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The Painting Techniques of Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko's 1950s art explores floating forms through color and layering. His technique involves thin paint layers, creating a stain effect on the canvas. This allows colors to be seen through each other, creating complex zones. Rothko's work aims to evoke strong emotions, similar to music. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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Video transcript

(somber piano music) Voiceover: In the 1950s, Mark Rothko explored how forms could float in space, sometimes advancing toward you, other times quietly receding away from you. Now by looking at his paintings, there's a number of ways that we could discern how these effects are achieved. However, Rothko was notoriously hermetic about his studio practices. We don't know all that much about what materials he used and how exactly he did it, but by looking closely, we can learn a lot. Now how these forms are liberated in space, how they even have this ability to move via color is also about the way Rothko handles the edges of these floating cloud-like forms. Rothko layered zone over zone over zone of paint. Here we can a very bright blue, almost totally overpainted by a dark burgundy. It appears that Rothko often flared out paint, one layer over another and as we look at the edges, we realize that there's kind of a buzzing sensation as these two colors compete for our attention and almost vibrate against one another. To further allow these forms to float off and away from the surface of the canvas, Rothko often softened the corners of these forms and here we see something called a "turpentine burn", where the artist likely took some solvent on the rag and scrubbed back into the surface of the canvas, blending all of those colors together meanwhile erasing a hard corner, which would visually locate that form in space. In addition to leaving hints of these colors around the edges of forms, crucially, Rothko allows you to see through veils of paint because he painted so thinly. Now let me show you exactly how Rothko painted so thinly. Rothko would add so much turpentine to his paint, that he would stain the canvas, less painting on the canvas, but really pushing his paint into it as a stain. Because these stains are so thin, you're able to read one color quite literally through another. In thicker areas of paint, you see the over layer. In thinner areas of that over layer, you begin to see the under layer. And because Rothko layered color over color over color, any given zone is infinitely complex. Rothko thought that if the viewer properly experienced his paintings, that he or she would very often cry. We're quite literally talking about a painter who wanted his viewers to experience the kind of emotions that he very likely did himself. It's not uncommon for people to be emotionally moved, perhaps even to cry when listening to music. However, it's very rare that visual art can evoke those same emotions. Rothko, if you will, is competing on the territory of music, trying to evoke very, very strong emotions through paint. The experience of viewing his painting is a very somber one. It lacks resolution. Although it's very quiet, although it's a quite beautiful painting, it's a painting that never has a finality to it. It's one that almost unravels in time.