Demonstration: learning from Sorolla (as published in PaintersOnline newsletter September 2017)
I recently rediscovered the wonderful work of the renowned Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923). I admire his expressive (yet accurate) direct impressionistic style and wonderful sense of composition which is something I strive for in my own work. Rather than researching his technique I made a study of his Bastida la playa de Valencia using my own approach.
I chose a large canvas (39” x 32”) for this study as this encourages larger, bolder brushstrokes. I mostly use Gamblin 1980 and Winsor & Newton Winton oils but upgrade to artist-quality when I feel it makes a real difference (normally when I need to build intense pigments or need a superior flowing product).
Surface: stretched and gessoed cotton canvas (my usual surface is 6mm MDF prepared with a short ground and stained with a neutral oil wash)
Acrylics (Winsor and Newton Galleria)
- Vermilion Hue
Gamblin 1980 oil colors
- Titanium white
- Hansa yellow medium
- Gold ochre
- Venetian red
- Alizarin crimson
- Raw sienna
- Burnt umber
- Cerulean blue
- Cobalt blue
- Ultramarine blue
- Ivory black
Winsor and Newton (Winton)
- Naples yellow
- Winton Hog Filberts: sizes 6-10
- Winton Hog Long Flats: sizes 4-8
- Thinners (Gamblin Gamsol)
- Oil (Gamblin Galkyd)
The drawing: I resist reaching for the pencil or charcoal to sketch the initial composition. Unless you fix the graphite marks they will mix with any thin underlying washes to ruin the purity of colours. As with most of my oil paintings I prefer to either sketch using a thin oil colour mixture or neutral acrylic wash. For this demonstration I used acrylics.
I fix the darker shapes and value boundaries with a mixture of ultramarine and vermilion. The benefit of acrylic is once the plastic medium dries, which is almost instantly, you are left with a drawing layer that can always be re-found below subsequent oil washes. It also encourages positive, non-fussy lines.
Ébouche layer: many oil paintings can benefit from an ébouche start to get in the initial oil layers, prior to building up transparent layers followed by final semi and non-transparent layers. If your aim is to build translucent, vibrant colours then this is a great approach. The other advantage of ébouche is that it can be used with direct painting approaches such as plein air painting as it drys very quickly when ragged.
I use Venetian red mixed with a little raw sienna to ensure the sky has a warm base and ultramarine for the sea (as warm highlights will be added later). I apply a very thin, loose wash of ultramarine over the sails. I try to keep colours on the warm side for two reasons; firstly as a result of many years finishing off paintings under tungsten lighting conditions and realising in the cold light of day that I had tweaked the colours to the cool side and secondly because a warm palette is simply more pleasing to the eye. I now use a daylight studio lamps when I don’t have natural light, but the idea still applies.
Transparent washes establish the local colour
I add some loose transparent washes using raw sienna for the foreground and where the sand shows through the foreground waveforms. I apply ultramarine and cerulean to the sky, and ultramarine, cerulean and hansa yellow medium to the sea. I make no attempt to carefully paint around the acrylic drawing as this will show through the transparent layers.
Ugly is good
One of my objectives at the early to mid-stages of a painting is to ensure that all elements look unresolved and ‘ugly’ up close. I spend as much time critiquing my efforts as I go than actual application time. If I can see pleasing details at this stage – then I know I am failing. Overall composition, value groups (either three or five) and looseness are what I am aiming for. I admire artists who retain many of these features in their final work – a good example being Sargent. Looking at his work up close will show you just how rough the details are – except for where he wants you to focus.
Anyway, back to the demonstration. Because the previous layers dry quickly I waste no time in applying further transparent colours along with semi-transparent scumble glazes. For the beach I apply more raw sienna along with Venetian red in places. Semi-transparent colours are applied to the wave forms and sails ensuring brushwork is loose and does not fill in spaces. So far I have only used a couple of large filberts (sizes 8 and 10).
The refining stage
This stage of a painting is always critical for me. I am by instinct expressive and love to see variety and looseness in my finished work so know that this stage of retrospection and tidying up is a danger area. As such I tend to work in small bursts and move around the painting constantly, rather than building up details in one area.
