He makes it look so easy.
October 17, 2007 1:10 PM   Subscribe

I could paint that. Couldn't I?

You know those "simple" abstract paintings that leave you thinking: I could do that!

How difficult is it to loosely copy art? Very talented artists have the gift of choosing color and composition. Couldn't the somewhat artistic, lay person create the same look without it looking crude and amateurish?


Untitled (Orange and Yellow) by Mark Rothko

Untitled (Green, Red, on Orange) by Mark Rothko

I am aware that Rothko is very accomplished and talented. Famous! I realize what seems effortless is probably very difficult. But, how difficult would it be to borrow a few color combinations from these beautiful works and paint something that is similar? Most of us are nowhere near Rothko's talent, but how hard is it really? I ask this without any sarcasm.

I think Rothko painted with oil, but would watercolors be a better bet for an amateur? I'm wondering how he achieved that translucent, feathery quality that is at the edges of the rectangles, and the layering of colors with colors bleeding through.

Tell me I'm dreaming. Or, tell me a somewhat artistic person could paint a few rectangles and create something in the spirit of Rothko without looking like a five-year old did it. I have some talent in drawing but I've never done much painting. I would consider myself somewhat creative and artistic.

That was a lot. I guess I'm looking for painting tips and techniques, book suggestions, and general advice.
posted by LoriFLA to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Sure. A regular guy could paint something that looks like a Rothko to another regular guy. But then that isn't the point of viewing a Rothko. There is much more to his paintings than two squares and two colors. Viewing them in person does them justice.
posted by JJ86 at 1:15 PM on October 17, 2007

Go buy some canvases and paint. Give it a shot. I am a decent photographer, so I had the idea of making abstracts based on my photographs. Simple lines, shapes, and colors.

So far, I've been really surprised... at how shitty they are! I did a decent cloudscape, but making a decent abstract has been WAY harder than I thought!

But... you can draw. I think you have a better chance than me. In any case, it is fun, no matter how crappy the result. Our local Michael's store has great prices on 16x20 canvases, so it's relatively cheap to try. I find acrylics way easier to work with then oils, fwiw. Have fun!
posted by The Deej at 1:17 PM on October 17, 2007

it's more that they did what no one else ever did, and took it seriously

do something like that, say, a shark in a tank of preservative

or a diamond encrusted skull
posted by Salvatorparadise at 1:20 PM on October 17, 2007

My first response is: you've got the instincts of an artist. Go for it! Maybe sign up for a beginning painting course.

It's neither here nor there, but for interior decor purposes, I often copy the works of the "greats" because these things can look incredible on the wall. Maybe you've seen those gigantic scribble paintings by Cy Twombley? I recently did something like that on an interior wall in our place...everyone comments on it. I mean it's not a work of genius, because it was Twombley who first thought of presenting scribbles as Great Art, not me. But who's to stop you from trying out some of the effects you see? If you like art and you want to stretch yourself, go ahead and do it. That's what artists do. You copy other artists' effects, learn from what's already been done, and then come up with your own spin on things.

The renaissance guys spent years painstakingly copying the work of the masters. It was a necessary step in the process of discovering their own approach.

If you have these instincts and you're already wondering about technique, you're an artist. Take a painting class and start cultivating your instincts. Just do it! :)
posted by frosty_hut at 1:23 PM on October 17, 2007

My Oil Painting 101 class in college had a "copy a master" assignment that produced versions of Picasso and Monet works that are surely still hanging in those students' parents' homes. You might enjoy a class or a video series very much.
posted by xo at 1:26 PM on October 17, 2007

I don't buy the "you have to look at them in person argument." I think the important thing is that he did it first. Like everything else in life, the one who does it first is the one who's remembered.

Yea, I think it'd be pretty easy to create, and you could probably have a lot of fun and decorate your place with your own imitations, but I don't think you'll be able to make serious dough.

Why is the 756th hr ball important? It's the same as any other base ball. It's important because society places a value on being the the one to break the record.

a little bit off topic: are those prints that this website is selling, or originals?
posted by unexpected at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2007

How hard could it be to make a table? Coupla planks, some legs and some nails.

How hard could it be to write a song? Only 12 tones to choose from.

How hard could it be to choreograph a ballet? The dancers do all the work.

I'm not snarking. I think people forget that in addition to being an art, painting is also a craft. It requires training in the materials, "eye" training to be able to balance a composition (or not balance it if that's your deal). Skill must be acquired and inborn talent doesn't hurt either. Just go down to your local community art gallery and tell me if the abstracts there are anything close to the abstracts of someone like Rothko.

