The Abstract Expressionists revolutionized our approach to art. To illustrate, Franz Kline used overhead projectors to enlarge and distort images of chairs.
Jackson Pollock famously put the canvas on the floor to create mural-sized Rorschach tests.
Consequently, their deceptively complex paintings have elicited responses along the lines of, “My kid could do that.” Nonetheless, these groundbreaking techniques have long aroused my curiosity regarding their methods. Youtube helps.
In particular, Mark Rothko’s huge squares hovering over a deceivingly simple background compelled me to dig into his method. On the surface, the paintings appear kindergartenish.
However, Rothko put layer upon layer of color on the canvas. Next, he directed galleries and museums to hang the art lower than normal. Furthermore, Rothko instructed viewers to stand eighteen inches from the canvas. As a result, viewers of his work have cried from the expansive, yet subtle, use of color when experiencing his art. Which Rothko wanted.
Intrigued by the effect of Rothko’s work, I decided to try his method and see the results firsthand. Not to draw out tears but to use the technique and see what happens.
Choosing the colors was the first hurdle. My friend Ase loves art and her favorite colors are red and gold. Plus, she’s hot. Therefore, painting for Ase was a no-brainer.
Red and gold are warm colors so I wanted a cool hue for the background. Purple is the color of royalty and has a cool tone. Moreover, the first time we went out, a homeless man called Ase a queen. And, gold with purple represents boldness and confidence. Ase is boldly confident so purple seemed the logical choice.
Properly inspired, the next obstacle was applying paint to the canvas. Rothko was notoriously hermetic regarding his technique. However, from observation (and Youtube) we know that he thinned down his paint to a waterish viscosity. As a result, he stained the canvas as opposed to painting it. I wasn’t sure of Rothko’s proportions of turpentine to paint, so I guessed and went with a three-to-one ratio of odorless paint thinner to paint.
The next step was creating a depth of purple that would draw in the viewer. I began with a layer of ultramarine blue, followed by layers of Windsor red and cadmium red. The following layer consisted of cobalt blue, cadmium red and titanium white. The final layer contained cobalt blue, Winsor red and titanium white.
After the background had dried, the squares “hovering” over the background were the next challenge. The red included layers of Indian red, cadmium red and Winsor red. The yellow involved coats of Indian yellow, cadmium yellow and Winsor yellow.
Because of the paint’s viscosity, more like ink than paint, gravity caused the paint to flow down the canvas. Watching the dripping paint was fun, like watching the disc drop game at a carnival, where a disc randomly drops through pegs on a board.
On the base coats, dripping wasn’t a problem. However, since I wanted to maintain the squares’ integrity, I feverishly used a dry brush and paper towels to mop up the bleeding.
Since Ase and I had Thursday dinner plans, the final hitch was finishing and hanging the painting before we met. To hasten drying, I used quick drying oil paints, which dry to the touch in twenty-four hours.
Furthermore, due to the amount of paint thinner in the paint, each layer dried in eight to twelve hours. Consequently, I finished the painting in a week as opposed to months if I had used traditional oil paints.
After dinner, we came back to my apartment to watch “Sandman” on Netflix. When we entered the apartment, I asked Ase to look at the painting and give her thoughts on it.
She approached the painting, got about eighteen inches from it, (Rothko would have been proud) and sized it up. Then, she walked in front of the sofa and examined it from around six feet.
Ase didn’t cry when she saw the painting, which Rothko would have wanted. She didn’t express tragedy, ecstasy or doom, which Rothko was interested in. Rather, her approach was loving yet analytical, dignified like the queen the homeless man said she was.
She rubbed her chin with her thumb and index finger, then objectively stated, “Fiery hot emotions. Warm on the inside, looking out the window, stalling.” She paused, then asked rhetorically, “What can I do to fill in this stalling?”
And, a silver-tongued question from a queen is better than tears any day.