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Investigating Rothko's Technique

Jay Krueger, head of painting conservation at the National Gallery of Art, explores Mark Rothko's unique painting techniques. He discusses Rothko's use of traditional and self-made paints, and how he applied them in layers to create different textures and gloss levels in his black-form pictures.

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Video transcript

Hi, I'm Jay Krueger. I'm head of painting conservation at the National Gallery of Art. We're here to talk about Rothko and, specifically, his use of materials. We are fortunate enough to have over 200 paintings of his in the collection. And a couple of years ago, we had a specific installation of his 1963-64 paintings that relate to the dark form pictures at the Menil Chapel in Houston. Rothko was a very traditionally trained painter in that he's very facile in drawing and painting, but he learned traditional painting techniques and materials. And our goal in this study was to try to understand why some of these pictures look the way they do. We have seven of the black form pictures, the surfaces of them all very considerably-- some are thick, some are-- or more thickly painted but smooth. Some are very, very thinly painted. And they vary a lot in gloss. So we made a series of paint-outs to help us better understand Rothko's application of paints. He is using, in these black-form pictures, commercially prepared oil paint. But he's also making his own paints. And you'll see-- this is a paint-out I did of rabbit-skin glue, egg yolk, a very thin damar resin varnish. And this is a very discolored passage of linseed oil, which, a few years ago, was more like this in color. To make a paint, it's just a matter of putting pigment in a binder. And so these would all be classified as binders. So he's taking a carbon black, and he's, with a palette knife or a muller-- he's mixing up dry pigment in these various materials. He's not stirring, always, together and mixing pigment in. They're very distinct paints. But he's made, here, four different paints. The sequence of application is individual to each picture. So we were trying to kind of replicate-- this would be straight artist oil. This has pigment in the egg yolk over it. This more heavily textured one has-- like the underlying layer is pigment in egg yolk. Here we have damar resin, this very, very matte surface-- dry pigments in damar. This one has a hide-glue underlayer. They all started with a slightly different color underneath, and you can see that peeking out. This is just pigment in hide glue. So that would be what he would use to seal the canvas when these subsequent layers are built up on the surface.