The Colors of Roy Lichtenstein

by Pantone View

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PantoneView analyzes key color influences a central figure of American pop art, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997), one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. 





A central figure of American pop art, Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, he broke with the precepts of abstract expressionism and hit upon a new concept of painting inspired by comic strips, advertising and mass cultural imagery. The paintings were an instant sensation, provoking both delight and outrage.


Over the following four decades. Lichtenstein’s work became internationally known for the visual power of his iconic paintings and his combination of high and low art.



Soon after the New York art dealer Leo Castelli proposed to represent Lichtenstein in 1961, the artist turned to two subjects that would make him famous: war and romance. These iconic pop paintings became an overnight success, although they also provoked some virulent reactions in the cultural world.


Based on comic books such as the All-American Men of War and Girls’ Romances, the war and romance paintings explored melodramatic stories and clichéd gender roles through the American mass media. Such choices reveal Lichtenstein’s interest in the ‘pregnant moment’ – the crux from which the whole story can be imagined.

To convey the drama of each piece, Lichtenstein uses a very simple, but powerful combination of three primary colors, plus a dramatic black. Through his Benday dot technique, the artist is able to create light and shade, high and low tones, to dramatic effect. The colors are hard and brash, as is the subject matter.

These are the foundation colors on which all of Lichtenstein’s paintings are based, taken from the mass media and elevated to high cultural status.



Late in his career, in the mid 1990s, Lichtenstein tackled one of the most ancient genres of art, returning to the female subject in a new and provocative way.


Unlike many artists, Lichtenstein did not use live models for his depictions of the female body. Instead, he returned to his archive of comic clippings to select female characters as subjects – and then literally undressed them, by imagining their bare bodies under their clothes before painting them.

Previous to this series of paintings, Lichtenstein had been studying the work of artists from the past, such as Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Mondrian, reworking some of their iconic pieces in his own style. At this point, we see the introduction of a deep primary green and wonderful flesh tone, adding a softer dimension to his work.

While these additions are subtle and small, we can see the difference they make. There is a sophistication and lightness to this series of nudes that we haven’t seen before, elevating them to another level, moving away from the flat graphic shapes of the past to a more layered, dimensional approach.



One of the dominant notes in Lichtenstein’s late work is his fascination with the simplicity of Chinese art. In 1995, he returned to the landscape genre, creating more than 20 works in homage to the highly stylized paintings of the Song dynasty (960-1279 AD).


Given Chinese scroll painting’s emphasis on the calligraphic mark, luminous expanse and the relationship of man to nature, it offered both a challenge and a new direction for Lichtenstein’s technique, which reaches new heights of sophistication.

In Landscape with Philosopher (1996), he engages with a more complex system of applying dots (in some paintings there are as many as 15 different sizes of dots) to convey the atmospheric quality and subtle gradations of the original Chinese landscapes.

With this new-found technique of playing with the size of dots and his softer color palette, these paintings have a calm, almost trance-like feel to them, owing to their lightness of color and touch. As always, a minimal palette of colors is used, but now we see the experience and subtleties that come with age, leading to these truly delicate and dreamlike images.

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