I stick with the 50:50 medium. For the sky I keep my brush strokes moving in random directions and apply the same sky colours used in stage 1 with the addition of titanium white to build the intensity of the colours, ensuring the warm base layer shows through in places. I start to refine the wave forms with more opaque layers and resolve details such as the masts, the crowd to the left of the boats and some implied details above the beach. I refine the sea but retain some different value areas for interest. I glaze the wave form that covers the beach with cerulean and Naples yellow. For the sails I build up darker values in the left hand sails and opaque layers in the right hand sails using Naples yellow, titanium white and ultramarine.
I reserve the darkest values for the hulls of the boats and shadows in the figures and mid-ground details using a vibrant black (viridian and alizarin crimson) and for less dark areas a mixture of burnt umber and ultramarine with a touch of ivory black. I glaze the beach with varying mixes of burnt umber, ultramarine and raw sienna. I rework some of the wave shapes to aid the composition and add colours to the pit bottom-left which reflects some of the sky tones.
Checking the values
At this stage I like to check whether the value integrity is still clearly defined and looks right. An easy way to do this is to take a well exposed photograph (preferably with a digital SLR camera) and then open in an image editor or viewer (in my case Photoshop). By converting to monochrome you will immediately get a sense of areas which may need attention without the complication of colour. Most people find it difficult to disassociate the two without years of practice and this step normally helps me to keep on track.
Here you can see the beach lower left is too dark (less of a problem than too light). This is important in that most paintings stand or fail on one key premise – whether the design works on a micro level. Referring back to a Notan (black and white study) can also help at this stage. If you don’t believe the importance of the simple design then take a handful of random paintings online and reduce them to thumbnails. Then rate which thumbnails look the most pleasing – the full size paintings are likely to be successful too. In this demonstration I could in theory refer back to a black and white version of the original painting but as I’m not trying to slavishly copy I don’t do this.
Final stage – refining value balance and adding finishing touches
I don’t have a consistent approach to tackling the final stages of a painting. It tends to be organic and driven by the quest for variation of colour, texture and value. For my own work I will always try to have an overriding objective before I start but in this case I simply want to ensure my brushwork remains loose and that I don’t fixate on replicating Sorolla’s original.
I lighten the sky near the horizon using cerulean, alizarin crimson and titanium white and this also allows me to lose edges around the sails and add the mountains in the background which I quickly mass in with the same three colours along with raw sienna. I block in the sea below the mountains and imply some subtle shoreline structures.
Using a 3:1 mix of oil to thinners for the final layer, I work up some of the details in the group of people, the cattle and the intimation of a harbour in the distance with Venetian red, raw sienna, ultramarine and some of the previously mixed ‘blacks’ to strengthen the darks. In keeping with Sorolla’s original I add some red accents to the sea – making these gradually cooler and lighter as they recede. The boats are rendered in a variety of darker mixes ensuring chroma and value is reduced in the same way. I apply another layer of Venetian red and raw sienna to the beach and scumble over some cerulean blue and titanium white to show where the tide has receded. I work in the mid tones and highlights for the group and apply some highlights to the masts. Using freehand strokes of dark colours I draw the rigging, ensuring the motion is upward and calligraphic. I don’t use a rigger for this but the side of a medium sized filbert.
Impasto highlights: when I am happy with the darks and mid-tones and the overall level of detail, I move to the final impasto highlights. Although the beach is still on the dark side, I feel this balances the rest of the composition so leave it (with hindsight, a scumble layer of semi-transparent neutralised yellow-orange would have added variety and lightened this area effectively). I start with the lightest lights in the tall sails, applying very thick strokes of titanium white and a little Hansa yellow, with a touch of ultramarine in the shadow areas. I reinforce the main shadows at the base of each sail. Using the same mix, I add varying quantities of Naples yellow and Venetian red and build up the reflections of the sails in the water. I adjust the two wake lines to ensure they don’t read as continuous, breaking them up with darker areas where the wave has broken and adjust the tide line slightly. I add a few highlight details as finishing touches.
The demonstration took three hours and was completed in two sittings.