Research: Merging a limited colour range – Mark Rothko and Renny Tait

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

27 February, 2016. The exercise on transparent layers of colour was, to be honest, my first ever exercise investigating the properties of colour in a structured manner. So far my experience I gained by drawing and painting in a purely intuitive way, which had caused lots of failures and some successes and the accumulation of empirical knowledge that lacks a theoretical background to the observed processes. I am glad that Painting 1 forces me to look at colours in a more scientific way.
Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an American artist of Russian-Jewish origin, whose upbringing was highly intellectual and who transformed his style of painting over a long period of time from representational to surrealist on to always increasing degrees of abstraction. His transformations were informed, among others, by the intense contact with and discussing the works of important philosophers and artists  He is most well known for his “1950s motif of soft, rectangular forms floating on a stained field of color”, which he employed to “convey a sense of spirituality” (The Art Story Foundartion, 2017). According to his own interpretation the carefully selected rectangles are not symbols for the figures he removed from the picture, but contain their statements, thereby aiming at the removal of all obstacles between artist and observer (Fig. 1 below):

Figure 1. Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958 source: Rothko, Mark (1903-1970) [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

28 February, 2016. From the spiritual to the observational level: The above example leaves the impression that the colours in the long rectangles are all not in the same picture plane. The narrow strip of colour around the whole picture and in some places across, provides a grid or scaffolding, which sets the reference plane applying to this painting. The contents of the rich black rectangle seems to be in no picture plane at all, it is like looking into a deep void or the night sky where there are few or no stars. The top horizontal of the lightest frame, on the other hand, appears to float above the picture plane. Overall, the darker the red, with respect to its surroundings, the further away from the observer, the lighter the red, the closer to the observer. Rothko’s Seagram murals (Tate, 2017) work with the same phenomena, although, as far as I can see from the blurred, badly and variably illuminated images – why not better photos on a leading art website? – are restricted to communicating one effect at a time. It would be interesting to extend the investigation by painting different backgrounds to place a high quality print of this picture on, and see how this would act on the reference picture plane. If there is time I will return to this idea later in the course as part of the exercise on exploring contrasts on p. 65 of the study guide. Having searched the web some more for Mark Rothko I came across a poignant and thought-provoking article about good and bad art and expanding on the impression I got from visiting the Carolee Schneemann exhibition last week (Boyd, 2009).

Since the study guide features Renny Tait’s (*1965) “Lighthouse, Blue Sky” (Open College of the Arts, 2011, p. 36), I looked that up on the web (Tait, 2002). The way Tait painted the sky produces an effect as if the whole of the sky literally sat on a plane immediately behind the lighthouse, thereby flattening the 3D space the scene is located in. Funnily enough the putting in of shades does not do much to create a 3D effect, either. I don’t know whether it is only me, but the immaculate mirror image, by being slightly darker overall and thus occupying a picture plane slightly lower than its counterpart, appears to counteract 3D. All of these I guess were deliberately employed to enhance an impartial, if not naive, view in an otherwise elaborate style of painting. For me the effects visible in Tait’s painting, although very likely employing similar techniques, are opposite to Rothko’s “Four Darks in Red”.


Boyd, W. (2009) The Mean Reds. The Guardian. [online] 12 December. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Open College of the Arts (2011) Painting 1. The Practice of Painting. The Bridgeman Art Library, London, New York, Paris, p. 36.

Tait, R. (2002) Portland Bill [oil on canvas] [online] Flowers Gallery, New York. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

Tate (2017) Room 3: The Seagram Murals [online]. Tate, London. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]

The Art Story Foundation (2017) Mark Rothko. American Painter [online]. The Art Story Foundation, New York. Available at: [Accessed 19 February 2017]




Part 1, project 2, exercise 1: Transparent and opaque – tonally graded wash

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

25 February, 2016. For this exercise I made several longish strips using my discarded heavy watercolour paper paintings, both smooth and rough, and followed the instructions in the study guide.
Since I am working with acrylic paint, I soon found out that in order to produce a  graded wash I would need to work quickly and developed a system allowing satisfactory results. When still wet the finished strips looked better than they did after having become dry, so none of them are perfect, although I noticed that I became better with practice.