But yeah, if you think you could do it, maybe it's true. I say go for it. I think there are a lot of artists out there who never have the courage to try.

And please, no one bring up Marla. (oops, I did it)
posted by nax at 1:28 PM on October 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

Or, tell me a somewhat artistic person could paint a few rectangles and create something in the spirit of Rothko without looking like a five-year old did it.

Tom Wolfe wrote an interesting book about this (and related) subjects, called The Painted Word. I'd highly suggest reading it.
posted by lekvar at 1:35 PM on October 17, 2007

There's was a little girl in the news lately who has painted things that rivaled "the masters" in terms of quality, according to experts and academics and historians in the field of art appreciation. Many people took that to mean that she was some sort of savant.

A vocal minority claimed this was an example of how bankrupt modern abstract art was.

You could probably imitate it and go far. One thing I notice about too many art showings is that the focus is on the artist rather than the art. Sell the story and attach the painting, and you'll do better than if you sell the painting alone.

(Pessimistic? Who, me?)
posted by cmiller at 1:36 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Former art major chiming in here.

I copied a Bronzino painting (found here) in one of my high school painting classes because my art teacher made me.
Him: This is the most challenging one I have. Have at it!
Me: Why did you give me the tough painting?!
Him: Because you're talented, silly.
Me: *whine*

It actually didn't end up being too tough to approximate the painting, even with acrylics instead of oils. It took three weeks of working on it for two hours a day to get a good result, but I was happy with it.

You can get that feathery quality with several layers of paint, oddly enough. You have heavy, thick layers underneath, then light, more watered-down layers on top. You want to let the bottom layers dry thoroughly before adding the top layers so you don't brush the lower layers off the canvas entirely. You'll want to use a large, flat brush and use light, wispy strokes in varying directions.

I really hope that makes sense, because it's SO hard to explain in writing.

I recommend getting a few small canvasses (like 8.5x11?) and practicing a bit before you actually set about creating your pseudo-replica.

Have fun with it, and don't be hard on yourself if you don't get it immediately. Paintings by people like Rothko are deceptively simple-looking. Good luck!

On preview, nthing the people who mentioned signing up for a painting course. You'd be absolutely AMAZED at what you learn in just a few short hours a few days a week.
posted by Verdandi at 1:36 PM on October 17, 2007

I tried to paint a portrait of Neil Young once in oil and he came out looking like an avocado. So it was really a painting of an avocado, and that was alright, too.

Point being, you might surprise yourself, and it's not expensive to try. Watercolors or tempera might be more forgiving than oil.
posted by Camofrog at 1:37 PM on October 17, 2007

nax, oops, sorry. :)
posted by cmiller at 1:37 PM on October 17, 2007

Another vote for acrylic over watercolor or oil if you're an amateur (like I am!). I've tried both but have a much easier time with acrylic paint (also dries a lot faster so you have more instant gratification).
posted by jenh at 1:41 PM on October 17, 2007

I would buy that Avocado Neil Young from you, Camofrog. Email in my profile.
posted by padraigin at 1:44 PM on October 17, 2007

To second others, do go look at a Rothko in person if you can. The paintings, which look deceptively simple in a 400px wide web browser graphic, have quite a bit of subtlety at full scale -- just for starters, you'll see that Rothko didn't just paint-roller single hues into a couple adjacent rectangle shapes, but in most cases used several layers of carefully-chosen hues to get a particular effect (which also involves sort-of-fractally slightly-overlapping edges; I love that).

Which is also to say there's a technique you might start with, seeing what you get when you overlap semi-transparent layers of pigment.
posted by aught at 2:00 PM on October 17, 2007

If you are good at drawing, you can get really beautiful, paint-like effects using oil pastels, with the advantage of not having to completely learn the new medium of painting or worrying about things like canvases or paint drying.

Then, if you make good looking pieces that way, then you can paint too.
posted by Deathalicious at 2:07 PM on October 17, 2007

Oh, Rothko is a bad example. The Internet does him no justice; if you're going to discuss modernist frauds, I suggest first looking a one of his painting in person. They are enormous, and radiate warm and depth.

But that's not really the point - your point is "could I create it", and for much of modernist art, you certainly could. A large part of modernism concerned itself with "what is art" and taking a urinal and putting it in a gallery and saying "this is art" and challenging people to discuss it. So what IS the "art" of that? I look at it more as performance art than visual art. After the gallery show, that urinal is just a urinal, after all.

