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Feb 21, 2012

Speculating on Sorolla...

Okay, if you are an artist or painter and have met me in person, or if you are a friend, or know of me by reputation – then you probably know I am a certified Sorolla Nut. Meaning, a slobbering fan of the Valencian Spanish painter, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, who's life and career spanned the late 19th and early 20th century.

There isn't much print out there in English on Sorolla, and what there is can be rather expensive to get your hands on.  And there aren't many paintings by him to find in North America. You may find the a Sorolla or two included in a traveling Spanish exhibition, and there are his large murals installed in the Hispanic Society in New York City, but that's about all you'll see without flying off to Spain. So Sorolla is another great European painter largely unknown to most Americans, waiting to inspire anyone willing to suss his work out.

This morning I was sitting in a Starbuck's waiting for my wife to finish up her Barr 3 class and googling JSB on the iPad. (My goodness, we are the contemporary couple, aren't we?) I was mostly fooling around, killing time, and enjoying a cup of coffee when I stumbled across the blog The Art Contrarian. And on it were some wonderful images of Sorolla's studio in Madrid – which, according to the accepted story – was shuttered by his wife shortly after Sorolla experienced the stroke that ended his career and then his life three years later. And to elaborate upon the story, the door remained locked until the Spainish government agreed to turn his studio into a museum without moving or altering what had been left in place. So this means – assuming this anecdote is true – that Sorolla's workspace is exactly as it was when he dropped his brush. (Sorolla was working on a portrait of Senora de Perez de Ayala when had his stroke.)

Apparently, about two years ago, Donald Pettenger toured Sorolla's studio and shot photos of how things were laid out. Images which include a rare unfinished work, an indoor palette, some brushes and tools, and a taboret. A veritable time capsule for a painting-geek like me. So I thought we could take a brief and somewhat imaginary tour of Sorolla's workspace using the following images gleaned from Donald's site, and have a little fun speculating as we go.

Let's start with Sorolla's palette,
since so much of his voodoo started there.

Image credit: Donald Pettenger

1. I can't identify all the colors on Sorolla's palette but it looks like a fairly standard set of earth colors for his time. But what immediately interested me is how this palette was biased towards the warm. Sorolla's career spanned late Impressionism, Post-impressionism, and the advent of Post-WWI Modernism . I know we are looking at his indoor palette and that his outdoor palette also included cooler colors. We know from examining his outdoor work he painted with cobalt or ultramarine blue, and certainly made use of a lot of cobalt or manganese violet as well. But the limited earth color palette you see here seems consistent with both his indoor and outdoor work.

The agreed upon Sorolla outdoor palette: cobalt violet, rose madder, all the cadmium reds, cadmium orange, all the cadmium yellows, yellow ochre, chrome green, viridian, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, French ultramarine and lead white. 

 Image credit: Donald Pettenger

2. But what is of more interest to me is how Sorolla placed his black next to his white. (see the yellow arrow) This suggests he may have been mixing a number of gray values first and then pushing purer hues into them. (mental note to self, give this a try...) The large area of silvery gray in the left area of the palette supports this theory. This in contrast to the complementary mixing method often taught to painters today. Having said that, I wouldn't assume for a second that Sorolla always mixed a gray and added a hue because his paintings don't support that simple an explanation. But the light and dark masses which made up his powerful compositions were always calculated to leave a value gap between each other and that is one of the things I believe contributed to his astounding ability to conjure up the illusion of bright sunlight. So I find it intriguing that Sorolla placed his black next to his white when all his other hues moved clock-wise from light to dark around the palette. Most artists would put that black the far end to maintain the logic.

Image credit: Donald Pettenger

3. It appears Sorolla used as many as four reservoirs when he was painting indoors. I assume that is why they are there on the taboret since room is limited. But reservoirs of what? And why as many as four? That would be a lot of turpentine to slosh around. More than necessary to paint even a large painting. But perhaps that much solvent was helpful after all because much of Sorolla's artistic finesse is to be found within his carefully modulated warm and cool whites. A delicate relationship that is difficult to maintain when working wet-into-wet, especially with a lot of lost and found edge work. So perhaps Sorolla was not just segregating his light and dark or cool and warm brushes, but he was also segregating and dedicating certain reservoirs of solvent to specific brushes as well. I dunno, but this seems like an good idea to try out sometime. (Arg! More stuff to schlep out into the field...)

