aspect to the work.
Large scale creates an abyss of color
It is true that the large scale works do tend to envelop the viewer. A huge red canvas seems to erase all thoughts from your mind and you just stare into the abyss of color. Instead of stripes, Barnett Newman called them “Zips” and envisioned them as light running from one side of the canvas to the other. They were said to both unite and divide the canvas. The subtle nuances where the two meet become paramount. Barnett Newman summed it up best when he said he hoped “these paintings give someone a feeling of their own separateness, their own totality, their own individuality”.
Color Field paintings do tend to be purely abstract and as such the viewer is left alone without guidance from the artist as to the subject matter of the painting. The viewer is, in essence, left alone with their own thoughts and the confines of their own body. It is more about the person in front of the painting than about the painting itself, as each person will be lost within the realm of their own mind, which cannot be duplicated.
Talking to the artist
I spoke briefly with Catherine Booker Jones and ironically, she said she formulates the designs for composition in her mind instead of laying pieces of paper out like I expected. Then she preps the canvas with gesso and begins with oil sticks and then moves on to acrylic paints.
Jones described her work as Mixed Media. We discussed one work in particular in which she said she allowed for last minute changes that helped a monochromatic piece be enlivened by a directionally deviant strip to add some excitement.
A great variety for such a “simple” form
Jones work is unique in that it is cluttered yet exudes a feeling of completeness in her compositions. She also tends to use the edges of the canvas in a framing format. Usually the forms in Color Field works are rather sparse but not in this particular artist’s work. Many appear to overlap in places which I found most interesting.
She also had pieces with unusual color schemes such as grey and yellow and pink and orange which were quite an unexpected palette choice. Her black and white pieces were very bold as were several with red in them.
Jones says in her artist’s statement, “Color is the crux of my process from beginning to end”. She seems to be open to various hues and color schemes unlike so many artists that get locked into one area and refuse to explore other avenues.
Jones’ work can be seen at The George Gallery at 50 Bogard Street downtown until June 30th. If you still think that these are easy works that can be done by anyone, feel free to try one yourself using this link! I assure you that you will never view a Color Field painting as simple again!
Susan W. Pidgeon, MFA is the owner of The Studio Art Center on Fort Johnson Rd where she teaches private lessons and art classes to adults and children. She received her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 2001 and has been teaching ever since. She has taught for the City of Charleston and Charleston County as well as The Artists Loft in Mt. Pleasant. She lives on and loves James Island. You can reach her at (854)2025394 or email@example.com. You can find her at www.thestudioartcenter.com or her Yelp/FB/Twitter or Instagram pages as well.