With the colours (Amsterdam) and types of paper I used in this exercise the difference between wet-in-wet washes and painting on a dried layer was hardly noticeable. Luckily I had seen the expected effects before on other occasions, e.g. with the pear painted on smooth cardboard for exercise 1b of Project 1. I did notice, however, that some pigments seem to repel each other at the microscopic level, which when painting wet-in-wet will leave small areas of incomplete mixing, somewhat like freckles on a face. The same effect I know from certain watercolour pigments, where a drop of one colour put into a puddle of the other will cause the latter to move towards the edges of the puddle instantly. I have not done the experiment recently, but think I remember it was particularly effective, and annoying, with Schmincke Horadam indigo.

Figure 1. Tonally graded washes, first layer, top: ultramarine, bottom: bluegreen
Figure 2. Tonally graded washes, ultramarine and bluegreen, left: on dried layer, right: wet in wet
Figure 3. Tonally graded washes: left and right: on dried layer, centre: wet in wet
Figure 4. Tonally graded wash, detail

In the above picture (Fig. 4) a difference between wet in wet washes and letting the first layer dry first is visible because the brush strokes on the “solid” side of the first colour became enhanced by the second colour and thus form a most attractive “glazing” effect.

Figure 5. Tonally graded wash: wet in wet, detail

In contrast, the above example (Fig. 5) shows the effect of wet in wet painting: The result is a more or less unstructured mix in different proportions, a glazing effect is missing.

Figure 6. Tonally graded washes. Left: on dried first layer, right: wet in wet

In the last set of the series (Fig. 6 above) I think that I spotted a few other differences between dried and wet in wet layers. Apart from not liking the red-green combination and a strange impression of a “magnetic repulsion” between the two colours the most dilute washes on the most solid first layers at either end of the strip seem to have helped enhance the chroma of the latter, while the central bit seems to have lost its radiance, it appears grey rather than coloured. A glazing effect was not visible in either of the two strips.
In my eyes the most successful of the combinations was the dried bluegreen and gold ochre wash. Will try and read about the physics and chemistry behind the above!

Part 1, project 1, exercise 3: Painting with pastels

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

24 February, 2016. Since during Drawing 1 I used both oil pastels and soft pastels extensively I decided that I would go straight for the suggested small painting. I felt I needed to paint something very gentle and peaceful for once. Choosing a photo we had taken last Christmas I developed my layout from there. On a 40 x 40 cm square painting carton, a size I quite like for reasons I can only guess at, I prepared the background first and painted the figure of my son on top of that. With pastels this technique will already lead to a 3D impression. Since the goal of the exercise is to practice both mark-making and blending, I decided to make the background indistinct while combining both painting and drawing in the figure of my son (Fig. 2 below).

Figure 2. Christmas 2015, soft pastels on painting carton

This was the first time I used a painting carton with soft pastels and I soon discovered that the surface, at least of the brand I had chosen, would not take up the pigment quite as readily as the pastel paper I normally use, in fact found it impossible to blend the colours with a brush. All of them literally fell off the canvas – apart from vermillion that is, which turned out to be practically indelible. So I used my fingers for blending, which I normally prefer anyway, but this meant that I was unable to correct the fine detail on my son’s face, so mouth and chin are not totally correct.
To illustrate the difference between “all over” blending and mixing painting and drawing I include two close-up photos (Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 below):

Figure 3. Blended colours only, glass rocking horse on Christmas tree reflecting candlelight
Figure 4. Blending combined with drawing elements

Looking at the result I am pleased not to have subdued the bright background colours. I think that they help convey the feeling of joy associated with seeing the candles burning on the Christmas tree.
If I use pastels on a painting carton again I will try and prepare the surface of the carton with a layer of paint or something similar. Another surface I have been planning to use and did not have time to during Drawing 1 was fine-grained sand paper, which during tests proved extremely versatile. I am not sure, however, whether that would count as painting.

