Color: Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, & Ellsworth Kelly

This class came to be when over the course of the other classes we were teaching we found that the students had never really been taught color theory. Some of them knew their primary colors and what it meant for a color to be warm or cool. But many of them didn’t understand why the colors they mixed so often turned brown or grey — and even more didn’t understand how we knew and warned them what would happen when they were mixing colors. So, for this class, we decided to go back to the basics and teach them all about how colors are made and how artists use them.

Our first artist is Mark Rothko, an abstract painter born in what is now Latvia in 1903. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household at a time when Jewish people were discriminated against and attacked in Russia. When he was 10 years old he immigrated to America with his family because his father feared his older children would be drafted into the Imperial Russian Army. They lived in Portland, Oregon where he completed high school. His father was a Marxist and in Portland Rothko began attending International Workers of the World meetings where he advocated for workers rights. He gained oratorical skills, organized debates, and hoped to become a labor union organizer. He received a scholarship to Yale and attended for two years but found it to be elitist and racist so he dropped out.

He moved to New York in 1923 and it was here that, as he said, his life as an artist began. He enrolled in Parsons School for Design where he studied Modernism, Cubism, Avant-Garde, and Surrealism. His first paintings were dark and moody with recognizable figures and spaces. The two below are scenes from the New York Subway.

These paintings were well received by critics and peers and even in these early paintings you can see the large swaths of color he eventually became known for.

For Rothko, art was a spiritual experience and the “Color Field Paintings” he painted for the rest of his life, with their rectangular regions of color were created to draw an emotional and religious experience from the viewer. He did not see himself as an abstractionist or a colorist, he said his art was interested:

… only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on. And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationship, then you miss the point.

Rothko was once commissioned to make some large panels to decorate the luxury Four Seasons Restaurant in the brand new Seagram skyscraper in New York. He began working on them but when he went to see the nearly completed restaurant he found it pretentious and inappropriate for his work so he decided instead to finish the panels and kept them in storage until they were distributed to several museums around the world.

In 1964 Rothko began working on canvases for a windowless, geometric, postmodern, nondenominational chapel in Houston, Texas. Rothko said his work for this space would be his single most important artistic statement. The chapel was meant to be a place of pilgrimage, away from the art center of New York. Rothko was so ill during this project that he had to hire 2 studio assistants to paint most of the canvases. On half of them Rothko didn’t do any of the painting himself. The works are all chestnut brown, brick reds, deep reds, and black mauves.

We are cluttered with images and only abstract art can bring us to the threshold of the divine (Dominique de Menil at the dedication of the building)

Rothko died in 1970 before the chapel was completed, and his canvases for it became his final artistic statement. At his death he had a catalogue of 836 completed canvas paintings.

For our Rothko project we gave each student a set of paints and a canvas and had them create their own color field paintings in the style of Rothko. We asked them to make blocks of color to create paintings of emotion and deep feeling.

They each chose the emotion they wanted to portray and picked colors that would help portray that emotion to other people. They could only do blocks, not any recognizable shapes, because we wanted them to work on making and interpreting emotion abstractly.

Our next artist is Yves Klein, a French painter who was born in 1928. Both of his parents were painters so Klein grew up surrounded by painters of all styles and backgrounds who came to parties thrown by his mother. He received no formal training but learned about art from his parents.

Klein is known for his Monochromatic paintings, and especially his use of a very specific color of bright blue. The time period, starting in 1949, in which Klein painted almost exclusively with this color is known as The Blue Epoch.

The bright blue color is called International Klein Blue (IKB) because it was a color first mixed by Klein. The color comes from the lapis lazuli used to paint the Madonna’s robes in medieval paintings. To keep the brilliance of the pigment in the paint Klein suspended it in a resin mixture instead of linseed oil which tended to dull the color.

To celebrate his first monochrome IKB show being moved to Paris, Klein released 1001 blue balloons and sent out blue postcards with IKB stamps. For these shows Klein also put the canvases on poles 20 cm away from the walls to make it harder to concentrate on them. He also priced them all differently so that each buyer could come through the gallery and find the painting that spoke to them most. Each buyer found something in their own canvas that they liked most — something another buyer might not see themselves.

Untitled Blue Monochrome, 1959

Klein used IKB to make paintings of all kinds, not just the solidly blue canvases. Sometimes he painted the bodies of models and had them lay, roll, or dragged across the canvas. These paintings were called Anthropometries.

Untitled Anthropometrie, 1960
Jonathan Swift, 1960

For our Yves Klein project we had the students mix their color, the color they liked most in the world. We then gave them a piece of plain white paper and had them paint whatever they wanted on it just using that one color.

They had their set of paints and had to mix at least two colors together to make a color that spoke to them the way International Klein Blue spoke to Klein.

We first had a short lesson about color mixing and color theory so that they would understand enough about color to not end up with brown or grey. We taught them about primary, secondary, and tertiary colors and then gave them examples such as, if you mix yellow and green together what do you get? Or if you mixed purple and orange what would you get? We also walked around as they were mixing their colors so we could think together about what would happen if they mixed certain colors together, or what they would need to add to get their color looking the way they wanted it to.

It is a good project because everyone’s color turns out a little bit different. We had three students who wanted teal and two students who wanted pink but each teal and each pink turned out a little bit different from the one next to it.

Our last artist is Ellsworth Kelly, an American printmaker, sculptor, and minimalist painter who was born in 1923. As a child he took art classes in his public school that stressed artistic imagination. He started painting figures but created his first abstract art in 1950 with the painting below called Seine.

This painting shows how light disperses across water by placing black and white rectangles arranged by chance — there was no mathematical process behind where he decided to place the squares.

L: Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance VII, 1951

He then did a study of eight different 40 by 40 inch square grid collages, a few of which are seen above. Kelly dispersed the colors randomly throughout, using a different process to choose the colors for each piece. In an interview about the study he said:

I never thought of color charts at all when I was working on them. They were really an experiment. I wanted to show how any color goes with any other color. Above all, I wanted to learn about color relationships.

Kelly took his color studies from things he saw in real life: shadows, stairwells, windows, and abstracted them. He said in a 1996 interview:

I realized I didn’t want to compose pictures … I wanted to find them. I felt that my vision was choosing things out there in the world and presenting them. To me the investigation of perception was of the greatest interest. There was so much to see, and it all looked fantastic to me

For Kelly, these snapshots of random colors were almost like taking an abstracted photograph of the world the way he saw it. We watched this video (from 1:32–2:27) where Kelly talks about the intuitive way in which he mixes and chooses colors.

For our final project of the day each student each got colored pencils and a piece of graph paper and they got to randomly disperse color wherever they wanted it to be.

This was a great project to end our color class, after thinking about color for so long the students got to just use their instincts and place color anywhere they wanted to on the page.

This was a great class for going back to the basics and learning a lot about color and how different artists use it to create so many different effects. We talked about how color can help us feel and portray emotion — even without recognizable figures. Color theory is so important for budding artists so they can learn how to mix colors and how to pair colors together to get the effect they want. As we say to our students often: you have to know the rules before you decide to break them!

We are a 501c3 non-profit in Provo, Utah. Our goal is to make art accessible and inspire a lifelong love of art and creativity for children in our community.