Color had an early and lasting impact on Thomas Sills; at age nine he worked in a greenhouse filled with colorful flowers. In a 1980 interview he told the following anecdote: “Sometimes the owner sent me downstairs to pick out a bunch of flowers, and I could always get the colors he wanted. They’d say ‘That fella loves color.’ That always stuck in my head, but never knowin’ how to express myself.” In a perusal of his career, it is Sills’ handling of color that distinguishes his art.

Sills was born into a large family in Castalia, North Carolina, and never completed school or had any formal art training. When he was eleven he moved north to live with a brother in Brooklyn, New York. He took various jobs; he was a doorman at a theater, a church custodian, a stevedore, and a deliveryman for a Greenwich Village liquor store. It was in this capacity that he met Jeanne Reynal, a mosaic artist whose circle of friends included Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, Arshile Gorky, Elaine de Kooning and Willem de Kooning. Reynal collected their work, and that of others, in particular artists with a leaning toward surrealism. In 1953, she and Sills married, and at age thirty he began to make art. “With paintings and artists all around me, it didn’t take very long before I got stirred up to doing my own work. … I wanted to go my own way from the very beginning.” With Reynal, Sills traveled extensively; together they explored mosaics and sculpture in  Mexico, Peru, England, Russia, France, Italy, and Spain. These explorations deeply influenced his work, as did indigenous art.

Experimentation and creating art without too much conscious thought were driving forces for Sills. For instance, he took some of Reynal’s magnesite plaster (a form of cement she used for her mosaics), added some color, and applied it to some old wood panels. At first, he applied paint with rags and cloths; only later did he begin to work with the kind of large brushes used by house painters. The result was a distinctive softness. Some of his early efforts resulted in paintings with central forms suggestive of nests, eyes, and curious openings. Color was always important, as he explained: “When I get ready to paint I usually have definite ideas about the colors I want to start with although I may change after I begin. Since I don’t know what I am going to, it helps me at least have some idea to go on before I start.”

Despite his passion and facility with color, in the mid-1970s Sills created a series of “White Paintings.” These were not pure white, but had subtle tones of gray, cream, and beige—in themselves gentle studies of color. Sills also embarked on making collages, and these tend to comprise organic shapes with soft edges, consistent with his paintings.

In 1955 Sills achieved some recognition with the first of four one-man exhibitions at Betty Parsons Gallery. She had gained renown for exhibiting many of the abstract expressionist painters, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and her stable also included Judith Godwin and Robert Rauschenberg. Notwithstanding this impressive company, Sills managed to maintain his own identity, proclaiming: “If somebody told me that I had to paint this way or that I had to do that … I wouldn’t want it. … You like it or you don’t like it, but I am doing what I want.”