Joaquín Sorolla – Luscious Brushwork and Seductive Color

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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.

Joaquín Sorolla, Elena Among the Roses, 1907
Joaquín Sorolla, Elena Among the Roses, 1907

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).
Joaquín Sorolla, Defence of the Monteleon Artillery Barracks, 1884
Joaquín Sorolla, Defence of the Monteleon Artillery Barracks, 1884
  • 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!
Joaquín Sorolla, Another Margarita, 1894
Joaquín Sorolla, Another Margarita, 1894
  • 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."

Sorolla Painting, via Gurney Journey
  • 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.
Joaquín Sorolla, Castilla, 1913
Joaquín Sorolla, Castilla, 1913
Joaquín Sorolla, Sketch for the Decoration of the Hispanic Society © Museo Sorolla, Madrid via National Gallery UK
Joaquín Sorolla, Sketch for the Decoration of the Hispanic Society © Museo Sorolla, Madrid via National Gallery UK
  • He died in 1923, after suffering a stroke three years prior. His house is now a museum (Museum Sorolla) showcasing his life's work.

Sorolla's Process

"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...

Sorolla Painting

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.

Joaquín Sorolla, Types of La Mancha, 1912
Joaquín Sorolla, Types of La Mancha, 1912

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.”

Joaquín Sorolla, Return From Fishing, 1898
Joaquín Sorolla, Return From Fishing, 1898

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.”

Joaquín Sorolla, Curious Child, 1916
Joaquín Sorolla, Curious Child, 1916

Here is a similar painting, but with softer colors.

Joaquín Sorolla, A Pink Bathrobe, 1916
Joaquín Sorolla, A Pink Bathrobe, 1916

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.

Joaquín Sorolla, Fisherwoman From Valencia, 1916
Joaquín Sorolla, Fisherwoman From Valencia, 1916

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.

Joaquín Sorolla, Galicia, 1915
Joaquín Sorolla, Galicia, 1915

Meticulous Drawing

"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:

Joaquín Sorolla, The Beach in Valencia, 1908
Joaquín Sorolla, The Beach in Valencia, 1908
Joaquin Sorolla, Research, 1897
Joaquin Sorolla, Research, 1897
Joaquín Sorolla, Painting Clotilde in a Black Dress, 1905. Photograph by Christian Franzen © Museo Sorolla, Madrid via National Gallery UK
Joaquín Sorolla, Painting Clotilde in a Black Dress, 1905. Photograph by Christian Franzen © Museo Sorolla, Madrid via National Gallery UK

Sorolla the Masterworks and the Paris Years

Sorolla Books

I recently purchased two hardcover books that display some of Sorolla's beautiful work: Sorolla the Masterworks and Sorolla and the Paris Years published by Skira Rizzoli. Great investments if you enjoy Sorolla's work. Below are some snapshots.

Sorolla and the Paris Years (5)
Sorolla and the Paris Years (4)
Sorolla and the Paris Years by Skira Rizzoli (2)
Sorolla and the Paris Years by Skira Rizzoli (3)
Sorolla and the Paris Years (6)

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.

Joaquín Sorolla, Nude, 1902
Joaquín Sorolla, Nude, 1902

Mother is one of his more subtle works. A beautiful demonstration of balance and relativity.

Joaquín Sorolla, Mother, 1900
Joaquín Sorolla, Mother, 1900

My Family was perhaps influenced by Velázquez's Las Meninas, with the mirror reflection and the artist's inclusion in the painting.

Joaquín Sorolla, My Family, 1901
Joaquín Sorolla, My Family, 1901

Sorolla's landscapes and seascapes have an Impressionist feel, with broken color and fleeting brushwork.

Joaquín Sorolla, Rocks and White Boat Javea, 1905
Joaquín Sorolla, Rocks and White Boat Javea, 1905
Joaquín Sorolla, The Baths of the Queen, Valsayn, 1907
Joaquín Sorolla, The Baths of the Queen, Valsayn, 1907
Joaquín Sorolla, The Beach in Biarritz, France, 1906
Joaquín Sorolla, The Beach in Biarritz, France, 1906

Key Takeaways

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.
Joaquín Sorolla, The Old Garden in Seville's Alcazar, 1910
Joaquín Sorolla, The Old Garden in Seville's Alcazar, 1910

(If you want to learn more about color mixing, I go into more detail in my Painting Academy course.)

