“The progression of a painter’s work…will be toward clarity; toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the idea, and between the idea and the observer…to achieve this clarity is, inevitably, to be understood.” –Mark Rothko

At a bookstore the other day, I picked up a book on painter Mark Rothko. It featured dozens of his paintings presented in chronological order, one per page. Flipping through the pages turned into an experience similar to viewing a flipbook movie. The movie was the story of his art over his life.

And you could see a definite progression. His art kept getting simpler and simpler. There was an evolution. He was building up to nothing. The longer he painted, the more he reduced his work to the bare essentials.

Mark Rothko’s artwork
Here’s a look at some of Rothko’s paintings from 1936-1945:

rothko early works

In his later work, from 1947-1969, “obstacles” are eliminated:

rothko painting

rothko painting

rothko painting

rothko painting

Images from the National Gallery of Art site’s section on Rothko.

Piet Mondrian’s artwork
Along similar lines, check out the progression of Piet Mondrian’s artwork.


Images from the Guggenheim Museum’s site collection of Mondrian paintings (see more Mondrian images).

Losing the accessories
You can point to similar progressions outside of painting too. Listen to what John Lennon was up to in the ‘60s with the ambitious psychedelia and orchestration of “Tomorrow Never Knows” or “A Day in the Life.” Then compare it to the simple, stripped down work he created at the end of his career, like “Imagine” or “Watching the Wheels.” Both periods produced great songs. But there’s almost a zen quality to his later songs. Their power comes, in large part, from their simplicity.

He chose at this juncture to simplify his art in order to figure out his life, erasing the boundaries between the two. As he explained it, he started trying “to shave off all imagery, pretensions of poetry, illusions of grandeur….Just say what it is, simple English, make it rhyme and put a backbeat on it, and express yourself as simply [and] straightforwardly as possible.”

As they gained maturity and experience, these great artists recognized the power of stripping down their ideas. The more powerful a concept is, the less you need to dress it up. Simplicity → clarity → being understood.

Mark Rothko at Wikipedia
Piet Mondrian at Wikipedia