How Mark Rothko's Paintings Can Inspire Your Photography

How Mark Rothko’s Paintings Can Inspire Your Photography

I first encountered a painting by Mark Rothko when I was a uni student, perusing the National Gallery of Australia. Seeking the wisdom of abstract expressionists like Lee KrasnerClyfford Still and Hans Hofmann, I was somehow completely unaware of Rothko’s renowned canvases. So when I came across #20,1957 I was instantly mesmerized. In the reverent light of the gallery, the cells of the painting seemed to shift under my gaze, bleeding and retracting at once. And when I looked away, the after-image formed a striking hollow into the gallery surrounds.

I felt meditation and calm, but I also felt something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. The ineffable. #20,1957 was like nothing I’d ever come across before.

My reaction to the Rothko painting wasn’t unique. Audiences around the world have reported a deep emotional experience when viewing Rothko’s work. Rothko hoped that in viewing his paintings, others would be drawn into a deep meditative state, a state of vulnerability and receptivity that he himself entered into while creating his artworks.

Today, Rothko’s motivations and techniques continue to inform not only painting but visual arts as a whole.

Mark Rothko

Born in Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Latvia) on September 25, 1903, Mark Rothko (born Marcus Rothkowitz) immigrated to the USA with his family in his youth. Inspired to take up art in the autumn of 1923, he began his artistic career painting urban life, portraits, nudes and landscapes. His portrayal of architectural space leaned on abstract compositional techniques, exploring the relationship between the painting and the viewer, an aspect that would play a critical role in his future works.

In the early 1940’s, Rothko shifted from painting the figurative to the symbolic, exploring themes such as prophecy, ancient myths, archaic ritual and the unconscious. Inspired by the surrealist method of automatic drawing, Rothko began to delve into more abstracted imagery, graduating almost entirely to abstraction by the late 1940’s. Unimpeded by the figurative or symbolic, Rothko stained the canvas with diluted oil paint, rendering shapes and forms with soft, indistinct edges, some outlined by luminous white halos.

Mark Rothko, No. 3 No. 13 1949, MOMA
No. 3 No.13, 1949 photo credit: Sharon Mollerus on Flickr

Rothko’s arrived at his signature style in the 1950’s. His expanses of graduated tones and ethereal light seemed to suspend vibratious squares and rectangles upon active planes of color. Toward the end of the 1950’s, Rothko began to paint in an increasingly darker, more restricted pallet.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
No. 9 (Dark over Light Earth/Violet and Yellow in Rose), 1954 photo credit: G. Starke on Flickr

In 1964, Rothko received a commission for a series of paintings for a non-denominational chapel in Houston, Texas – a space that was ideal for immersion in his stark, contemplative canvases. Unveiled in 1971, the paintings took 6 years to complete. However, sadly, Rothko never saw the culmination of the space. He committed suicide in his studio on February 25, 1970. He was 66.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970)
Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960 photo credit: G. Starke  on Flickr

Making photos inspired by the art of Mark Rothko

Painting and photography are two different mediums, I know. There is a significant separation between the paintbrush and the camera (although there are some commonalities too). Creating photographic work inspired by Rothko’s paintings isn’t about mimicry, it’s about trying out different styles and techniques. While this article discusses ways to approach photography that reflects Rothko’s paintings, you don’t have to end up with an exact copy of Black on Dark Sienna on Purple, 1960 (I sure didn’t!).

Through the elements and principals of art and design, Rothko created work that communicates beyond seeing. Using the same principals, photographers can create work inspired by Rothko that challenges the viewer and plays with the concept of photography and visual arts.

Using color

When described solely as a colorist Rothko said, “if you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point.” Rothko used color as a path to realizing the unseen. Looking beyond the event of color as an optical phenomenon, Rothko constructed oscillating visions driven by our innate conceptions of color.

Like Rothko, photographers use color as a tool to convey an image beyond seeing. Our associations with color stem from experience and instinct. Emphasizing color over literal subject matter doesn’t just convey color relationships; it communicates emotion and ineffability.

