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Is Color Field painting a branch of action painting?


Color Field painting and action painting were two major abstract expressionist styles that emerged in the 1940s and 1950s in New York City. While there are some similarities between the two, there are also distinct differences that set them apart as separate styles.

What is Color Field painting?

Color Field painting is characterized by large fields of flat, solid color spread across the canvas. It emphasizes the emotional qualities of color and forms are usually simple and undefined. Some of the key Color Field painters include Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, and Helen Frankenthaler.

What is action painting?

Action painting, sometimes called gestural abstraction, focuses on the act of painting itself. It features energetic, spontaneous brushstrokes meant to reveal the creative process. Jackson Pollock is the best known action painter who dripped and splattered paint onto canvases. Other action painters include Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline.

Differences between Color Field and action painting

While both Color Field and action painting were abstract expressionist styles, there are several key differences between the two:


Color Field painters used large solid fields of color with minimal brushwork. The emphasis was on the overall effect of large blocks of color.

In contrast, action painters used improvised and energetic brushstrokes. Their work shows the physical activity involved in applying paint to the canvas.


Color Field art focuses on large expanses of flat, solid color. Forms tend to be simplified and undefined.

Action painting features complex, busy compositions with dynamic paint textures. Forms are abstract and shapes are jagged.


Color Field painters were concerned with the overall sense of abstraction and the emotional resonance of color.

Action painters wanted to emphasize the immediacy and drama of the creative process. They were less concerned with pre-planning and more with spontaneous action.


Color Field painting was influenced by European modernism and artists like Matisse, Mondrian, Malevich, and Newman himself.

Action painting derived inspiration from surrealism and the psychoanalytic theories of Jung and Freud. Pollock’s drip technique was influenced by Native American sand painting.

Similarities between Color Field and action painting

Despite their differences, Color Field painting and action painting share some common characteristics:


Both Color Field and action painting are completely abstract with no recognizable objects. They explore the possibilities of pure abstraction.


The artists abandoned Renaissance traditions like perspective and composition to find new ways of applying paint and expressing emotions directly.


Monumental canvases were used by Color Field and action painters to create an immersive experience for viewers.

Focus on paint

Paint itself became the subject matter rather than a representation of something else. Color, texture, and materiality took center stage.


Instead of detailed preliminary drawings, these styles employed free, improvisational approaches to putting paint on canvas.

Expression over perfection

Conveying a sense of emotion, energy, and creative spirit took precedence over refined technique.

Is Color Field an outgrowth of action painting?

Many art historians consider Color Field painting to be an outgrowth and continuation of action painting. Several reasons support this viewpoint:


Action painting emerged in the early 1940s with Pollock’s drip technique. Color Field painting developed shortly after, in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This suggests it followed action painting and built upon its energy and spontaneity.


Most Color Field painters lived and worked in New York City alongside the action painters. The close proximity indicates a close relationship between the styles.


Color Field pioneer Mark Rothko was close friends with Pollock and admired his emotive and impulsive approach to painting. This influence shows in Rothko’s painting technique.


Both techniques exhibit a spirit of invention and abandonment of artistic conventions. This willingness to experiment aligns the two styles.


At the time, critics saw Color Field painting as continuing the developments begun by the action painters, just with a focus on color over gesture.


The spontaneity and zen-like meditation involved in action painting is echoed in the pure sensation and contemplation of Color Field painting.

Reasons why Color Field may not be an outgrowth of action painting

However, there are also arguments against classifying Color Field painting as an outgrowth of action painting:

Different inspirations

As discussed above, Color Field painting drew more inspiration from European modernism while action painting had stronger ties to surrealism. Their influences diverge in origins.

Divergent techniques

The sheer physicality of Pollock’s drip technique differs radically from the minimal brushwork employed in Color Field painting. The application of paint is markedly different.

Varied intentions

The strong emphasis on emotion and improvisation in action painting gives it a distinct character from the more meditative Color Field works.

Separate personalities

The introverted nature and philosophical interests of Rothko and Newman contrast with the tempestuous and spontaneous attitudes of painters like Pollock.

Direct rejection

Newman actively worked against being grouped with the action painters, wanting to establish Color Field painting as a fully distinct movement.

Differing levels of planning

Whereas action painting embraced chance effects, Color Field artists like Rothko carefully planned their compositions through sketches and studies beforehand.


In summation, there are compelling arguments on both sides as to whether Color Field painting is an outgrowth of the earlier action painting movement. While there are some clear similarities between the two styles, they ultimately have different inspirations, techniques, and intentions behind them. The physical act of painting varies greatly, with action painting showcasing energetic movement and Color Field featuring minimal brushwork. However, it is also true that Color Field developed shortly after and in close proximity to action painting, indicating a close relationship between the two. There are also philosophical likenesses in their spontaneous, meditative approaches to achieving raw emotional expression.

Overall, while Color Field painting has some ties to action painting, it is best categorized as a distinct, separate style. It certainly built upon and continued abstract expressionism, but likely not as a direct outgrowth of Pollock’s action painting. The weight of evidence suggests Color Field painting evolved on its own path rather than directly carrying the torch from action painting. It expresses similar artistic concerns through divergent means. Therefore, while action painting did influence aspects of Color Field painting, it is most accurate to characterize Color Field painting as a closely related but independent evolution of abstract expressionism.