Rothko painting technique

Written by alyssa ideboen
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Rothko painting technique
Mark Rothko used large swatches of colour to define his paintings. (Abstract Painting image by yan1981 from

An American born in Russia in 1903, Mark Rothko helped define the abstract expressionism movement. Focusing on emotionally moving artwork and breaking away from standard technique and subject matter, Rothko expressed his paintings with large fields of colour. Roughly painted fields of various colours explored scale, depth and balance. Rothko also employed exaggerated brush strokes, the use of line, texture and light. It is possible to mimic Rothko's basic idea of "colorfield" painting to produce your own version of abstract expressionism.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Easel
  • Colour wheel
  • Canvas on frame
  • Acrylic paint
  • Scrap paper
  • Paint brush
  • Sponge and cloth
  • Acrylic varnish

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  1. 1

    Experiment with colour. Look at your colour wheel, and experiment with harmonious and contrasting colours. Paint and mix swatches of colour on scrap paper to get an idea of what colours blend together and what colours cause a disharmonious effect. Try bold bright colours together and dark muted colours side by side for different effects. When Rothko started colorfield paintings, he did many using bright contrasting colours, but he changed his technique over the years to use dark, closely toned hues. Experiment to see what colours emotionally move you.

  2. 2

    Place canvas on easel. Use a wide paintbrush and cover the whole background with a wash of colour. With a sponge or cloth sponge paint over canvas to erase brushstrokes. Rothko used very soft shapes with no defined edges. Squares are predominant in his paintings.

  3. 3

    Paint squares of colour on top of background, or use rough squares as part of the back ground. Limit palate to a few colours. Rothko used two or three colours much of the time to control the colour expressionism in his work. Again, use sponge and cloth to rough out squares and give undefined edges. Layer paint with thin coats, and reapply after drying. Cover the entire canvas with paint.

  4. 4

    Allow paint to dry thoroughly. If paint is thick, allow a few days for it to become completely dry. Paint or spray acrylic varnish over canvas. Varnish will prevent paint from flaking, yellowing in the sunlight, or deteriorating.

Tips and warnings

  • Open a window or door when using varnish. Spray varnish in a ventilated area.

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