Additional Readings and Sources

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Signature Draw Paint Academy

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

79 comments on “Joaquín Sorolla – Luscious Brushwork and Seductive Color”

  1. Thank you for this insight. I was fortunate enough to see the Sorolls exhibition in London last year.

    It was breath-taking. The painting of the disabled boys on the beach reduced me to tears. A bit embarrassing but who cares

    Since then he has been my absolute favourite artist.

    Alison

    Reply
    • How uplifting to read about Sorolla and to see his exciting use of light and darkness. As we go through these critical times in the world, we all need to have something that brightens our own personal world. Thank you, Dan. It’s so appreciated.

      Reply
    • In addition to being an artist, you are a born teacher. I never heard of Sorolla. I can’t understand why he didn’t have the degree of recognition that others enjoyed He was extremely versatile. All stunning!
      Also, know that I did squint at the yellow slash of light in the Curious Child. I’m working on a sunset and I can’t even sadly compare in anyway.
      You inspire me to keep working! Thank you for sharing your gifts!!!!!

      Reply
        • I’m still learning and still have so very much to learn, but using long brushes was a genuine revelation for me!! And…standing up while I paint!! Two things that have helped me so much!!!

          Reply
  2. Brilliant works and it gives me great pleasure to receive your news, help and information to all artists out there.
    In this particularly daunting and worrying time and for all of us confined to our homes you are an inspiration. I haven’t picked up a brush for years but seeing your email this morning has given me such motivation. I will start my own masterpiece today.
    Thank you Dan
    Take care and be safe

    Reply
  3. This has been a wonderful post. Since you introduced me to Sorolla’s work I have been seeking out more information, you have put so much into one post😃. The variety And immediacy of his work is stunning.

    Reply
  4. Many thanks for your generosity in sending this video. A delight to explore the paintings of this genius. I do icons which is very disciplined but am drawn to freedom and colour. Might try something tto combine the two. Blessings

    Reply
  5. Wonderful article. I am still mesmerized by the painting Nude I saw at the Meadows Museum in Dallas a few months ago. I agree 100% with your appreciation of his art.
    Thanks for this and all your articles!

    Reply
  6. Great article Dan. I too saw his exhibition in London, which was masterful. One really needs to see the live paintings to appreciate his brushwork, sense of light….and scale! Huge works. Ian

    Reply
  7. I enjoyed reading your post ,and thanks for introducing me to Sorolla,I am re entering the art world In my semi retirement and find your posts like this so interesting and educational…

    Reply
  8. Thank you so much for this post. I have scrolled through and will enjoy spending an hour or so later to read and learn what I can from the pictures here. My brief, preliminary study of his colours and brushwork are inspiring and will ensure I go to my studio this weekend. Sorolla is a new ‘find’ for me.

    Reply
  9. Took me right back to the Sorolla exhibition in Dublin’s National Gallery Last year. Thank you for this worderful post. A trip to Madrid is out of the question now so your virtual one is much appreciated.

    Reply
  10. Wonderful post!
    A beautiful and soothing breeze of colours and creativity in this troubled times.
    Thank you so much!

    Reply
  11. I was lucky to be in Ireland last year visiting friends when an exhibition of Sorolla’s work was being shown in Dublin…..sublime, I have his books on my wish list…..thank you for the reminder through your wonderful post. I really didn’t know his work very well, but have become a huge fan….thank you!

    Reply
  12. Great article! I often find it quite hard to grasp every aspect of a painting when viewing it. You manage to point out just what makes a painting so good, elements that would have slipped by me now give me goosebumps at times. Great writing style too!
    Thank you for these awesome insights!

    Reply
  13. I hadn’t heard of Sarolla and his paintings and was just carried away by his beautiful colours. Will look him up now for more NFL’s. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  14. My very favorite #1 artist of all time. It breaks my heart that I’ll probably never paint like Sorolla. I tried two small paints of his. Beached Boats and Women Walking on The Beach. They were a blast to try to paint. Thalo blue is a must.

    Reply
  15. I inly recently discovered this wonderful painter and was completely overwhelmed and embraced his use of color and process, would have loved to have seen his exhibition in London recently, thank you for these great notes and samples. Pursuing his technique of looseness and use color right now, luv the violet.

    Reply
  16. Thank-you for this wonderful post and your insight. I am not a painter but your posts have aided me in beginning to understand and appreciate art.