Part 1, project 1, exercise 2: Applying paint without brushes

Updated on 18 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

19 February, 2016. Today I finally made myself throw away a lot of the ugly old paintings and drawings I had kept for ages for fear of losing touch with my past. Some of them are on wonderful 600g watercolour paper and I knew that I did want to make use of that. So I made a pile of selected paintings and, to make sure I would not be able to keep them after all, went over them with a layer of white acrylic paint. This paint I put on using a small foam roller, so as to avoid leaving brush marks.

For this exercise I prepared two A2 sheets, one for a monochrome experiment and one for putting on multiple colours. Each I divided in two. One half of each sheet received a dilute coloured wash – monochrome on the first, multicoloured on the second. These I let become dry before starting the experiment described in the study guide.

The following tools were used, plus fingers, a plastic ruler and a rag:

Figure 2. Tools used

22 February, 2016. Yesterday I continued working on the exercise. First I used the monochrome sheet to explore the marks produced by the above tools, from top to bottom the palette knife, notched trowel, sponge (2 rows) and rag, wooden skewer, 2 stainless steel balls, plastic ruler, and finally fingers on the bottom left, and a nailbrush on the bottom right.

Figure 3. Monochrome exercise

With these in mind I went on to my multicoloured A2 sheet, having decided that it should become something like a painting using all of the above. This is the chaotic result, which I call “Spirit Contemplating Fenland Sunset” ;o).

Figure 4. Multicoloured exercise

While painting I tried to observe very closely the interaction of paint and tools and to think carefully about the respective effects, including comparing white and coloured background. Thick layers of acrylic paint will stay pliable for many hours, allowing them to be worked on without the need to proceed too quickly. Sometimes it is interesting, however, to allow a layer to become partially dry before continuing to work on it. This is especially important, if I need to produce fine lines e.g. with my nailbrush. Details regarding the tools used see below:

Figure 5. Tools used: notched trowel, palette knife, fingers, wooden skewer and tube of paint
Figure 6. Tools used: notched trowel, fingers and sponge
Figure 7. Tools used: palette knife, tube of paint, wooden skewer, nailbrush, fingers, sponge and rag
Figure 8. Tools used: notched trowel, nailbrush, sponge and rag, palette knife, fingers and wooden skewer

I will use the above results as add-on reference when planning new paintings throughout the course.


Study visit: Carolee Schneemann and a bout of sickness

Updated on 18 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

21 February, 2016. I don’t get a lot of opportunities to visit art museums and galleries, but we had been given this weekend off by my sister-in-law and since at the same we are living through the quiet before the final hospital showdown we decided that we would finally take the opportunity and visit the “Museum der Moderne” in Salzburg.
I had been passing by posters announcing a new exhibition called “Kinetic Painting” featuring the American artist Carolee Schneemann for a while, when taking my son to his special school. Since I quite liked the lively photograph on the poster and in my naive way was curious look behind the term “kinetic painting” I was in no way prepared for the experience.
Carolee Schneemann (*1939) first trained as a painter in a traditional way, but met with open and ongoing hostility by the all-male art education and establishment of the late 1950s. She reacted, not just but mostly, with an explosion of sexually explicit film-making, which from then on would dominate her life as an artist. Not surprisingly for the time and including up to the present, she was not always received with open arms (Museum der Moderne, 2014).
I can understand and appreciate that her actions must have helped prepare public and private minds for more gender equality, but I am at odds with myself over the art in her work. At the risk of being called backward I have to admit that never before today I have left an exhibition feeling physically sick. Apart from not wanting to see many of the exhibits I guess that the experience made me also feel totally inadequate as an artist. Why, for all the world, is it necessary to cause disgust before anyone will take notice of what you have to say? What is a series of 8 (or more, can’t remember) blood-stained sanitary towels in a wooden frame, behind glass, in a museum, with a clever text panel written by an art historian explaining the contents? Who declared this fierce statement uttered by a severely hurt woman a work of art? I don’t believe for a second it was Carolee Schneemann’s doing and I don’t want to speculate how this has come about. It seems that artists – for a common lack of courage in our political leaders – get pushed to the front, and get paid with fame for the dirty work of breaking accepted standards and initiating development. It is very likely true that some artists are willing to join the game, but I am convinced that the majority, male or female, are not. I call this system sickening and this is why this exhibition made me feel sick.
Not surprisingly there were no brush marks to be detected I wanted to learn about, but I left with the conviction that such dearly bought fame bears no attraction for me.


