BETWEEN 1500 AND 1950 the dominant medium used by Western painters was oil paint applied to sized and primed canvas. This rich medium was ideally suited to pictorial representation; it made possible effects of light, atmosphere, and depiction that had been difficult or impossible hitherto. Chiaroscuro, sfumato, and atmospheric perspective; glazing, scumbling, impasto, and painterliness in general; landscape painting and portraiture -- all of these were made possible or enormously enhanced by oil paint. The merits of oil were many, its limitations few. Chief among the latter were the facts that it was slow to dry and couldn't be used on unsized canvas. These limitations hardly mattered when it came to small and midsize "easel" pictures, but when painters like Jackson Pollock sought to work quickly and intuitively in a large scale, the limitations became impediments. Upon its introduction in the 1950s acrylic paint was seized upon as an attractive alternative.

Acrylic paint is a polymer which dries through the evaporation of a thinner to a permanent, flexible plastic film. Unlike oil paint, it doesn't destroy canvas fiber as it dries. As a result, acrylic paint can be applied directly to unstretched, unsized canvas. Because of this and because it tends to be manufactured in the form of a thick liquid rather than a paste it has become an ideal medium for working on unstretched canvas laid out horizontally, a practice initiated by Jackson Pollock and Helen Frankenthaler prior to the advent of acrylics. Since its introduction acrylic paint has become the medium of choice for most abstract painters.

South Salem studio, 1982.

A typical studio for such an abstract painter has a large floor or platform area for working on one or more pictures at a time. A long length of canvas can be stapled to the floor and painted as a continuous unit from which one or many pictures may be cropped. Even when painted on individual rectangles of canvas, the cropping of acrylic paintings from them is a common though by no means invariable practice. Cropping often begins on the floor but is commonly concluded on studio walls. It involves taping off areas of the painting, usually in a rectangular format. The resulting pictures are then stretched and framed. Because cropping is such an ongoing activity with many abstract painters, stretched and framed works are often recropped before they leave the studio.

Acrylic paint has undergone considerable development since its introduction. By the mid-sixties, acrylic that could be thinned with solvent (Magna) was largely replaced by water soluble acrylics (Liquitex and Aqua-Tec). This was followed by the development of translucent gelatinized acrylic mediums ("gels") which made possible painterly effects on a large scale. Acrylic gel offered the possibility of applying very thick and flexible translucent (and recently transparent) glazes, something not possible with oil paint. These developments in the medium itself have been accompanied by the introduction of pigments and pigment enhancers of considerable use to the abstract painter, among them pearlessence, metallic powders, and interference pigments.

Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis pioneered the use of acrylic paint in abstract art. Both were early masters of what came to be known as "Color Field" or "stain" painting. For many years, beginning with his centered images in the '50s Noland soaked dilute acrylic paint into unstretched cotton canvas. Paint was applied with a brush in the beginning but subsequently with sponges and rollers as well. The first paint Noland used for this purpose was Magna, a very liquid paint that maintained its intensity when thinned. Dilution with turpentine produced subtle gradations in transparency.

While working on the "Chevrons" in the mid-sixties he switched to water-thinned acrylics for safety reasons. Water thinned acrylic was more opaque and milky than Magna and didn't bond as readily with the canvas. He developed methods to counter this: water tension breaker (household detergent) helped carry the pigment into the canvas and made the color appear more transparent; pearlessence mixed with the pigment enhanced the luminescence of color. Since that time he has continued to exploit new mediums, pigments, and supports.

Noland was one of the first artists to exploit the potential offered by cropping. From the mid '60s, this practice led to a series of remarkable formats including "Needle Diamonds," "Shapes," "Surfboards," and the recent "Doors" and "Flares." This practice also played a substantial role in the "Stripes" of the late '60s, where minute vertical adjustments and measured horizontal extensions became decisive.

Because stain painting favored the even spread of color, Noland's remarkable touch passed unnoticed for two decades. But it was inherent in his approach from the beginning. He's a master of the attachment of paint to canvas, discovering transparencies and intensities of color in what he calls the "wetness" of paint. As he puts it: "Painters swim in that soup. When it dries it just freezes up." Although he often applies paint evenly on a large scale, Noland remains a master painter of great delicacy, in one sense an old fashioned artist-craftsman with an extraordinary feeling for materials.


OUR CULTURE DISTRUSTS COLOR. Because color makes an immediate, intuitive appeal to the eye it's suspected of being sensual, frivolous, irrational, vulgar. It's frequently resisted in the name of seriousness or respectability. Black and white are preferred in its stead, especially black. Black is the shade of both respectability and disrespectability, of the puritan and the punk. Both drawing and writing make do with black or one of its equivalents. On occasion, even John Ruskin carried the distrust of color so far as to suggest that color was the least important attribute of pictorial art.