    Reply
    • There aren’t words enough to express my appreciation for your time and gift of wisdom you share so beautiful…I devoured every painting, every word (lesson). You and Sorolla have given me the motivation to paint outside in full sun and capture the natural beauty— Which so often goes unnoticed, unless it is painted.
      Thank you Dan.

      Reply
  17. Love this man’s works…glorious!
    Each one so beautiful. I, too am drawn to violets and blues and learning to control them!!
    Thank you so much…

    Reply
  18. Sargent’s watercolors had always been my high mark for quality. Sorolla is now my second roll model for brush work. Brilliant.

    Reply
  19. I used to paint with acrylics, but I’m trying watercolors now. I have a feeling I’ll be switching back. I had so much more success with acrylics. JMW Turner has been my favorite artist. As I looked at these incredible paintings, I found so much that took my breath away. His brushwork, his colors, his many different subjects—–brilliant! Thank you so much for sharing this with me.

    Reply
  20. This is amazing and lifted my spirits on this sagging day. I will save it and look at it every morning—good way to start the day–Many warm thanks

    Reply
  21. Thank you so much for this post! I wasn’t aware of him at all and enjoyed it so much. I wonder if his flamboyant use of color and brush strokes matched his personality. I always look forward to your educational posts!

    Reply
  22. Thank you Dan. As always you bring such a wealth of knowledge to the forefront of an artists work. You are one of the most excellent teachers I’ve been blessed to come across in my years. I love this artists work. I share in the artists love of using bright colors. i would agree with this master artist that sketching is an invaluable tool upon the canvas to keep the artists focus and really helps to create that masterpiece. Thank you for this post it was very enjoyable. Nice to have some creative distraction at this time when the worlds focus has been upon the corona virus. Stay healthy and well. Blessings

    Reply
  23. Thank you Dan. I love his work. I was at the Prado in front of the two little kids in the sea. I’m fluent in Spanish so I asked the guard if I could stand in front of this ptg and try to copy it. It’s about 5’x6’. I started to paint and an officious little sticky female guard came in an asked me if I had a permit. I smilingly indicated I didnt understand. She went to the guard and chewed him out for allowing me to paint with my quarter sheet paper and tiny WN box of paint.
    She came back to me gesturing wildly to pack up and leave. I gestured does sorry, busy painting.she left I asked the guard what to do He answered keep painting. She’s a grouch. She came back I was nearly through l. Took my brush out of my hand. I stood up got all my tools and thank the nice guard, in perfect Spanish

    Reply
  24. Breathtaking art. Such genius. How fortunate are we to have the ability through you Dan to experience this beauty. Thank you.

    Reply
  25. Dan thank you for reminding me.

    Sorolla is my favourite Artist and many years ago I purchased his Book ‘The Masterworks’
    so now I have bought ‘Sorolla and the Paris Years for £20.00 on Amazon UK.

    Reply
  26. I am inspired to paint more and better after each of your inspiring posts. Thanks for introducing me to Sorolla and other artists.

    Reply
  27. Thank you for these insights. I needed this. If I can apply these insights, it will transform my paintings. I look forward to giving them a try!

    Reply
  28. Thank you Dan! What a pleasure and a joy to see this gifted artists’ works!
    Sunlight and color soft and bold, compelling subjects..all inspiration. I love receiving your emails…please keep them coming.

    Reply
  29. Dan , Thanks for all the good stuff you send out.. I really appreciate it.. Helps me keep on trying..
    regard,
    Glenda

    Reply
  30. Dan I appreciate all your Posts. I Learn a lot and they keep me trying harder.. Thanks so much.
    Regards,
    Glenda

    Reply
  31. Thankyou Dan, so inspirational, what a great way to start being in isolation for a while, will try and put the time to good use.

    Reply
  32. I love sorolla’s Painting style. I lived in Spain for a while, and had the pleasure of seeing his Hispanic exhibition in Valencia – wonderful!
    I have now seen two of your insights into painters, and find them very interesting indeed. Thank you.

    Reply
  33. Thoroughly enjoyed this! Thank you! I, like a few others, was fortunate to see his exhibition in Dublin in September! It brought me to tears! Absolutely incredible. Thank you again for sharing your research. It is most appreciated.

