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The Painting Techniques of Mark Rothko

Explore the complex veils of color that form Mark Rothko's abstract paintings. To experiment on your own, take our online studio course Materials and Techniques of Postwar Abstract Painting. Created by The Museum of Modern Art.

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  • female robot grace style avatar for user divaCassandra1
    What is a conservator?
    (10 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Dayvyd
    ~ - "making the audience cry" - what is emotionally moving about irregular blobs?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Tenlong
    Why does this make people cry? How do people feel the same way as the creator if their just looking at the art?
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Peterson
      That is a hard question to answer, and since I cannot enter the minds of everyone, I cannot say exactly what moves each individual person. But for me, these paintings move me because they are so still and open, and seems to engulf me in a world that is so separate from our busy metropolitans and consumerisms of today. This may not be what others feel, but it is what I feel, and makes the artwork such a uniquely personal experience. I am sure Rothko had something very spiritual in mind when creating these works, and it shows itself on the canvas in a very subconscious way. That is why people can feel the same way that the painter felt - they are finding a common ground in the art - one as the maker, the others as the receivers.
      (7 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jennifer
    were do you find the paint.
    (1 vote)
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    • leaf blue style avatar for user Lhozier Point Du Jour
      Paint can be made of animal, vegetable and mineral ingredients. It is basically a solid pigment in a liquid binding medium. Paint is usually applied with a brush, but you can use other tools too: a knife, a sponge or fingers. Paint can be dripped or poured on to a surface, flicked, splattered or even blown through a straw.

      Some of the most ancient pigments came from the earth – for example, shades of brown, which were used in prehistoric cave paintings.

      Some of the most precious traditional pigments were made by grinding minerals, such as a bright green from the stone malachite. One of the most expensive pigments – ultramarine blue – was made by grinding the semi-precious stone, lapis lazuli (from Afghanistan), which was more expensive than gold. Bone black was produced by charring animal bones, lamp black from burning oil and charcoal black by burning wood.

      Some pigments come from metals. Verdigris (a bluish green) was made by hanging copper strips over fermenting grape skins, which creates a bluish green layer on the metal. Gold can be powdered and used as a pigment in paint.

      There are many plants from which pigments can be made. For example, a blue comes from indigo and a yellow from saffron.

      Many pigments are poisonous, for example, white which is made from lead. During the last two or three hundred years, many of the colours made from these natural substances have been produced from chemicals which is often cheaper, safer and easier to use. The earliest synthetic pigment was Prussian blue, which imitated the expensive ultramarine.

      TO FIND PAINT, IT CAN USUALLY BE FOUND IN A LOCAL HOME DEPOT OR WALMART. FOR CHEAPER PAINT. GO TO http://www.sciencemadesimple.co.uk/topten/make_your_own_paint TO MAKE YOUR OWN PAINT.
      (4 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user hilary.kratz
    Do you think he let the canvas dry between applications of paint?
    (2 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Stargirl
    what piece of music is playing at the beginning?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Trevor Niccoli
    what. a nice video
    (2 votes)
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  • mr pants purple style avatar for user Nicole
    Hi, I was wondering what kinds of things, or colors if you will, triggers such strong emotions? That is soooo cool. I loved this video, thanks. =)
    (2 votes)
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  • aqualine seed style avatar for user Omarih solomon
    hay im doing a art project and i need to know what rohtko wanted his viewers to experience when they look at his painting
    (1 vote)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      Mark Rothko sought to make paintings that would bring people to tears. “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on,” he declared. “And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions….If you…are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.” https://www.moma.org/artists/5047
      (2 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Aiden Swayne
    is it possible that there is a golden frame?
    (1 vote)
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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.