Mark Rothko's Painting Techniques

by Alex Jakubik
Mark Rothko used several techniques in his painting to achieve his fields of color.

Mark Rothko used several techniques in his painting to achieve his fields of color.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Mark Rothko's paintings are a key contribution to the abstract expressionist movement in American painting that flourished during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Rothko's mature style is characterized by the use of large canvasses with several fields of color. Upon closer inspection, these fields actually contain almost infinite hues and subtle gradations. In search of his desired results, Rothko added different substances to his paints for various effects. He would also occasionally alter his paintings during the work process with rubbing or scraping gestures. From this collection of tactics, Rothko was able to give his monolithic shapes and fields rich textures of widely differing local variety that invite the viewer to look and gaze multiple times while experiencing his works.

Non-Paint Physical Alterations

Rothko was very secretive with his techniques, but it is clear he would rub or scrape various sections of his paintings to achieve the effect he was searching for. In several cases, he did this with a rag soaked in turpentine. In addition to softening the edge of a particular color block, this would also reveal layers of colors underneath, perhaps not viewable anywhere else in the painting. Discovery of these smaller details invite the viewer to look and then look again, adding a contemplative element to the viewing experience.

Added Substances

To facilitate the thinning, quicker application and drying of new colors, Rothko experimented with adding various substances to his paints. Some of the recognized added elements include egg, glue, acrylic resin, phenol formaldehyde, modified alkyd and turpentine. Added turpentine in particular was a signature technique of Rothko, allowing the colors to reveal sub-layers from below while not having a thick or over-applied appearance.


One of the most basic techniques that Rothko employed in his work was simply layering the paint. He would thinly apply multiple colors on top of each other. The layer left on top would then reveal subtle shifts across its surface with various sub-colors coming through to differing degrees from underneath.

Blurred Edges

Rothko's paintings almost always consist of various large blocks of colors. The edges of these fields usually have vague and indistinct boundaries. While the size of the blocks and fields of color usually gives an impression of two-dimensionality, the rough brush strokes at the edges add an element of depth or three dimensions upon closer inspection.

About the Author

Alex Jakubik began his writing career in 2000 with book-cover summaries for Barnes & Noble. He has also authored concert programs and travel blogs, and worked both nationally and internationally in the arts. Jakubik holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University and a Master of Music from Yale University.

Photo Credits

  • Matt Cardy/Getty Images News/Getty Images