Technique and condition

Black on Maroon is painted on a single sheet of US cotton duck stretched tightly over a strainer. Constant tension over the large surface is maintained by a simple but effective internally sprung system of cross bars bowed and jammed between the outer bars. The only fixing that prevents the bars from springing out of position is a single screw driven through the sides of the outer frame.

The canvas was prepared for painting with a base coat of maroon paint made from powder pigments stirred into rabbit skin glue. Mark Rothko then enriched the colour with a coat of maroon oil paint applied with a brush and scraped away to leave a thin skin of colour. The surface dried to a soft sheen. Further depth of maroon was painted to the far left and far right in a subtly-different pigment mixture.

Using a large decorator’s brush, Rothko applied the black paint vigorously in broken strokes followed by broad sweeping gestures, scuffing the paint, spreading it and feathering the edges. Any splashes that fell across the red ground were left. This glue based paint, initially fat and bulky, shrank on drying to from a brittle, mainly matt, layer.

Accents of thick red acrylic paint were stippled on to the lower left corner to catch the light. These are now more apparent as the various red pigments used throughout the painting, have faded differentially, the greatest change being in the inorganic powder red in the base coat. Fading, which is inevitable, has been slow due to the low light levels preferred by the artist. In the forty years since the mural was painted, this unstoppable process has transformed maroon paint from a rich wine shade to a subtle violet, veiled appearance. Patches of intense red indicate where the most stable red pigments were used, principally to the far left and right and in a soft maroon haze at the top right.

The painting is not varnished. Despite the colour change, the painting is in good condition. A few finger prints and scratches from intimate contact in the past have caused permanent alterations to the paint surface. Surface dirt was removed in 2000.

Mary Bustin
July 2000