Research – Colour Blocks

Colour blocks is an impressionist printing process that originated in Japan from the 17th centuray and was called ukiyo-e. French artists found out about this style of printing at the end of the 19th century after they experienced a mini-renaissance.

Poster artist Toulouse-Lautrec adopted the bold style and used it within his illustrations. His most popular illustration from this style and a renowned example from the movement was his lithograph of the dancer La Goulue lifting her white dress to revel her underwear, with black silhouettes in the background.

The movement then later on travelled towards the United States in the 1930’s and the artist Lester Beall was one of the first artists over the pond to adopt it to his own artwork. He used flat colour fields as geometric stencils in colours of blue, yellow and red to block white silhouettes. This was done to make the white shapes stand out against the flat block colours. He used this for the Rural Electrification Administration. This art movement is still used in modern day illustrations and advertisement for companies such as Apple for their iTunes gift vouchers in 2004.

I think that this concept is innovative but simple which makes it extremely interesting to understand and use. I’d like to use this concept to influence my own car advertisement such as using block colours against illustrations of cars, I perhaps wouldn’t use the blue, red or yellow colour theme that has been popular in this movement but try and use other colours such as greens and purples and see if that changes the effect of the concept in my designs.

Boccaccio (2007) theatre poster by Swiss designer Stephan Bundi.


“The flatness of the white form is emphasized by the horn-shaped fingers that poke fun at the cuckolded hero.”

This poster design was created to advertise the short opera Boccaccio for the Theatre Biel Solothurn. Stephan Bundi used the colour blocks concept in his design to get across the message of laughing at a cheating husband in a way that wouldn’t have been as effective if there was a lot of detail and illustration in this design. Bundi used a bright orange background with the white silhouette of a mans face to stand against the photograph of the two fingers that have been positioned to look like horns coming out of the males head.

The use of this concept in this design makes it successful as it gets across the message quickly and effectively it also makes the poster eye catching which is what a poster is meant to do. I think that this poster and the use of the colour blocks concept makes this design aesthetically pleasing and interesting and is something I would like to explore with my own design work.

Rural Electrification Administration (1934) Lester Beall


“Demonstrate the versatility of Lester Beall, who combined the geometric impact of Russian Constructivist compositions with the graphic simplicity of Japanese ukiyo-e prints.”

The REA poster Beall produced was adverstising the U.S government’s plan for bringing electrification to rural areas in America. In this poster the designer has used the concept colour blocks in an extremely simple yet effective way to demonstrate the message. The half blue and half yellow works in many ways as these two colours complement each other but both bring different meanings to the piece, such as the blue is representing water, but also conveys the emotions of clean as it is a pure bright blue and the yellow is used to suggest electric. The designer has then also used a white silhouette of a tap centre of the poster to grab viewers attention.
Colour blocks in this design brings many successes to the poster as it allows the designer to use a very simple and flat idea to convey an important message in a way that wouldn’t become lost in translation.
The idea behind this design with the concept of colour blocks interests me as I like the way the artist has gone with very bold but contrasting colours to create a powerful message through the use of colour, I would like to experiment with different colours in my own work and see what messages they convey.

    The Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831) Hokusai


    • Describe the piece of design and its purpose/background info?
    • How has the designer used this idea/concept within their work?
    • This traditional colour blocks print was on of the influential pieces to make the concept become known to the western society. This artwork has it all, layers, shape and history. The artists would have used the original method to create this design by having various woodblocks cut out to the shapes they want with and then pressed them down onto the canvas to create such a beautiful print.
    • How does this idea/concept help convey the meaning and messages?
    • What successes does this bring to the piece?
    • What is your opinion of the work? Is it successful, does it inspire you?


    • Heller, S and Vienne, V (2012) 100 Ideas That Changed Graphic Design, London, Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

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