Image credit: Donald Pettenger

4. It appears that Sorolla also had a preference for filberts, and rather long ones by today's standards. Not as long as eggberts, since those brushes tend to become floppy or splay, and thus make thicker paint harder to push around. But it appears that Sorolla was painting with something akin to the filberts we have available today. Again, perhaps not exclusively, since we only find a few of his brushes in these photos. But when you look at the surfaces of his work, the bumps and valleys created by the lift and pull of his touches don't suggest the use of feathery or soft haired brushes, or short stiff brights, or flats either. Instead, his surfaces suggest the use of a filbert. And one filbert can create a wide range of touches without becoming monotonous in the repetition. This may be a reason why we see so few brushes here.

Image credit: Donald Pettenger

(A rare unfinished sketch-in. Note the thinness of the paint
and the bluish schematic line work below the figure.)

5. It is extremely rare to come across an unfinished Sorolla. But when we do find one it becomes clear he was a Classicist in his approach to how he constructed his work. Sorolla clearly preferred to paint from thin-to-thick and build up his painting carefully, saving the juicy bravura top  work for the finish. Much like Sargent and Zorn. Or, for that  matter, any other oil painter who owes a debt to Velasquez and Franz Hal. Sorolla was a painter who became interested in aligning the directional gestures of his pulls with the surface planes of his subject; whether he was painting a sail, a cloud, or the shine of wet human flesh. In this way Sorolla instilled a sense of life into the paint itself.

Image credit: Donald Pettenger

(click image to see hi-res version of Sorolla's sketch-in)

(click image to see a hi-res version of Sorolla's thicker finish)


Can I say with authority this is how Sorolla painted? Well, not really. I've not had enough original Sorollas to look at, or enough time to be with the few I've been lucky to come across. Plus it is important to remember very few painters painted the same way their entire life. Painters tend to evolve over time, often going back and forth between a number of established methods, maturing as they go. But speculations like the ones I have shared can spark our imagination and set us on a new path. They can suggest something new to try, or change the way we paint, or perhaps simply cause us to think about a painting in a new way At least they can for a geek like me.

Whoops, I meant a Sorolla Nut instead.


8 reader comments:

eric bowman said...

The multiple resevoirs may have included 2 turp cans for double dipping; first one removes most of the paint, the second gets the remaining residue...a number of painters do this.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Excellent point Eric, and thanks for sharing it. Sometimes the simpler explanation makes the most sense.

And for those who don't know Eric Bowman or his work, he's a great figure painter. Check out his latest posting on color temperature and skin. Nice work. Nice speed painting too!



Frank Hobbs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Frank Hobbs said...

Great post. The photos of Sorolla's palette are a treat. Might at least one of those pots have contained oil, or a painting medium of some sort?

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

I suppose so, Frank. But it doesn't seem likely to me the Sorolla would have had that much oil or medium out at once.

But I couldn't say either way.

However, since you raised the possibility of the cans containing oil, if Sorolla placed his brushes in a non-drying oil, or even walnut oil to prevent them from drying out between working sessions, then a reservoir that size would make sense.

Unknown said...

Did Sorolla use a lot of linseed oil? Why were his NYC works sent to Spain for cleaning before his exhibit in US?

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

Henry, I can't answer either of your questions with authority but it does seem likely that Sorolla used linseed oil to some extent because most of the painters in his day did. We know that Sargent used little more than oil, and avoided resins or secret sauces, and preferred manipulating the painting instead. (JSS can bee seen laying in a juicy layer of linseed oil with umber on top of many of his darks, usually in the 'shadow accents'. We can guess the mix contained umber from the way it has pulled apart the underlying paint film.)

As for why his painting were sent to Spain for cleaning, I cannot say either, beyond speculating some politics may have been involved. Or, perhaps there is more knowledge there about how he constructed his paintings.

Conservation and restoration of a work of art can sometimes become rather political. The cleaning of the Sistine Chapel comes to mind as an example. While the science of conservation has become increasingly more precise, an oil painting changes in ways over time which prevent it from truly being returned to the state an artist left it at.

In other words, an oil painting is a living, breathing thing that ages. Just like us. The best painters plan for that as best they can...

The Frank Malowany Group said...

I was reading a long post by G.T. Thurmond about Henry Hensche's colorist theory and Sorolla was mentioned there also.