Design Under the Influence: Mark Rothko

Hello again! Erika here from small shop with another edition of Design Under the Influence! With abstract art being all the rage right now, I thought it would be fun to talk a little about one of the most recognizable and well-loved abstract artists, Mark Rothko.

You may have asked yourself before, “What’s up with people just standing there, staring at Rothko’s?” Surprisingly, it’s not just because they’re pretty paintings. Perhaps you didn’t know a few things about this color-field painter and his art:

1) Rothko was deeply influenced by color theories first developed in the 17th & 18th centuries; 2) His paintings were quite large in size, and were meant to be viewed “up close and personal”; 3) It was Rothko’s intention that viewers have a sensory experience with his paintings.

First off, let’s talk color theory. It’s not something we think about much, but the color wheel was invented by Isaac Newton in the 1660’s — you know, ROYGBIV, complementary/contrasting/primary colors, etc. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe took it a step further in the 19th century and found that reds and oranges created warmth, while blues and greens created coolness. This emotional impact of color perception, harmony and discord, is what interested Rothko, and he and other Abstract Expressionists began to play with color as a means of expanding our experiences. Rothko believed, โ€œThe most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees.โ€

Have you had the opportunity to view a Rothko in person? If you have, then you know that they are really big! You may be surprised since we are so used to seeing miniaturized reproductions on postcards and prints. But stand in front of one for a few minutes and you’ll begin to have your own Rothko experience: it’s as if the dark areas pull you in, and the bright areas shoot you back out. It’s really quite a neat effect of visual weight, as you begin to have this undulating connection with a 2-dimensional, flat object on the wall.

Actually, Rothko intended that the experience be much more encompassing than this. He strove to create the simplest and purest forms that could generate a deeply emotional response akin to the human experience, both tragedy and ecstasy.

“Just as the hues of a sunset prompt feelings of elation mingled with sadness or unease as the dark shapes of night close in, so Rothko’s colors stir mixed feelings of joy, gloom, anxiety or peace. Though the forms in the painting seem simple at first glance, they are in fact subtly complex. Edges fade in and out like memories; horizontal bands of ‘cheerful’ brightness have ‘ominous’ overtones of dark colors”. ~ Dorothy Seiberling, LIFE, 1959

Untitled, 1968
No.16, 1960
Ochre and Red on Red, 1954
Untitled, 1961
White Center (Yellow Pink and Lavender on Rose), 1950 *Formerly owned by Rockefeller, this painting recently sold for $72.8 million!
So now perhaps you know a little something more about those “color-blocked” paintings that everyone seems to love, and maybe few know all the reasons why! I bet next time you’re at an exhibit with a Rothko, you’ll find yourself as one of those just standing there staring at it, too…just as the artist intended.
Thanks for joining me today, hope to see you soon over at the small shop [shop talk] blog!
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Tell Me What You Think! leave a comment...

  1. wow! it was good to know this about Rothko! I love art and I am looking forward on going to a museum and contemplate one of his paintings reminding what I have just read..

  2. I have seen a few in person, and wow, this sums up the experience really eloquently. His work really is so powerful — much more so that you expect going into it. And, ha, of course I have always loved the one that ended up going for $72M.

    What I never knew was the backstory of color theory. Totally interesting, and I am such a nerd I will now probably look up more. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Design under the Influence is such a great series! I love his work and sadly didn’t know anything about the Rothko experience. Thank you, Erika! ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Thank you so much, Erika for yet another well written, informative post! I look forward to reading your posts here (and on your blog!)and can’t wait to see what you’ll be writing about next!

  5. Erika is so smart and does the absolute best posts – no one else puts as much thought into them! Love love love Rothko, and this post!
    -e (

  6. I know virtually nothing about the art of painting. I love paintings, as they convey to me scenes that I would never have seen otherwise. It is like going on an instant journey into what another has seen, although I believe we all see differently depending on our emotional state at the time.Like reading a poem. This is the first time I have ever seen paintings like this and they are just colors to me. It makes me realize that there seems to be a very deep spiritual meaning to such paintings after reading about them.It must be a special gift in the eye of the beholder to see (feel) the great importance of the emotions in different colors.I think that such appreciation is cultivated in time and with knowledge of this wonderful art of painting. I find it rather interesting that such large sums of money are paid for a huge board of colors. Thank you for sharing this new world with us.