Posted in Art and Artists, Research & Reflection

In the Studio: Mark Rothko

I seem to be engaging with this approach to exploring the Abstract Expressionists. The next Artist on the Journey was Mark Rothko, who creates complex colour field paintings. Again, when I went to the Abstract Expressionist exhibition last year Rothko was one of the artists that stood out. These colour fields are complex for pieces that are (initially at least) seeming fairly simple in concept.

As with previous editions the start point of the presentation was a demonstration of “painting like Rothko”, although in this case it seems only a small selection of the ideas could be presented. It is challenging to visually unwinding the paint surface, as amazing surfaces are “his thing.” He was experimenting with materials is a major part of his body of work, and was a master of using colour.

In essence he was using large numbers of layers of different paints in a wash to build up a surface, by layering colours on top of each other. He was also using additions to the semi- to translucent paints to gain different surfaces. They might be, for example, comparing and contrasting different surfaces of paint, with Matt and Gloss transitions on the paintings. The layers leave hints of what is beneath, and experimenting with “what you can do with paint.”

The experience of a painting, however, was the intended end result of all of this technique. Deep immersion in colour is being created, and his intention seems to be to use this to create emotional responses in the viewer.


Again, notes made during the description of individual works:

Slow Swirl at the Edge of the Sea, 1944

  • Early period work (Oil paint)
  • Surrealist / Biomorphic abstraction
  • Shallow pictorial place
  • Has a floor, and “biomorphic” entities
  • Has traces of his later style in the use of paint layers
  • Lots of paint and visual effects. e.g. Red spiral using colour denisty to give some depth. Wash of opaque white over brown.
  • References to other art forms. (e.g. Elements based on cubism.)
  • Matt and Gloss applications of paint

No. 3 No 13, 1949

  • Stacks of colour “hovering” off the ground
  • Specific colour relationships to give depth
  • Dealing with opaque paint, sometimes painted thinly
  • Complex colour effects, seeing differnt densities of colour against each other. e.g. Red/Orange backgroud with “green” in front. Eye normally reads Orange as foreground, but here it is background and so plays with the sys’e dept perception. (c.f. Optical Art)
  • Middle white zone is a combination of many zones within it.
  • Colour relationships are important within the composition
  • Focus on the materiality of the paint. Its about the physical properties of paint.

No. 10, 1950

  • Stacks of colour is part of his “mature form”
  • Translucent oils made to act like water colour
  • Veils of colour over each other
  • Layers interact visually. Close looking is rewarded. The more you look the more you see.
  • Yellow is dominant (c.f. Push-Pull Hans Hoffman)
  • Complexity in washes of colour, made seem easy when it is very complex

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