Saturday, September 25, 2010

A lesson in light

Posted by Maggie

Today we visited the museum of the Hispanic Society of America, having heard that the large paintings by Sorolla had been re-installed.

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) was a Spanish painter whose work I have long admired for his handling of natural light on the subject. While I don't often paint the subjects he painted—figures, boats, etc.—I am inspired by the way he handles the light falling on and describing the subject. Part of my inspiration for my "sunlight and shadow" underpainting technique which I teach in workshops (and illustrated in my book, Painting with Pastels) came from observation of Sorolla's handling of light and shadow— that objects he painted in full sunlight tended to be warm yellows and oranges, while objects in shadow almost always contained some blue.

The large paintings at the Hispanic Society museum are stunning, and their placement lower on the wall since the remodel of the room in which they are displayed allows the viewer to more fully enjoy them. The fourteen large canvasses are about 12 feet tall, and range in width up to the largest one which fills an entire wall. Each painting deals with a specific region of Spain, and all but one were painted en plein air, despite their enormous size. Photographs taken on my camera cannot begin to do them justice; I hope you will find better images in books or on the Internet to enjoy them. But even with these poor images, you can see some of the wonderful color he used to describe light. In this photo at left (The Tuna Catch), the men on the far right are clearly dressed in white, but when you study the painting, you see that no white paint was used. The lights are described in pale yellows and oranges; the shadows are blues and lavenders, with bits of orange indicating reflected light. The only true white in this painting appeared to be the sparkles on the water.

A closer view of a detail of another painting further illustrates how he used colors to indicate light falling on a white object and his depiction of related shadow colors. There is so much to learn from studying these paintings, no matter what medium you work in. In this detail from the largest, most complex painting, what appears in the photograph to be white fabric is actually pale yellows. The shadows are exquisite blues and grays with wonderful bits of reflected light.

After we spent a considerable amount of time with these large works, we went upstairs to another gallery, and were pleased to find a few more paintings by Sorolla. One of these was his portrait of Louis Comfort Tiffany, painted in Tiffany's garden at his home. A little later, the curator of the gallery was preparing a presentation on a painting by Goya (which we attended and very much enjoyed) and, while waiting for the audience to arrive, he talked a little about the Sorollas. He pointed out that in this painting of Tiffany, there are only two areas of pure white paint: on the right sleeve of Tiffany's shirt, and on the edge of the sail in the harbor. All the other areas interpreted as white have color—Impressionistic color, he called it. 

After our visit to the Hispanic Society museum, we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a few hours. It was truly visual overload, and by late afternoon, I could not absorb any more. I love the Met, and took the time to visit my favorite paintings there—but I think I will dream of the Sorollas.


  1. Great report on your visit - I adore Sorolla and wish I could get to New York to see the new installation - but living and painting in South West France makes it a rather long journey!
    I did have the pleasure of spending a couple of days at the Sorolla exhibition at the Prado a couple of years ago, which was truly stunning.
    You might be interested in a web site I have set up at where I have included a section of quotes from the great master which are particularly aimed at artists.
    I looked at your own web site and was particularly taken by your paintings of Scotland - I used to spend a couple of weeks a year standing on a salmon river in the very north of Scotland and I am looking forward to one day taking my easel up there.
    Kind regards
    Iain (Vellacott)

  2. Iain,
    The exhibition at the Prado sounds great! We are hoping to get to the Sorolla house in Madrid soon but timing may not work out.

    Scotland is such a wonderful place to paint! I am happy we will be going back there for a workshop in 2011. Some of our best painting experiences ever have been in Scotland....
    Happy painting to you wherever you go,

  3. I'm so glad I followed your post on my wall to your blog and your remarks about the Sorolla's at the Hispanic Museum in New York. I get there very occasionally but will be sure to visit when I'm next there. Thanks for the information.
    Rebecca Margolese-Malin