Light and Color, Sorolla Style
The Artist's Magazine - December, 1990 (Cover Story)
CRISP HIGHLIGHTS AND LUMINOUS SHADOWS
Be it a bather, wave or boat hull, Sorolla knew how to make something look wet. He accomplished this by carefully placing highlights and reflected lights on objects at direct right angles to the source of illumination. Study the two boys lying in the water in the foregound of Beach of Valencia by Morning Light and notice how the glistening highlights on their bodies cause the skin to shine with wetness.
Beach of Valencia by Morning Light (29 1/2 x 41; left) shows Sorolla at the top of his form. The clustered foreground figures show a candidness that a photographer would covet. So, too, with the frolicking children under the watchful eyes of the women in the middle ground. The massive sails of the fishing boats give scale to the scene. The daubed-in sails of the background boats indicate the distant horizon. Also notice the way reflections of the foreground figures lead the eye into the composition and a progression emerges from water to damp sand to dry sand.
The way this effect works is twofold. First, like the corner of a piece of cut glass, the facet of form that picks up the highlight is painted with a crisp stroke of opaque paint. Second, because the color of a highlight is usually complementary to a form's actual color-in this case a bluish highlight against orange flesh - it sets up a color vibration that causes the passage to literally glisten with contrast.
In both Beach of Valencia by Morning Light and After the Bath, Sorolla relied heavily on the effects of reflected light to achieve added luminosity. Notice, for example, the head of the figure with a straw hat in After the Bath and how the left side of his nose and cheek reflect the light-struck passages of the white cloth. So too with the underside of the woman's left wrist and arm, which shows the warm light reflecting off the sandy beach. In both instances, the addition of the reflected lights gives the forms a sense of belonging to the environment.
A most obvious example of reflected light is in Beach of Valencia by Morning Light. Here, the colors of the sky, water and sand reflect myriad effervescent colors into the shadows of the foreground figures. Following the previously mentioned rule of not going any lighter than a middle-gray value in shadow, however, the artist wisely resisted the temptation to overstate these important reflective devices.
Click for larger image - 92KB
(Opens in new window)
Studying the Forms
Beneath the astonishing array of color and tonal changes in this busy subject (left) lies a rock-solid treatment of the forms. Sorolla eliminated all but the foreground cluster of figures and their reflections and reduced the values to a light, halftone and shadow. Yet the forms still appear lightstruck and structurally convincing. Rather than pitching everything high key at the beach, Sorolla structured his work with a full range of values.
BRUSHWORK, PAINT HANDLING AND EDGES
Some painters favor a broadbrush technique, others are more themselves using small, dot-like strokes. Sorolla explored both. Most of his works, however, fall into the broad-brush category. Like the French and American impressionists, he applied paint thickly to his canvas.
Study the paint handling in the collection of pictures shown and notice how the strokes follow the flow of water, growth of vegetation or direction of a fold, not only capturing the gesture but also describing its form. The treatment of the waves, for example, in Beach of Valencia by Morning Light appears stabbed on the canvas with stacatto-like daubs, while the strokes in the drapery in After the Bath sensuously caress the various forms. In both cases, however, the brushwork displays a vitality that creates an energy and a sense of movement impossible with a more flaccid treatment. Regardless of how the paint is applied, the work is stamped with the artist's style of expression.
Sorolla's treatment of edges can also be an education. Notice the contour of the standing figure in After the Bath. Beginning with the soft to firm edges of the face, neck and hair, the edges turn sharp when showing the black trim of the gown. Moving down the figure, the lower torso and legs are softer until reaching the hard edge of the toes. Without this kind of sensitivity to edges, the figure would cease to exist in space, appearing instead as a two-dimensional cut-out.
A SENSE OF CANDOR
Except for some of Sorolla's portraits of dignitaries - and even here the gestures are credibly lifelike - he had the magical ability to capture a figure in its most natural attitudes. No one looks posed. Each person is either bending over, bathing, carrying a child or reaching for an object. Even figures in repose appear natural.
Because of his strong draftsmanship, Sorolla was able to catch the form and gesture of a figure with only a few lines of charcoal or colorful swipes with a loaded brush. While it's tempting to speculate that he used photographs and carefully reconstructed his complex scenes in a studio, it's on record that they were done completely from life.
There are 24 figures represented in Beach of Valencia by Morning Light, yet owing to the superior capabilities of the artist, each one is depicted in some sort of perfectly natural activity.
Many students who look at a Sorolla want to paint like him. I know I did. The energy, feeling of light and color, and optimistic choice of subjects, when first taken in, can indeed be intoxicating. But try not to go overboard, because you have your own special gifts. When Edward Hopper was studying with Robert Henri his work showed the influence of Henri's tonality and brushwork. But Hopper's mature works bear little resemblance to that of his teacher.
Sorolla acted as a similar catalyst to generations of successful painters and illustrators. But the ones who have made their mark are those who used the wealth of knowledge Sorolla has to offer. So absorb every possible bit of information you can. Make copies, diagrams and color notes. Try using a Sorolla color scheme as the basis for a subject of your own. Even take a shot at painting some similar themes. But don't forget, it's your uniqueness, just as it was Sorolla's, that will measure your success as an artist.
From the Background Haze
The Peppers (37 1/2 x 50 3/4; left) is essentially a study in shadows. The background is reduced to thinly painted patterns that imply rather than define detail. This extends to the seated figure on the left, whose forms practically disappear into the background. The real center of interest here is the peppers, which Sorolla emphasized not only by the use of bright color, but also by having the heads of both figures turned toward them.
About the Artist
Born in Valencia Spain on February 27, 1863, and orphaned two years later, Joaquin Sorolla overcame his humble beginnings by winning a scholarship to the Spanish Academy in Rome. Upon graduation, he began sending his paintings to all the leading salons, including Madrid, Paris, Munich, Chicago, Vienna, Berlin and Venice, continuously winning awards. Requests for portraits began about this time and, combined with his prize-winning exhibition pieces, secured his position as a world-class artist.
Soon tiring of the academic sobriety of his large studio compositions, he turned his attention to outdoor location work, and from 1901 to 1905 he produced the 500 works of his first one-man show in Paris (1906). This was followed by numerous other important shows, all of which led up to his greatest success at the Hispanic Society of America (New York). In 1911, he began a monumental set of murals for the society depicting life in the various provinces of Spain. The vast size and scope of the project (some pieces measuring 15 x 35 feet) forced him to trade his usual sense of compositional verve for a more rigid and stylized approach. The series took Sorolla seven years to complete. Exhausted by the end of it, he suffered a stroke in 1920, leaving him paralyzed and unable to work. He died three years later at the age of 60.
The murals were definitely a remarkable accomplishment, yet one can only imagine the creative heights Sorolla might have scaled if the seven years of mural painting had been devoted instead to outdoor painting.