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.
since so much of his voodoo started there.
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.
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.
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…)
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.
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.