Color spreads and covers surfaces, infusing them with optical vibrancy., For these reasons it carries enormous expressive weight in paintings, especially in large ones where surface area counts for more.

There are two basic types of color in painting: local and atmospheric:

LOCAL COLORS are the actual colors of things, uninfluenced by light and atmosphere. Local color identifies and separates shapes upon the picture surface. It's the stuff of which patterns are made. It's the color used in folk and "primitive" painting, where its charm comes from the discontinuity between decorative pattern and spatial organization.

ATMOSPHERIC COLOR (sometimes referred to as "atmospheric perspective") modifies local colors as they're affected by different lights and layers of atmosphere. It infuses pictures with color ambiance.

Because atmospheric color relies on the blending and blurring of colors into one another and the alteration of colors with transparent glazes it was facilitated enormously by the medium of oil paint.

Oil paint emerged in response to a need. The new naturalism of Renaissance Flemish and Italian painters called for more comprehensive settings. Shallow depicted spaces -- niches and anonymous gilded backgrounds -- gave way gradually to larger and more comprehensive settings, to indoors and to "all outdoors." In both cases artists had to evoke a convincing space, and convincing space called for effects of atmosphere and light.

Oil paint was an ideal material for rendering this space. Because it was greasy and slow drying, it kept color from "bleeding" into adjacent areas yet allowed controlled blending and blurring. Oil could also be used as a translucent tint or glaze over an underpainting; it could be scumbled or dragged. At once it enabled and enormously enhanced the power of atmospheric color.

John Ruskin called this power "tone" and described it in detail::

I understand two things by the word 'tone':- first, the exact relief and relation of objects against and to each other in substance and darkness, as they are nearer or more distant, and the perfect relation of the shades of all of them to the chief light of the picture, whether that be sky, water or anything else. Secondly, the exact relation of the colors of the shadows to the colors of the lights, so that they may be at once felt to be merely different degrees of the same light; and the accurate relation among the illuminated parts themselves, with respect to the degree in which they are influenced by the color of the light itself, whether warm or cold; so that this being chiefly dependent on that peculiar and inexplicable quality of each color laid on, which makes the eye feel both what is the actual color of the object represented, and that it is raised to its apparent pitch by illumination.

or Ruskin, atmospheric color did more than simply imply recession. It placed "the whole of the picture under one kind of light, and in one kind of atmosphere." The tension between local color and this altered, atmospheric color became one of the most powerful tools of Western art, comparable to tonality in music. Far more than a matter of accurate representation, it used the difference between the expected and the actual to enhance pictorial design, thereby enabling a deeper and more complex unity.

This tension was successively heightened and strengthened by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. By the early 20th century, Matisse and the Fauves had raised it to a still higher pitch. Fauvism offered vibrant color in more or less representational formats. Fauve color was bold, side-by-side, and unnatural; it favored saturated hues and near complementaries -- vermilion against deep blue is virtually a Fauve mannerism. Its boldness pointed the way to a more autonomous art of color, but of the artists in the movement, only Matisse went on to develop the kind of pictorial structures that supported that autonomy.

Kenneth Noland picked up where Matisse left off. He's one of the great masters of color in Western Art, and his mastery of it is central to that tradition. He's one of the rare painters who can assemble a collection of specific colors and infuse them with something akin to atmospheric ambiance.

The creation of a picture out of adjacent flat colors is more than a matter of arranging colors that inflect or vibrate against one another. Op Art, with its simple color vibrations accomplished that, but to what end? Pictorial substance in "Op" paintings tends to be overwhelmed by optical effects.

The essence of Noland's genius in the '60s and '70s was to make pictures from relations of relatively flat colors in blatantly anonymous shapes. Noland isn't a Fauve -- at least not in any strict sense. His color tends to be much more varied than theirs, like post-Fauve Matisse gaining autonomy from interaction with non-representational formats.

Noland's pictures seldom have a homogenized appearance. He can cast a picture within a narrow color range without succumbing to simple decorative schemes. He also has the ability to accent color areas through judicious combinations of touch and proportion. Some stripe paintings, for example, employ whites and off-whites in combinations that have the particularity of surprise. He surprises with the seemingly ordinary, and the surprise doesn't diminish with repeated viewings.

He's also a master of the texture of color. All color areas have a texture that can work for or against them: they can be glossy or matte, clear and transparent or opaque skins of paint. Until the '80s, Noland's color was produced by staining dilute acrylic paint into unsized canvas. Color was given material substance by the canvas itself and the artist's touch. Generally this color seemed embedded in rather than spread upon the picture surface. Since the early '80s he has made the paint substance itself carry more and more color texture.