Museum der Moderne (2014) Carolee Schneemann: Kinetic Painting [online]. Museum der Moderne, Salzburg. Available at: [Accessed 18 February 2017]

Part 1, project 1, exercise 1c: Getting to know your brushes – a piece of fruit

Updated on 18 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

February 18, 2016. The day before yesterday I went shopping to find a piece of fruit with character. There was a tray in the supermarket’s fruit section which contained a weird sort of pear with a peculiar long neck, which I thought I had to give a go because of its asymmetrical form and beautiful hues changing from green to red, yellow and light brown, with speckles all over its skin. In order to emphasize its form and colours I put it on two carefully selected linen placemats in such a way that several diagonals appeared in the setup, providing both axes of separation and communication.
Since I expected this painting to be no more than a quick exercise I used the back of an old sketchbook and unfortunately there appeared horizontal indentations in the cardboard, which must have developed over night, because they were not there at the time of painting. They are visible only in the slanting morning light I took the photograph in, but it reminds me to avoid using unsuitable materials even for the most straightward exercise.
I still quite like the light in the finished painting. This I produced in two steps: first by putting on the cardboard a background layer of pure white acrylics, which I let dry over night and which shines through the layers of colour I put on top, and second by adding several transparent washes of pure white, mixes of white and background colours as well as dark brown mixed with blue. This was by no means the first time I used acrylics, but I think that I learned an incredible amount of new things in this exercise. In particular, which is a special topic with me, there is no need to rush and it is immensely valuable to never lose contact with the developing area of newly applied paint. With me there is always a moment of thinking “How this little bit looks beautiful”, while at the same time watching myself PAINT OVER exactly that little bit. I think that I have only now really understood the principle of communicating with the developing work and I feel pure joy at finally being able to do so (Fig. 1, Fig.2, Fig. 3).

Figure 1: “Pear”, acrylics on cardboard

Before starting to paint I had had a quick look over some paintings by other artists made of single pieces of fruit (e.g. Blair (2010), [Anon.] (n.d.)), but my pear practically dictated the setup of the painting, so I did not refer to the information in my exercise.


[Anon.] [n.d.] [n.k.] [n.k.] [n.k.]. Available at / [Accessed 18 February 2016]

Blair, K. (2010) Still Life of Fruit, Peach. [oil on canvas] [online image]. Edmonton AB, Canada. Available at [Accessed 18 February 2016]


Part 1, project 1, exercise 1b: Getting to know your brushes – landscape from memory

Post updated on 18 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

15 February, 2016. Last year I had a dream, in which I was flying, for the first time since my childhood. It was an incredibly vivid, colourful, 3D experience. I flew over a rocky ridge made up of Mars-coloured giant blocks. The ridge was bordered on the left side by a savannah-like landscape and dropped off to the right. It travelled more or less up to the horizon, where on its farthest outcrop there sat a giant, Mars-coloured chanterelle with two window-like openings. This is the landscape I have been planning to paint since the dream and I will take the opportunity to make a first sketch for this exercise (see Fig. 1 below):

Figure 1. My dream chanterelle

I found it relatively difficult to capture a true likeness of my dream image, since it was only a second long at the time, during which I flew over the landscape at high speed. On the other hand I was free to fill the gaps with whatever my imagination came up with. I had lots of weird ideas reminding me of Hieronymus Bosch (The Netherlands, 1450 – 1516), whose incredibly imaginative work I love and whose 500 year anniversary is celebrated this year (National Gallery of Art, 2017). The most well-known of this works is probably “The Garden of Earthly Delights” (Fig. 2):

