There are a handful of artists I turn to whenever I need inspiration or motivation. Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) is one of them. His luscious brushwork and seductive use of color always prompt me to pick up a brush and tackle the next painting.
Key Facts, Events, and Ideas
Sorolla was a prolific painter and one of the lucky few who experienced the fruits of success during their lifetime. It is difficult to summarize his life and achievements in just a few bullet points, but here we go:
- If there is such a thing as natural talent, he had it in spades. He started practicing around the age of 9. By 15, he was accepted to the Academy of San Carlos, and by his early 20s, he was painting masterpieces like Defence of the Monteleon Artillery Barracks (below).
- One of his first major successes came in 1892 when Another Margarita (below) placed first at both the Madrid National Exhibition and subsequently the Chicago International Exhibition. It depicts a woman arrested for the murder of her child being transported by authorities. Sorolla actually witnessed her being transported (source). There is a glimpse of her chained hands and the tense expression on her face. Take note of the subtlety here—Sorolla does not shove it down our throats!
- His style was unique, with influences from the Old Masters and his Impressionist contemporaries. He had this to say about Diego Velázquez in particular:
"If ever a painter wrought a miracle of illusion with brush and pigment that painter was Velazquez in his 'Las Meninas,' at the Prado in Madrid. Now, I have studied this picture with a lens, and what do I find? Why, that Velazquez got that marvelous atmospheric background by one broad sweep of his flowing brush, charged with thin color so thin that you can feel the very texture of the canvas through it. Nature, the sun itself, produces color effects on this same principle, but instantaneously. The impression of these evanescent visions is what we make desperate attempts to catch and fix by any means at hand. At such moments I am unconscious of materials, of style, of rules, of everything that intervenes between my perception and the object or idea perceived. No, mes amis, impressionism is not charlatanry, nor a formula, nor a school. I should say rather it is the bold resolve to throw all those things overboard."
- He painted mostly outdoors, under sunlight and exposed to the elements. He did this even for many of his portraits, which are typically painted in the comforts of a studio.
"As far as outdoor work is concerned, a studio is only a garage; a place in which to store pictures and repair them, never a place in which to paint them."
- In 1911, he started work on "The Vision of Spain", a series of massive paintings that celebrate Spanish culture, commissioned by the Hispanic Society. It dominated the mature end of Sorolla's career, taking around eight years to complete. Castilla (below) was the first in the series. And below that is one of his sketches done in preparation for the series.
- He died in 1923, after suffering a stroke three years prior. His house is now a museum (Museum Sorolla) showcasing his life's work.
"I could not paint at all if I had to paint slowly. Every effect is so transient, it must be rapidly painted.”
Sorolla painted fast, usually outside and fashionably dressed. Perhaps the best description I have come across is that he painted "like a pig eats" (from a discussion on Wet Canvas).
His flawless technique allowed him this privilege. Painting fast at the sacrifice of control is a recipe for disaster.
It is also worth noting that Sorolla went to "great lengths to make it look dashed off and easy" as James Gurney put it. There are numerous photos of Sorolla painting under the glaring sun with temporary walls, umbrellas, a giant easel, ropes and supports to brace the canvas, assistants, you name it. Anything but spontaneous...
The painting below gives you an indication of how he painted. The bleeding paint in the bottom left suggests he started with thinned paint and blocked-in the general color shapes, before refining the painting.
The following quote suggests he attacked most paintings without a detailed plan. This may be why his compositions appear so natural and inviting.
“Go to nature with no parti pris. You should not know what your picture is to look like until it is done. Just see the picture that is coming."
He worked alla prima (wet on wet), with large brushes to match the large canvas sizes. But painting in this way was not without logistical challenges:
"The great difficulty with large canvases is that they should by right be painted as fast as a sketch. By speed only can you gain an appearance of fleeting effect. But to paint a three yard canvas with the same dispatch as one of ten inches is well-nigh impossible.”
Color and Light
Sorolla used a bright palette, perhaps inspired by the Impressionists. At the very least, we know he was inspired by their use of violet with the following backhanded compliment:
"With all its excesses, the modern impressionistic movement has given us one discovery, the color violet. It is the only discovery of importance in the art world since Velazquez."
For his outdoor paintings, his palette included cobalt violet, rose madder, all cadmium reds, cadmium orange, all cadmium yellows, yellow ochre, chrome green, viridian, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, French ultramarine, and lead white (according to Charles Sovek). His portrait palette extended to include black and earth tones.
The best way to learn and understand Sorolla's use of color is to see it in action.
Curious Child (below) is a stunning example of his ability to paint the illusion of light. You can almost feel the warm sunlight through the painting.
Here are some key observations (I will try not to get lost in technical analysis, as it is sometimes best to just sit back and appreciate art like this):
- The darks are colorful and around the middle of the value scale.
- There is a pleasing contrast between warm lights and cool darks.
- It seems Sorolla used rather thick paint for the lights and thin paint for the darks, reiterating the contrast.
- The loose brushwork works with the glaring sunlight (we squint when the light is too strong).
The following quote is also rather fitting:
"I hate darkness. Claude Monet once said that painting in general did not have light enough in it. I agree with him. We painters, however, can never reproduce sunlight as it really is. I can only approach the truth of it.”
Here is a similar painting, but with softer colors.
You can see Sorolla's fondness for violet in this painting. Also, take note of how rich the skin tones are—he seems to get away with using such strong colors without it coming across as jarring or overdone.
He painted Galicia in his later years. What a beautiful play of color and activity. The negative space (the exposed water and mountains) is particularly important, with the rich blues and purples pulling you through and providing a break from the busy foreground.
"The older I become, the more I realize that drawing is the most important of all the problems of picture-making."
Drawing was the foundation of Sorolla's skill set. It allowed him to paint so fast and fluently, whilst maintaining control. Here are some great examples of his drawing prowess:
Sorolla the Masterworks and the Paris Years
A Closer Look at Some of His Other Paintings
Nude is a masterclass on how to paint fabric. It is amazing what Sorolla was able to do with just a few colors, a brush, and a canvas. As for the female figure, notice the use of soft edges to accentuate the curves.
Mother is one of his more subtle works. A beautiful demonstration of balance and relativity.
My Family was perhaps influenced by Velázquez's Las Meninas, with the mirror reflection and the artist's inclusion in the painting.
Sorolla's landscapes and seascapes have an Impressionist feel, with broken color and fleeting brushwork.
Here are some key takeaways from Sorolla's life and work:
- Learn from master painters, as Sorolla did from Velázquez and, to a lesser extent, the Impressionists.
- Paint on large canvases to command attention and to free-up your style (small paintings can lead to tight and timid painting).
- Try working outside under sunlight and exposed to the elements. It worked for Sorolla.
- Sorolla's work may look spontaneous, but don't ignore the amount of work that went on behind the scenes.
- Painting fast at the sacrifice of control is a recipe for disaster. Sorolla was able to paint so fast because of his flawless technique.
- Challenge yourself—do not get caught up painting timid and simple compositions.
- Drawing is the foundation of realistic paintings.
(If you want to learn more about color mixing, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy course.)