Vivid colour, abstraction and minimalism are simple words describing the work of American artist Ellsworth Kelly. Kelly was a painter, sculptor and printmaker. The artist’s pieces featured abstraction and minimalism about a decade before the advent of minimalist principles. Kelly is considered one of the most important artists of his time for pioneering many popular art forms and forming the basis for minimalism, hard-edge painting, colour field and pop art. Just as simple notes of music invoke emotions, simple strokes of colour can create a visual rhythm that encapsulates people. 

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A painting by Ellsworth Kelly_©Ellsworth Kelly Foundation

Ellsworth Kelly had a somewhat unconventional education in the arts, which, many believe, led him to think out of the box. His primary works featured abstraction inspired by elements seen in day-to-day life. Kelly’s work was also close to architecture. He created sculptures scaled according to the place of installation. Throughout his work, Kelly emphasized form, line and colour. He conveyed his thoughts using abstract forms derived from common things. The artist used simple but vivid palettes comprising of different colours. This added depth to his work invoking emotion from the viewer while adding a personal touch. 

Ellsworth Kelly initially studied technical art due to financial constraints and joined the military a couple of years later. After serving until about the end of the second world war, he joined the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and later went to study in Paris. His time in the military – where he worked with military camouflage – provided him with the basics of art. Upon his request, he was inducted into a unit called ‘the ghost army’ where he worked with other artists and designers. During his time in Paris, he was interested in Renaissance and rich French art and used the opportunity to study them. 

Kelly’s speciality in painting was his use of multiple canvases for a single piece. However, some critics thought that the space constraints of a museum display limited the impact of his work. He usually worked with oil on canvas and oil on wood. The artist also used canvases of different shapes and sizes even for a single piece. This added dynamism to his work. Kelly also worked on the hard-edge painting style in which abrupt transitions are found in between coloured areas. The commendable fact was that his choice of colours for the same never strayed from his base principles. 

Apart from colour paintings, Kelly also created multiple pieces in black and white. By this, the artist was able to put complete focus on the form and geometry in his work. This was in contrast to his colourful paintings which emphasized the use of different colours and the rhythm they created. His work, therefore, instigates visual literacy. His use of colours emphasizes the connections of different colours and how their combinations, patterns and order invoke harmony despite the pieces being on different canvases. On the other hand, his black and white paintings completely eliminate this point and focus on shapes and forms. He broke away from using only rectilinear forms as was seen in abstract paintings of that time and ventured into minimalism

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Black and white works of Ellsworth Kelly_©Steven Probert

His drawings and lithographs of plants are an example of his attention to detail. His purple, red, grey, orange is thought to be one of the largest single sheet lithographs. His plant lithographs were simple contour drawings of foliage in clean crisp lines. The use of subtle lines emphasized the shape or form even more. Water was another one of his subjects for lithographs. His fascination with water is seen in many of his works. 

Kelly’s work in sculptures also took into account the architecture. During his time in Paris, Kelly was interested in Romanesque and Byzantine architecture. His sculptures followed minimalist principles and were scaled according to the place of installation. Free-standing sculptures made using industrial metals were his signature style. Even these were painted in bright colours like his paintings. He sometimes derived inspiration for his sculptures by experimenting with paper or creating drawings and prints. Folded metal sheets were often seen in his full-scale sculptures. 

Use of colour_©

The beauty of his work lies in the simplicity it is derived from. The abstract nature of his work allows people to interpret his work in their own way making it more personal. Often Kelly derived inspiration from architectural elements such as windows, doors or elements that he found of interest. A window between the paintings at the Musee d’Art Moderne interested him very much which led to him making a painting of the same. His designs were well ahead of his time as minimalism gained traction about a decade later. Critics were initially wary of his work and he had a hard time during his initial years. Despite this, Kelly has contributed greatly to the American Art movement. 


Sanika Palnitkar is an architect who loves to read. She finds science fiction fascinating and one of the reasons for joining architecture. Other than that, she prefers reading or watching thrillers, mysteries, adventures or fantasies (nerd stuff). Learning new software is another one of her hobbies.