2: Abstraction Formal abstract Random abstract

Mark Rothko experiments

Rothko is one of the artists studied in Project 2.2: Random Abstract Prints. It is possible to simulate some of the power of Rothko paintings using very thin overlays of transparent oil-based ink using a roller. Then overlaying thicker inks like Akua inks and impasto paying attention to the edges. This can be done in two passes – separating the thin transparent ink from the color-field overlays. But there is a tendency for inks to blend depending on the dampness of the paper in the first layer, and for the more textural overlay to squash. Thus losing the textural feel of painting. Much depends on the pressure from the press in the second printing.

My experiments so far – small A5 prints. Would be interesting to do some larger ones at some time.

Issues for printmaking:

  • can get at least some of the depth through using very transparent layers of oil-based ink applied with a small roller (Rothko used very small brushes to get the subtle vibrations and detail).
  • overlays of water-based Schminke or Akua ink can be added with a brush or other applicator to drip or merge in the creases and cracks between the fields. this gives interesting difference in texture and luminance.
  • best to prepare the whole plate and print in one go so that the image hangs together as one layer.
  • Print on etching press and damp paper to get full depth of colour fields, but experiment with pressure to avoid disturbing the overlaid streaks too much.

About Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was prominent in the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, best known for his large ‘color-field’ paintings. These go beyond pure abstraction, aiming to express the essence of universal human drama ‘tragic experience is the only source book for art’. The feelings expressed in his paintings are grounded in his early experiences of growing up as a Russian Jew through the pogroms and massacres following the failed 1905 Revolution. His early paintings were figurative and surrealist before he went on to paint ‘multi-field’ abstract works that evolved into the later color-field paintings.

Rothko early paintings: Google images

Rothko watercolour painting: Google images

Rothko color-field painting: Google images

He always resisted attempts to interpret his paintings. Instead aiming to draw the viewer in to make their own interpretation as an active relationship ‘a consummated experience between picture and onlooker. Nothing should stand between my painting and the viewer’ (quoted Ball-Teshuva 2017 p.7)

Videos of exhibitions

Overview of Rothko’s art and work by Simon Schama.

Rothko painting techniques

Rothko never wrote about or revealed details of his technique. Most of his color-field paintings are in oil, sometimes mixed with egg. The essence of Rothko technique is the background staining of the canvas in multiple layers of colour to give the painting depth and translucency. He then paid attention to the subtlety of the edges between and around the fields.


For a more detailed discussion see:

In the Studio: Materials & Techniques of Mark Rothko. MoMA

For a practical experimental approach see:



Galleries and Exhibitions

Tate Modern: Rothko  (26 September 2008 – 1 February 2009) and permanent exhibition