Capturing photography imbued with color is simple enough, but may require a little exploration. Look for flat planes of solid or graduated color. Seemingly dull urban surfaces like doors, walls or panels come to life within the camera frame. Try to include as little objective evidence as possible, articulating the emotional charge of color without the disturbance of other visual detritus.

The color in this image breaks up space, conveying meaning through our inherent associations

Unfocused photography

Another way to exemplify color is through unfocused photography. Rothko created a visual vibration within his paintings by blurring the edges of his colors and forms. This effect can be re-imagined by unfocusing your camera lens (turn off Auto Focus first) before taking a photograph. Unfocused photography creates a painterly quality that emphasizes color over subject matter. Rather than taking pin-sharp photos, unfocused photography frees the edges of the components that make up a scene, creating a unique movement throughout the image.

Unfocused photography emphasizes color, creating a unique movement throughout the image

Rothko’s abstract expressionism

Although Rothko himself shrugged off classifications, his work is generally categorized as abstract expressionist. Developed in New York in the 1940’s, abstract expressionism refers to a movement of predominantly non-representative painters. Neither completely abstract nor completely expressionist, abstract expressionism encompassed a wide variety of styles and techniques. Overall however, the practitioners of abstract expressionism stood united in their desire to reinvent the nature of painting.

Abstract expressionism is understood today to be divided into two camps – the action painters and the color field painters. Considered a member of the latter, Rothko prioritized austere beds of color over the wild, diacritic mark. Rothko’s serene blocks generate an emotional aura predominately through shape, form, color and line. It’s these basic precepts that have translated into abstract photography.

Like abstract painting, abstract photography operates independently from depicting the objective. As a result, abstract photographers emphasize the non-objective, peeling back the literal to expose the bare bones of an image. Beyond language, abstraction investigates the visual, discards the literal and charges an image with potentiality.

Aerial photography cultivates abstraction through distance. Abstract macro photography closes in on a subject to reveal often unseen planes. Like Rothko’s paintings, what you exclude from a photograph is just as important as what you include. Turning your lens to strong shapes, forms, colors, textures and lines cultivates imagery that cuts through to the essence of visual language.

Abstract photography operates independently from depicting the objective

Movement

Through extensive layering, blending and blurring, Rothko manipulated hard-edged structures of color into stark, yet softly transcendent forms.

Intentional camera movement (ICM) uses the same principals of movement within a photograph. Through motion, ICM reduces a subject to shape, form, color, and line, creating an abstracted study of movement and light. Similar to painting, ICM involves the physical movement of the camera during an exposure. Also, like Rothko’s actions documented in the strokes of a brush, ICM creates an artwork that is visibly, inextricably linked to the experience of the photographer.

To take an ICM photograph, first, turn off autofocus and, if you have it, image stabilization. Set your camera to Shutter Priority, adjust your exposure time to around 1/2 of a second and turn your ISO down to the lowest setting on your camera. The longer your shutter speed, the more a subject will blur.

Point your camera at a subject, depress the shutter and physically move the camera. Once the shutter closes, review the result on your LCD screen. Your movement will register as blurred lines within the image.

The nature of ICM is that it is both simple and experimental – it takes some adjustment to perfect. Explore different combinations of subject matter, time of day, focus, shutter speed, aperture, and movement to create an image you’re happy with. Moreover, don’t forget to wear your camera strap!

Conclusion

Saying once that “the most interesting painting is one that expresses more of what one thinks than of what one sees,” Rothko shifted the way art is made and observed. Now, with the advent of digital photography, we have new ways to communicate visually.

However, Rothko’s reflections on the human spirit continue to resonate as a vital pause amongst visual loudness. Through his use of color, abstract expressionism and movement, Rothko’s work transcend artistic mediums, informing and inspiring contemporary practice today.

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Megan Kennedy is a photographer and writer based in Canberra, Australia. A lifelong fascination with flight has inspired her photographic practice in documenting the intricate form of aircraft. Megan is also interested in travel photography and documenting human interaction with the modern landscape, through both intentional and incidental intervention. She is well versed in both digital and film practice. Both her writing and photography has been featured in numerous publications.