On the other side of it, some artists we're maintaining a sense of craft while exploring the boundaries of it. Someone like Rothko was all about the graduations between colors and the raw primal influences of it.

You could possibly copy many modernist artists, and many people can copy classical artists too, but that misses the point: art is conveying a message, if you're copying the message you're not in any way creating art. But if you can make a good fake, congrats for you, but recognize the distinction.
posted by lubujackson at 2:09 PM on October 17, 2007

I tried this once. Thought I could do a Jackson Pollock on a piece of stiff canvas board. It was way harder than I thought. The colors just bled into each other in yucky ways. Still, I hung it on my apartment wall. Every time friends would come over, they would rotate it 90 degrees. I got tired of this after awhile and put it in a closet. But when I needed something to support a particularly saggy mattress, I pulled it out and slid it underneath the mattress. I often wondered if anyone ever broke in to my place to rob me, they'd find this rare piece of art hidden under the bed and run off thinking they had stolen a masterpiece.
posted by lpsguy at 2:20 PM on October 17, 2007 [2 favorites]

I don't buy the "you have to look at them in person argument."

Seconding lubujackson re:Rothko. They're big. This makes them feel markedly different than if you see a picture on the web or in a book. Which is not to say you couldn't do em, but big canvasses ain't cheap.
posted by juv3nal at 2:30 PM on October 17, 2007

I'm a professional graphic designer, which I imagine will knock any credibility right off me as far as painters are concerned. I started out painting, though, and know a thing or two about putting brush to canvas.

Rothko makes me cringe, but emulating a painter you like is a sure fire way to keep you interested in what you're doing. Just try to avoid comparing yourself to someone who made their name painting, while you are only starting out.

Get a book, take a class, go to art shows, talk to a painter. It's good to both immerse yourself in the field and to get some instruction of some kind from the start.

Also, I feel that oils are the way to go. Sure, they are more expensive, more messy, take longer to dry, require more chemicals to work with, and are kind of stinkier, but you can't beat the color. Start with acrylics if you are unsure of yourself, but keep your eye on the sale rack for small oil sets to dabble with.

Good luck, too. You're in for a little frustration but an entire world of gratification if you stick with this. Have fun.
posted by Pecinpah at 2:32 PM on October 17, 2007

rothko doable? sure, but rothko is probably one of the more nuanced abstract expressionists, and he didn't paint fast like pollock, so you're really looking at a pretty big time investment (and probably some big surprises and wrong turns when you're doing color-mixing that will mean you have to start over) to do a rothko. a couple of offhand notes:

1. you will not get that look with watercolors.
2. rothko got that layering look, by well, using LOTS AND LOTS of layering. in order to do that with oils, you'll need to get some linseed oil to mix in, and about $200-300 (or more, i imagine -- oils are expensive; you can save a little bit by buying from Utrecht, but not much) in paint. painting with oils is very different from painting with acrylics (which most people are used to from grammar school art class). painting with oils means lots of drying time. This isn't something you're going to knock off in a night -- we're talking a month, easy.
3. size is a major factor in rothko's work. you will need to buy by the foot canvas and build your own stretcher bars/stretch it yourself to get the proper size. stretching your own canvas isn't difficult, but it does require having the right tools (staple gun or hammer/tacks and canvas pliers). you'll probably want to use 2x4 for the stretcher bars. i'd say you're looking at $50-100 here.
4. i imagine there was considerable procedure around a) prepping the canvas, and b) applying brushstrokes. you can look in a rothko biography/research online and probably find some of this out.
5. painting is (thankfully, i think) MUUUCH different than drawing. good illustration skills can only help, but oil painting is very much about brushstrokes and mixing color (which occurs in a wonderful way that is like nothing else).
posted by fishfucker at 2:37 PM on October 17, 2007

I think Rothko painted with oil, but would watercolors be a better bet for an amateur?

If I were trying this, I'd use gouache rather than thinner watercolors. I always found watercolors finicky and pale until an art instructor required me to spent a semester painting with gouache, starting at full intensity and gradually watering it down.

