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Rothko Painting Technique

Mark Rothko used large swatches of color to define his paintings.
Abstract Painting image by yan1981 from Fotolia.com

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 color. Roughly painted fields of various colors 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.

Things You'll Need:

  • Acrylic Varnish
  • Sponge And Cloth
  • Acrylic Paint
  • Paint Brush
  • Easel
  • Scrap Paper
  • Canvas On Frame
  • Color Wheel

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

Place canvas on easel. Use a wide paintbrush and cover the whole background with a wash of color. 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.

Paint squares of color on top of background, or use rough squares as part of the back ground. Limit palate to a few colors. Rothko used two or three colors much of the time to control the color 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.

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.


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