Colour-Field Vs. Action Painting: What is the Difference? | By Kerwin Blog | Music and Pop Art in a chaotic Jackson Pollock style

Colour-Field vs. Action Painting: What is the Difference?

Exploring two opposing mid-20th century art movements and why they matter

In the vibrant world of modern art, two distinct movements emerged in the mid-20th century, captivating audiences with their unique approaches to expression. ‘Colour-field’ painting and ‘action’ painting both revolutionised the art scene, challenging traditional techniques and pushing the boundaries of creativity.

As a UK pop artist, in this blog post I will delve into the intricacies of these two movements, exploring their differences and similarities, and uncovering the impact they had on the art world.

Colour-field painting is an art movement that emphasises large areas of solid colour, inviting contemplation and emotional response. Action painting, on the other hand, celebrates spontaneity and physicality, capturing the energy of the creative process through dynamic and gestural brushwork.

Read on as I delve into the origins and characteristics of these two contrasting art movements.

Unveiling the essence of colour-field painting

Colour-field painting emerged in the 1950s, emphasising the power of colour and shape on a grand scale. Artists sought to evoke emotional responses through simplified forms and expansive fields of colour. Mark Rothko, a prominent figure in this movement, believed that colour could provoke a spiritual experience within the viewer.

Rothko’s iconic canvases, with their soft-edged, rectangular forms, invited contemplation and introspection. I was lucky enough to see a couple of Rothko colour-field paintings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in early 2023. Read my blog review of my visit here. Some of the fundamental characteristics of colour-field painting include:

Emphasis on colour and space

Colour-field painters focused on the interplay between colour and space, creating vast fields of colour that seemed to expand infinitely beyond the canvas. Artists like Helen Frankenthaler, through her technique of staining the canvas, achieved a sense of depth and translucency that intensified the emotional impact of the colours.

Minimalism and subtlety

Unlike the gestural, energetic strokes of action painting, colour-field painters adopted a more restrained approach. Their compositions often relied on subtle variations in colour and tone, inviting viewers to explore the nuances within the artwork. Artists such as Morris Louis created ethereal and almost atmospheric paintings that exuded tranquillity and serenity.

The dynamic force of action painting

In stark contrast to the controlled and deliberate nature of colour-field painting, however, action painting was a bold and visceral movement. Spearheaded by artists like Jackson Pollock, action painting embraced spontaneity and physicality, celebrating the act of creation itself. What are some key characteristics of action painting?

Unleashing energy and movement

Action painting emphasised the physical gestures and movements of the artist. With canvases spread on the floor, artists like Pollock dripped, poured, and splattered his paint, using unconventional tools such as sticks and brushes to create their artworks. The result was a chaotic but purposeful arrangement of lines and forms that captured the energy of the creative process.

Expression of emotion and subconscious

Action painters viewed their art as a direct expression of their innermost emotions and subconscious thoughts. Through the act of painting, they aimed to release their pent-up energies and reveal their authentic selves. Willem de Kooning, another influential artist in this movement, incorporated elements of figuration amidst the abstract chaos, infusing his paintings with a sense of raw human emotion.

Kerwin next to a large original Jackson Pollock action painting at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City | MoMA
Kerwin next to a large original Jackson Pollock action painting at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City

Colour-Field vs. Action Painting: contrasting philosophies and approaches

While both colour-field painting and action painting emerged during the same post-war period and challenged established conventions, their underlying philosophies and artistic approaches diverged significantly.

Contemplation vs. spontaneity

Colour-field painting encouraged quiet introspection and invited viewers to immerse themselves in the subtle nuances of colour and space. On the other hand, action painting embraced the immediacy of the moment, capturing the intensity and energy of the creative act.

Control vs. freedom

Colour-field painters exercised control and precision over their compositions, carefully selecting colours and arranging shapes to evoke specific emotional responses. Conversely, action painters relinquished control, allowing chance and instinct to guide their artistic process, resulting in bold and unpredictable outcomes.

Read my other blog post comparing colour-field painting with action painting here.

Enduring influence and legacy of both art movements

Colour-field painting and action painting both left an indelible mark on the art world, influencing subsequent generations of artists and shaping the trajectory of modern art.

Evolution of abstract expressionism

Colour-field painting and action painting were both part of the broader movement known as Abstract Expressionism, which emerged in post-World War II America.

Abstract Expressionism embraced individuality, emotional expression and the breaking away from representational art. While colour-field and action painting represented two distinct branches of this movement, they shared a common goal of pushing artistic boundaries.

Their influence on minimalism and pop art

The impact of colour-field painting and action painting extended beyond the confines of Abstract Expressionism. Colour-field painting’s emphasis on colour and space influenced the development of Minimalism, a movement that sought to reduce art to its essential elements. Artists like Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella explored large colour planes and geometric forms, inspired by the simplicity and impact of colour-field painting.

On the other hand, action painting’s celebration of spontaneity and gesture paved the way for the emergence of Pop Art. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein embraced the bold, graphic qualities of action painting and incorporated elements of popular culture into their work. The energetic spirit of action painting resonated with the vibrant, consumer-driven society of the time.

It is fitting, therefore, that my By Kerwin range of paintings fuses Jackson Pollock’s chaotic action painting technique with a contemporary pop art portrait style. Read more of my Pop Art blog posts in my Music and Pop Art blog section here.

Contemporary reflections

Today, the legacies of colour-field painting and action painting can still be seen in the works of contemporary artists. Many artists continue to explore the possibilities of colour and space, creating immersive installations and large-scale paintings that evoke emotional responses and contemplation.

Moreover, the spontaneous and gestural nature of action painting continues to inspire artists who seek to capture movement, energy and the immediacy of the creative act. Street art and graffiti artists, for example, often draw from the expressive techniques of action painting, using vibrant colours and dynamic brushstrokes to transform public spaces into artistic statements.


Colour-field painting and action painting, despite their contrasting approaches, both played vital roles in shaping the landscape of modern art. Colour-field painting’s serene contemplation and emphasis on colour and space stand in stark contrast to action painting’s energetic spontaneity and physicality.

Both movements nevertheless challenged traditional artistic conventions, allowing artists to express themselves authentically and pushing the boundaries of what art could be.

As we reflect on the enduring influence of colour-field painting and action painting, it is clear that their impact extends far beyond the mid-20th century. These movements continue to inspire artists, provoke thought and emotion in viewers, and remind us of the power of art to transcend boundaries and captivate our imagination.

Kerwin Blackburn exhibiting his pop art, Jackson Pollock-inspired music paintings and prints at The Other Art Fair London, October 2021 | By Kerwin
Can you see both the action painting and colour-field painting influences in my own style of painting?

Whether we find solace in the expansive colour fields or embrace the raw energy of action painting, both movements offer us a window into the dynamic and diverse world of modern art.

Did you know the history of these two contrasting art styles? What is your favourite style of art?

Explore my full range of music-themed, Jackson Pollock-inspired pop art paintings and canvas prints at Prints are priced from £35 – £75, with fast worldwide delivery.

You can also follow my art progress on Instagram and Facebook.

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