Figure 2. Hieronymus Bosch, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, oil on panel, ca. 1480-1505, source: Hieronymus Bosch (ca. 1450-1516) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

16 February, 2016. I decided, however, to leave the idea of a more extended version of my above sketch for later in the course, when my skills have improved.
In the above, in order to continue the experience gained in the mark-making experiment I tried to make use of most types of brushmark, except for the footprint-like marks often used for foliage, which I personally do not like for the evenness of the result. For me, most mark-making and the interaction with its results has been more or less intuitive so far, but I will start making a habit of observing closely and learning how to best translate into my personal painting language the effects of different marks, in particular by studying and comparing the ways of contemporary artists before attempting an exercise.
So, off to painting a piece of fruit next.


  1. National Gallery of Art (2017) ‘Bosch, Hieronymus. Biography’ [online]. National Gallery of Art, Collection, Artists 17 Feb. Available at [Accessed 17 February]

Part 1, project 1, exercise 1a: Getting to know your brushes – making marks and shapes

12 February, 2016. What a strange feeling to reset the exercise counter to 1. I start the Painting 1 exercises with the hope to be able to carry over what I learned in Drawing 1.

Asked to decide which type of paints I would choose to use in this course, oil or acrylic, I would have liked to say oil, but although I am privileged enough to call an attic workshop my own, our house is of an open type that supports rather strong currents of warm air up to the attic, followed of course by air from there – enriched with whatever toxic fumes happen to escape from the paint I use – to travel straight down to where we live. So it is not going to be oils yet. If, one day, we manage to put in a door on the stairs leading to the attic, I will start painting in oil, too.

For the first of all exercises, making marks and shapes with the brushes I own, I prepared the carton back of a large old drawing pad with a layer of white acrylic paint, let it dry and then divided it up into 3 squares to hold the marks of flat, round and filbert brushes, respectively. Since the task was to see the marks a brush can produce, I decided that it would be sensible to use one dark colour to contrast sharply with the white background layer.

By the way: In the Painting 1 study guide I read that it is difficult to keep acrylic paint moist once on the palette. What I do, and it has always worked so far: I spread a sheet of clingfilm over the edges of my makeshift palette, taking care to make it airtight, and the paint will keep moist for at least a week or two.

My makeshift palette and the set of paintbrushes I tried in this exercise (relatively unorthodox choice including watercolour pencils, but this mix is what I normally use and am very happy with)

Here come the marks I produced, round brushes top left, filbert bottom left and flat brushes all of the right half of the carton. I think that almost every mark can be produced by whatever brush used, it is just a matter of convenience and habit. All the brushes will leave marks with darker edges and a lighter middle unless reworked, an effect I usually choose to keep for two reasons: I love how the uneven thickness of the brushmarks will make the background colour shine through in an almost magical way, while at the same time the crossing of a new layer on top of a mark just made will let the painted structure itself appear 3-dimensional (see e.g. the spiral shape below).

brush marks, dark brown acrylic on white background

Paint and Hope

5 February, 2016. Having posted my assessment materials for Drawing 1 a mere 3 weeks ago (link to my Drawing 1 blog:, I thought that I would enjoy a break. But not so. I developed bad withdrawal symptoms and so here I am. Enrolled on Painting 1 and looking forward to the new experience. I intend to continue where I left my other blog and this means writing about hope now and then.
In Austria kids break off school for their “Semester” holidays in February. Today little son received his Semester school report and he is immensely proud it is all A’s. Considering his devastating condition this is by no means natural and it makes me both happy and sad. All we can do is hope that he will not deteriorate too fast before he can grow out of his threatening “status epilepticus” or medication stops working.
Since I noticed how much strength I gained from doing Drawing 1 for the fight for our son that is lying ahead of us, I guess that my withdrawal symptoms are directly connected. So this is what I do: paint and hope. Let’s get started!

14 February 2017. I have just started my new course Painting 1 – Understanding Painting media while working towards July 2017 assessment for the present course. If you would like to continue following me on my journey with the OCA, here is the link to Understanding Painting Media. Hope to see you there!