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]




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