My favorite thing about gouache: even after it's dried, you can revisit the painting with a slightly damp brush (slightly!) and feather out the edges a bit. That might help you achieve the layering you speak of. It won't be a Rothko (if your experience echoes mine at all, it won't be much of anything), but it's fun in itself --- and heck, maybe you have a gift!
posted by Elsa at 2:41 PM on October 17, 2007

Adding: I didn't mean to suggest that gouache is preferable to oil, only that gouache is less of an investment in money and time, and more approachable for someone without a dedicated studio. For noodling around with paints, it's a decent choice.
posted by Elsa at 2:46 PM on October 17, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for the wonderful answers so far.

My motive at this time is mostly for decorative purposes and not creative expression, which is kind of sad, I know. Or, I'd like to think it was both. I would probably abandon "copying" and go straight to creating once I started.

As suggested, Rothko probably is a bad example. I've never had the pleasure of viewing his art in person. I could not imagine actually copying a Rothko with the sort of complexity he displayed.

My thoughts are like this: "I want a swath of orange on this wall. I want that beautiful print in the colors of orange, but it's expensive. I should paint something orange instead."

My city has an art league that provides classes to the public. I've been wanting to go for the longest time. This is the nudge I needed. I love reading these answers. They're inspiring and very helpful.
posted by LoriFLA at 2:48 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

You really need to see the work in person. It sucks you in, it isn't just color field painting, it is an emotional experience to be in the same room as a Rothko. What you have to realize about any artist is that the work they are probably known for was 40 years in the making. Each painting is built on the last painting. Sure, you could probably copy some of it, but it most likely won't have the same depth or sublety, but then again you indicate that isn't your primary purpose. You might also like Diebenkorn. Also big color fields, totally different vibe.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:01 PM on October 17, 2007

A local museum, the Currier Gallery in Manchester NH, had a Frank Stella exhibition some time ago. At the opening, they set poster paint and paper in the courtyard for people who thought color field painting was easy for them to duplicate. I watched the messes being done by these people and then went back inside and looked at the Stella paintings with new and humbled vision.
posted by Raybun at 3:25 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Rothkos don't reproduce. You have to stand in front of the original to obtain the effect (which is remarkable in itself, don't you think?) The fact that you posted a link to a reproduction of a Rothko makes me suspect you're not aware of this.

This has been asked before, by the way.
posted by ikkyu2 at 4:06 PM on October 17, 2007

You aren't going to lose anything other than a little time and money by trying (though you might want to start on something that you can toss if need be, rather than your walls). I've done a few canvasses and a door in the style of Mondrian, which is probably a fair bit easier than emulating a Rothko, but it still took two of us many hours of work (nearly all of it, of course, with masking tape and a blade). The results were acceptable to me. I absolutely agree with everyone that seeing these pieces in person is totally different than seeing them online, but for decorating purposes, you don't need to capture everything that is in the original.
posted by ssg at 4:17 PM on October 17, 2007

Yes, as others have suggested, Rothko in the life and Rothko in reproduction are different animals. I suggest you approach this in a humble way that will enable you to learn. As follows: Get yourself a postcard of a Rothko in a local museum. Paint your version from the postcard. Then go and see the original. Compare to your version. Repaint your version based on your experience of the original. Having said which, scale is a component of Rothko's aesthetic: change the size and you change everything.
posted by londongeezer at 4:18 PM on October 17, 2007

Why, oh why, did you mention Rothko? People are fanatical in defense of him.
posted by smackfu at 5:07 PM on October 17, 2007

A few things. First and most important: give it a whirl. You won't end up with anything all that Rothko-like, probably, but at the very least you'll have fun and if you get lucky and keep a it a while you'll have a painting you dig, and maybe even matches your sofa

Also, oil paint at it's worst rarely looks that bad, acrylic at it's best rarely looks that good. The MATERIALS, not the paintings made with them. Oil paint is harder to use, more expensive, more toxic, but really worth it.

Finally a quick and cheap painting tip: Work fat over lean. Right off the bat cover the whole blank canvas with a wash of color (acrylic +lotsa water or oil + lotsa turps) then add progressively heavier and more detailed layers. This technique will buy your way around a few 'amateur looking' pitfalls. It won't necessarily keep your work from looking amateurish, NOT doing it won't nec. make your work amateurish, but it is a good place to start.

Good luck!
posted by dirtdirt at 5:18 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just to address the copying aspect -- I would say copying marks/brushstrokes is one of the most difficult things -- it's really hard to fake a decisive stroke. For example, the original artist might have been painting while thinking about falling leaves or jet engines or how angry his mother makes him, whereas you are thinking 'make a small squiggly line that's halfway between these straight lines.' Copied work usually looks sort of stiff and awkward. Does that make sense?

