Mark Rothko was born on September 25, 1903 in what is Latvia today (then it was part of the Russian Empire). His family immigrated to Portland, Oregon in 1913 when Mark was 10 years old. His father was a pharmacist and passionate about education. While he excelled, Mark tended to chaff under the strictures of educational life. He dropped out after his sophomore year at Yale and went to work in New York in a garment factory. While visiting a friend, he saw a group of students sketching and was immediately intrigued. Luckily, New York was the perfect place to begin his study. Rothko saw art as a tool of emotional and religious expression. His early work was often moody and dark and he enjoyed moderately success. He taught to supplement his income and continued to teach throughout his career.

As he gained experience, Rothko began to move away from figurative painting (with a recognizable subject.) Rather than painting a picture of a thing, he tried to create a purely emotional experience with each painting. Rothko was very intense about the spiritual aspect of his paintings; for him as the artist as well as for the viewer. He used color as a tool to convey emotion and felt what he was trying to convey was more than words could describe. He said they contained a “breath of life” he found lacking in most figurative painting of the era.

Rothko’s method was to apply a thin layer of binder mixed with pigment directly onto uncoated canvas and to paint very thinned oil paint directly onto this layer, creating a dense mixture of overlapping colors he called multiforms. The drama is created not in the scene portrayed, but in the colors and textures. When describing his work, Rothko said “This isn’t painting about nothing, it’s painting about everything.”

As he became more famous, he felt more isolated, frustrated that many critics and viewers didn’t understand his intentions. He hated thinking of his art as merely decorative. He wanted to the viewer to immerse themselves in the experience, to focus closely on one piece and become part of it. Later in his life, he began work on a chapel where people could come and do exactly that. Unfortunately, declining health and crippling depression led to his death before the chapel was completed. However, the building is still a place where people can come and meditate and experience in a personal way.

Today we will experiment with color like Mark Rothko did!
1. Use the tape to create different color field areas on your watercolor paper.
2. Try some different techniques to blend colors and create interesting texture in the different fields of your mutliform painting.
Wet on wet: Get your brush very wet and lay down a layer of one color. Now load a different color onto your brush and lightly touch your brush into the first color. (This usually works best if you stick to similar colors. There is a color wheel on the art cart. Show it to the students and point out the warm colors and cool colors. Ask the students to look at the Rothko paintings again, notice how he mixes fiery reds with bright yellows and cool blues and moody plums and purples. These colors, while different will harmonize with each other.)
Dry brushing: lay down a field of color and move to another area to give it time to dry. Next load your brush with color, but keep it dry. Do not get too much water on the brush. Use firm quick strokes to lay down a more jagged textured brush stroke.
Salt: Load your brush with a lot of water and paint and lay it down on the paper, then sprinkle with salt and leave it to dry overnight. When you brush the salt away, it will leave kind of a sandy texture.
Lifting: After laying down a section of color, you can take the cling wrap and wad it up a little, gently press it into the paint and pull it up to create ridges of color in the field.
3. When your painting is dry, you can carefully remove the tape. Make sure to lift slowly so that it doesn’t tear the paper.

*Because watercolor paper is expensive, please encourage the students to only use one piece of paper. I like to let students know that this is the same artist quality paper that professional water color artists use.

*Remind students that they can control the saturation of the paint by wetting the brush and either swirling the brush in the paint for just a little bit or for a longer time.