The term colour field painting is applied to the work of abstract painters working in the 1950s and 1960s characterised by large areas of a more or less flat single colour

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  • Kenneth Noland, 'Drought' 1962
    Kenneth Noland
    Drought 1962
    Acrylic on canvas
    support: 1765 x 1765 mm
    frame: 1789 x 1790 x 30 mm
    Purchased 1965© The estate of Kenneth Noland /VAGA, New York/DACS, London 2010
  • Morris Louis, 'Alpha-Phi' 1961
    Morris Louis
    Alpha-Phi 1961
    Acrylic on canvas
    support: 2591 x 4597 mm
    Presented by Mrs Marcella Louis Brenner, the artist's widow, through the American Federation of Arts 1968© The estate of Morris Louis
  • Robyn Denny, 'Baby is Three' 1960
    Robyn Denny
    Baby is Three 1960
    House paint on canvas
    support: 2134 x 3658 x 25 mm
    Purchased 1973© Robyn Denny

The term was originally applied to the work from about 1950 of three American abstract expressionist painters Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. ‘The colour field painters’ was the title of the chapter dealing with these artists in the American scholar Irvine Sandler’s ground-breaking history, Abstract Expressionism, published in 1970.

From around 1960 a more purely abstract form of colour field painting emerged in the work of Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Alma Thomas, Sam Gilliam and others. It differed from abstract expressionism in that these artists eliminated both the emotional, mythic or religious content of the earlier movement, and the highly personal and painterly or gestural application associated with it. In 1964 an exhibition of thirty-one artists associated with this development was organised by the critic Clement Greenberg at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He titled it Post-Painterly Abstraction, a term often also used to describe the work of the 1960 generation and their successors.

In Britain there was a major development of colour field painting in the 1960s in the work of Robyn Denny, John Hoyland, Richard Smith and others.