The other difficult thing to copy is the colors. I guess if you're looking at reproductions it's hard to see subtleties (as others have pointed out), but the tiniest tiniest differences will change the way the colors interact with each other.

I think if you just want to make some decorative things, you should borrow ideas but not copy directly. Your work will look fresher and feel more personal.
posted by Marit at 6:38 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

In terms of Rothko specifically, you can find things about his technique and process:
or here
or here.
posted by extrabox at 7:56 PM on October 17, 2007

As far as the "swath of orange on this wall" angle, I am thinking of painting some canvasses complementary solid colors and hanging them in a matrix pattern.
posted by The Deej at 8:15 PM on October 17, 2007

My motive at this time is mostly for decorative purposes

Friends of mine did a really nice wall treatment by getting these 1'x1' canvas squares on recessed frames and painting them with leftover color samples from various room painting projects. They spent some time getting the combination they wanted, exactly, but in the end they had something that was simple, inexpensive, and filled most of a blank wall with something akin to a modern art piece.

If you're just looking for decorative effect, certainly something similar to Rothko is doable. A lot of abstract art is doable. You'll find many ideas along these lines in home magazines.

It doesn't quite sound like you're fooling yourself down the path of "modern art is just throwing some colors together, hence a fraud".

I think the important thing is that he did it first.

I think seeing art in terms of "firsts" is mistaken. There is an entire century of abstract expressionism surrounding Rothko and his personal implementation is part of that context.

A vocal minority claimed this was an example of how bankrupt modern abstract art was.

A vocal minority also claimed that she was coached and/or overpainted, presumably by her father. But, the same argument has been made for art created by a monkey or an elephant.
posted by dhartung at 8:24 PM on October 17, 2007

I think Rothko often didn't prime his canvas.

Also, I find that creating something BIG (even something non-representational) is a lot harder than something small...a large (har har) part of the impact a Rothko has is the size of the painting.

Also please do not be scared to mix colors in ways that depart from your kindergarten "yellow + red=orange," etc. teachings. It may take you a while to get something besides mud, but you will end up with far more interesting colors.

Have fun! And if you ever get the opportunity, please go see a Rothko in person. They are pretty amazing.
posted by gembackwards at 9:18 PM on October 17, 2007

I take pottery classes, and I look at a lot of pottery. In modern studio pottery there are a lot of potters who express gesture through studied imperfection: uneven edges, un-centered work, irregular and inconsistent marking, lopsided construction. In short, what appears to be a studied amateurishness. I also look at a lot of genuinely amateur work (including my own). While the same things are present in both, in the latter they clearly read as flaws, while in the former they certainly read as artistic choices. I have never confused a poorly made student pot with a well-made (but off-kilter) professional pot.

All this to say that (the illusion of) simplicity is very hard to achieve, Rothko or otherwise. The "I could make that" school of art criticism is only employed by people who don't have very discerning vision, or who have not tried.

But you should totally do your own thing.
posted by OmieWise at 5:43 AM on October 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Friends of mine did a really nice wall treatment by getting these 1'x1' canvas squares on recessed frames and painting them with leftover color samples from various room painting projects. They spent some time getting the combination they wanted, exactly, but in the end they had something that was simple, inexpensive, and filled most of a blank wall with something akin to a modern art piece.

What a great idea.

The "I could make that" school of art criticism is only employed by people who don't have very discerning vision, or who have not tried.

Yes. Very good point.

I think if you just want to make some decorative things, you should borrow ideas but not copy directly. Your work will look fresher and feel more personal.

But you should totally do your own thing.

I think I will do my own thing. I have a few ideas. I might try to copy a Rothko in a loose sense just for the hilarity of it.

Thanks for all of the fabulous comments, links, tips, and encouragement. I would mark best answers, but it would be a page of white.
posted by LoriFLA at 6:46 AM on October 18, 2007

I don't buy the "you have to look at them in person argument."

Actually, many of these sorts of paintings have extremely shifts of color that cannot be adequately captured by film. You basically have to look at them in person. And the paint may have different textural qualities that also can't be appreciated except in person.

This is the part that you can't do. Anyone can smoosh squares on a page, and even make them relatively good. What is difficult is making the complex, rich colors that reveal themselves slowly over time.
posted by Deathalicious at 8:42 PM on October 18, 2007

extremely subtle shifts
posted by Deathalicious at 8:45 PM on October 18, 2007

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