On Working Through the Messy Stages

So I had a break from the studio last week. In fact, I took advantage of the current freedom to travel between the Balearic Islands, without the need for COVID tests or quarantine, and had a few days’ break on Mallorca.

How refreshing it was to be able to enjoy a wholly different environment, to see new landscapes - dramatic mountains and mystical caves; to experience a different light and to be able to feast my eyes on spectacularly turquoise waters and a sea that, once again, reminded me of Parkers Royal Blue Quink Ink (curious how the colours of the Mediterranean can be so different from place to place); to visit a proper city and touch base again with an old school friend…


These were all bonuses to the main purpose of the trip, which was to meet someone from Cyprus who’d had to travel via Germany to come and collect a commissioned painting.


‘Why Mallorca?’ I hear you ask. Well in these strange times it happened to be a meeting place that was, surprisingly, the most accessible for both of us.


Hasn't life become complicated?


The commission was to create a work inspired by Mark Rothko’s red Seagram murals. Both the client and I had seen them in the Tate Modern, in that specially designed room where low light and grey walls imbue the space with an almost church-like atmosphere that allows the paintings to thrum with power.


There was one that had particularly drawn us both in with an extraordinarily powerful energy that is utterly indefinable and yet all too palpable.

One of Mark Rothko's Seagram mural paintings

A painting that has an effect on you that lingers for years, even when you have not feasted your eyes on it in the meantime, must surely be great in some way. How else to explain the lasting impression? The artist must surely have tapped into something deeper than the normally accepted parameters - colour balance, light, accuracy, composition, skill with the medium, originality etc - of ‘good’ painting -.


When, as an artist, I feel drawn to work in the manner of another artist, it is mainly for this reason. Yes, there’s likely to be admiration for their skill, or an empathy with the subject matter and, yes, I may want to understand the techniques that artist used. But fundamentally, what underlies the urge to ‘copy’ another artist is a hunger to understand the deeper truths that that artist tapped into.


Rothko’s work had already been a profound source of inspiration to me years ago, when I was creating my Out of the Darkness series as a sequel to the stone lithography work, (https://www.marylynnestadler.com/abstract). I had subsequently veered well away from that abstract way of working and become far more embroiled in literality. It was something that I was feeling the need to move away from again when I was approached with the proposition to create my own version of a Rothko. It seemed to come at exactly the right time and I welcomed the idea with open arms.


For all their apparent simplicity, Rothko’s paintings were elaborately evolved, using a wide variety of mediums and materials to create the effects that he wanted. He kept his methods secret while he lived but since then, cutting edge technology has been able to reveal some of the techniques he used, (https://www.nature.com/articles/456447a).


It’s only when you try to work in the manner of another artist that you begin to understand just what went into the making of that original art, and this as true for abstract art as it is for representational work.


For my commission I had neither the materials nor the knowledge and ability that Rothko did. Nor did I have the time to experiment. All I had was the remembered feeling of an experience, some rich inks, a range of acrylic paints, a few weeks and the words ‘an imploding sun’ ringing in my ears. (This was how the client had described his experience of the painting we’d seen in the Tate Modern).


I did, however, have my own experience with working in a similar manner with the Out of the Darkness works, and I knew that I was going to need to work in layers.


There’s red and there’s red, and there are all the variations that you can achieve through laying other colours underneath, and there was a purplish hue to the red of the Rothko painting that was my inspiration.

I have a small selection of wonderful inks by Rohrer, (https://www.boesner.com/zeichentusche-12580) among them Purple and Magenta, and decided that the base coat of the painting would be one of these, opting for the purple as it had more blue in it. This, I felt, would make for a deeper, richer red.


What followed was a succession of layers, colours and compositions driven by the conflicting voices in my head - one that was inclining me to the composition of the original Rothko that I had in mind. The other constantly re-iterating the words ‘imploding sun.’ What follows are a few (though not all) of the various stages that this painting went through, as I strove to get a composition that I felt would work for the client, in the colours that I had in my mind.


For the glow of the aura I had wanted something that had the bluish hue that I recalled from the original Rothko, but all my efforts were in vain as nothing I could produce had the shimmer that I was after. So I ended up with overlaid layers of gold and white, and even pieces of real gold leaf under the surface.




It’s strange how it works but there does, eventually, come a point in the making of work when it feels as though it has reached a moment of completion. I suppose it’s the moment when you feel as though you have, for the moment at least, said what you had to say with it. As ever, that moment came as a surprise, when I walked into the studio one morning, looked at the piece with fresh, morning eyes, and felt satisfied that it was expressing what I had been striving for - the richness of colour and mood that comes when something has been built up layer by layer, and the sense of being drawn in and mesmerised by an event as dramatic as an imploding sun.

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