    Reply
  34. Sorolla is and has been my all time favorite painter. Just adore him, his sense of playful motion, dancing strokes. His feeling for light and vibrant alive beach scenes are favorites and I look to him often for ways to improve what I do. I think now I need to buy one of the books chuck full of prints. He brings joy.

    Reply
  35. WOW! Dan, thank you so much for introducing me to Sorolla. Another artist to place in my ‘box’ of treasured artists. I was so blown away with ‘Elena among the Roses’ that I forgot to look at his brushwork. I loved the way he captured the warmth and glow of the roses and the afternoon light… I could almost smell the fragrance of the roses and hear the buzz of insects. I really appreciate what he could do with his knowledge of colour. I was startled to read that he did not expect his planned sketches to be replicas of the final outcome. What a relief! He sounds very sensible. Anyway I feel my latent talent has been watered at the altar of Sorolla’s magnificence. Thank you for a great post.

    Reply
  36. Muchas gracias por esta presentacion del Maestro Sorolla, ver sus cuadros es perderse en ellos.
    Sus colores son unicos, mas vibrantes aun que en la realidad, el dominio de la luz …del sol..es magia, el agua se mueve, es fascinante. Como es que ese color esta ahi?…De donde salio?
    Ha quedarse en casa, y cuidarse. Un placer recibir sus presentaciones.

    Reply
  37. Thanks for remembering this great painter, I live in Madrid near the Sorolla house-museum. I often go to visit the exhibitions and the activities they organize, unfortunately now we have to stay at home and we have to content ourselves with seeing everything through the computer screen …

    Reply
  38. Thank you, Dan, for this wonderful article! Sorolla is probably my favorite artist, if I had to name one. I was so fortunate to be able to view his work at the Hispanic Society in New York City several years ago and was completely mesmerized! The sheer size of his paintings was unbelievable! But his mastery of light and shadow, the figure and his use of color were all incredible to see in person. Thanks again for the inspiration!

    Reply
  39. Dear Dan
    Ley me Express in my mother languaje

    Es una excelente clase de arte dedicada a un gran artista
    Hace tiempo que estoy peleando con uno de sus cuadros, dos figuras femeninas, su mujer y su hija paseando en una ventosa y soleada playa, ambas con elegante guardarropa
    Sus observaciones sobre la importancia del dibujo, la gama de colores usados, especialmente el violeta, la pasión por la luz, todo me está ayudando a replantear mi ambicioso proyecto
    Donde creo no tener chance es lo relativo a la velocidad, pero lo intentaré
    Gracias por todo lo que nos brinda
    Un verdadero maestro!

    Reply
  40. Escribo en español porque soy chileno. Me gusta Sorolla porque PINTA RAPIDO Y DEJA ALGO A LA IMAGINACION DEL OBSERVADOR.
    Me he fijado que para pintar suelto y a la prima, Sorolla usaba pinceles con mangos muy largo capturando la luz y el ambiente de una manera espectacular. Estoy desarrollando un proyecto para fomentar la pintura en los Colegios y quedan invitados a participar como maestros , como aficionados o como Colegios. http://www.pincelchile.cl pintores chilenos en linea.

    Reply
  41. Thank you for this introduction to Sorolla. What amazing work with unrestrained brush strokes. His use of colour is so enlightening. So enjoyed reading about his life and work.

    Reply
  42. Once again you have helped motivate me. The talent shown here is mind boggling. The colours and brush work are amazing and a joy to study. It inspires me to keep practising in the hope that just maybe one day…

    Reply
  43. first was made aware of Sorolla by my pastel art teacher. Went to Madrid often but never heard of him. Went to his house museum, fell in love, went to Hispanic in NYC, overwhelmed with love and respect. I think he is the finest artist ever.

    Reply
  44. Thank you so much for this. As always your generosity inspires. I was wondering …what medium do you think he used for his sketch on that massive painting in this photograph: Joaquín Sorolla, Painting Clotilde in a Black Dress, 1905. Photograph by Christian Franzen. Charcoal? It doesn’t look like he is holding a brush…??
    Thanks again Dan.

    Reply
  45. Dan, thank you! What a wonderful introduction to artist that I was not familiar with. Sorolla is an inspiration. I hope I will see his work in person some day.

    Reply
  46. It takes a skill comparable to Sorolla’s to be able to show others how to appreciate Sorolla’s skills. I would not have looked twice at most of the photos. However, your comments made me look at them much more the twice and I intend to look at them in the future. Who is the Master here?

    Reply

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