Recently, Donna Lafferty of Austin, Texas wrote, “Could you talk some more about the use of Magic Hour light? What happens to the spectrum at this time?”
Energetic yet casual composition dancing with light and action.
Thanks, Donna. We can learn a lot about the hour before sunset by looking at the work of the Spanish painter Joaquin Sorolla. Mainly a figurative painter, Sorolla (1863-1923) made it his business to paint in the late afternoon. From his point of view we see long dark shadows (often on high-key beaches) loaded with warm and sometimes reflected light.
Painters, according to Sorolla, need to think of themselves as truthful cameras. They need to develop the ability to see colours as they actually are, without the problems of previous understanding or careless rendition. He advocated sitting quietly out of doors while looking carefully at various elements in the surroundings — and mentally translating their colours into pigment. Sorolla, as well as Sargent, Monet and other great colourists, reported there to be nothing magic about it. Nailing the right pigment is an acquired skill.
As the sun sets, the spectrum moves more and more toward warm. Surprisingly, cools such as greens and blues pick up a strong vividness that seems at first glance to defy logic. This vividness is due to the surround of warm “mother colour,” and even though cools may have warm in them, they are made more electrifying by the contrast. At Magic Hour, painters can also see and use the possibilities of full-strength reds, oranges and yellows. The old art instructor’s maxim “If you see colour, emphasize it,” still applies. Interestingly, as noted in many of Sorolla’s works, almost pure whites can take on unabashed dazzle, particularly when their edges are softened.
“Swatch-painting” on location in late light is an effective exercise. What I call “relationship swatches” can be absolute dynamite. This is where you paint two or more colours occurring before you in nature. For example, in late afternoon light, paint a rose with a green leaf beside it, and then paint the cast shadow of the rose on the leaf. You don’t need to get the rose or the leaf or the cast shadow right, you just need to get the hues right. This seemingly simple exercise can make grown men cry.
PS: “Nothing is truer than truth. All the mistakes committed by great artists are due to their having separated themselves from truth, believing that their imagination is stronger. Nothing is stronger than nature. With nature in front of us we can do everything well.” (Joaquin Sorolla)
Esoterica: Sorolla’s magic-hour work often has subtle conditions that make the work alluring: Wet bodies in late light. Cast shadows that change temperature and hue when passing over wet and dry areas of sand. Delicious “contraluz,” where subjects are painted against razzle-dazzle. Lively full-strength colour in reflections and shadows. An education can be found on Sorolla’s sunny Spanish beaches.
The preferred light
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
Since Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida painted out of doors and with figures, he used to change out the figures so as not to allow his subjects to get too much sun or for that matter to get too water logged. He had several children on hand and would change them when they grew tired or restless.
When you paint alla prima you begin to realize that when the sun is full the light becomes flat while shadows become non-existent. This makes for a lackluster painting. Also at the noon hour the warmth of the afternoon is beginning to sparkle while the cool morning is on the wane. The magic hour, which is actually longer than an hour, is the time when the light creates longer shadows and begins to warm (yellow or orange light). Through the centuries, for plein air painters, this light has become the preferred light for painting.
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by Sam Liberman, Sacramento, CA, USA
While I admire Sorolla and don’t quarrel with his objective of learning to duplicate the color we see, I think there is room for different approaches. I prefer to invent color. There is rarely a scene where we like every square inch of the color we see. I think it is fairly common for painters to leave out what they don’t like or change to a more harmonious shade or a different hue altogether. I may carry this to extremes in my style which I call ‘color thought’ for want of a better name. I try to paint the scene in colors that I find harmonious and inviting.
Art is not entirely a matter of trying to equal or better what others have done. There is some room to do what pleases yourself, and hopefully viewers.
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Sorolla and the camera
by Jason Rebrick, Vienna, Austria
As a young man, Sorolla’s work was admired by the well known society photographer Antonio Garcia. Sorolla worked for a while in Garcia’s darkroom, developing his films. They became good friends and Sorolla married Garcia’s daughter Clotilde, with whom it appears he had a long and stable marriage and three children. Later in life he painted a portrait of another good friend, the photographer Christian Franzen. Sorolla would have knowledge of cameras and may have engaged one of his photographer friends to take candid reference shots for him. In those days gaining honours at various salons and winning medals was important to many artists, and Sorolla was no exception. In the closely watched and competitive environment of the salons it was important for painters not to be seen with a camera, and Sorolla was probably conscious of this. At the time, more rebellious painters like Edgar Degas (1834-1917) were avidly exploring the use of the camera as a tool in painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Jason. There’s a virtual tour of the Sorolla Museum in Madrid here. If you go there, make sure you go upstairs.
You can’t order perfect light
by Jackie Knott, Fischer, TX, USA
Equally, we must understand what we see at the opposite of magic hour — either midday or an overcastday. Shadows are flat and colors are washed out but more than anything it is the lack of contrast that makes the painting harder to execute. The play of light over any subject makes it exciting to paint.
I know my Grand Canyon Mules would have been a superior painting with distinct shadow but I was there at the moment they came down the Kaibab Trail. Not take a photograph just because of that? Of course not. It was either then or never to have the reference or the painting. They were too perfect to pass up.
One wonders how many times Sorolla went to the beach on days when the light was poor and without such rich subject matter. Sometimes you can’t order perfect light and perfect scenes. You must go with what you have.
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Peaceful and pleasant pastime
by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA
This letter touches on something dear to my heart. Knowing your pigments is so important when finding just the perfect color. You reminded me about the idea of a Mother Color, something I had not thought about for a while. The idea of sitting quietly looking at a sunrise, or making little swatches of the color one sees sounds like the most peaceful and pleasant pastime, and one that is sealed in memory. Next time I awaken at 4am, I will make the most of it by sitting on the patio watching the sunlight spread over the mountains.
by Lin Souliere, Bruce Peninsula, ON, Canada
What a wonderful treat to go to the Sorolla website and read about the artist and see his works. I had not heard of him and felt inspired by his use of light, something which is the main subject of my painting. It was a link to the world of an artist’s mind and feelings that I often crave in the solitary search for my own path. I am currently struggling to know what it is I am trying to achieve with my art, feeling smothered by outside comments and, although I realize well intended, suggestions. Some days what I need is to be lost in a sea of work that is new and inspiring, nothing familiar at all. The words and images about Sorolla achieved that for me this morning, and I am grateful.
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Painting in the land of light
by Stephan Giannini, Italy
I am still in Italy. I spent two months in Rome and had a great time painting up a storm. The best part of Rome was the wonderful artists I met and painted with there. I wrote a blog post about that including some advice on how to meet fellow painters anywhere.
And of course I saw a lot of extraordinary art in Rome. There are some great museums, especially the Galleria Borghese and the Galleria Nazionale d’arte Moderna. An unexpected surprise for me was the wonderful collection at the Palazzo Massimo. I hope to spend more time in Rome in the future. I’m posting my works on my DailyPaintWorks Gallery.
Right now I’m in Naples, after having traveled through Sicily. It’s a uniquely interesting city, and the sketching is great, if I don’t get run over by a crazed scooter driver. Ciao!
Evening in Lake Placid
oil painting, 30 x 30 inches
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(RG note) Thanks, Randi. The best thing you can do is take a look at our Workshop Calendar. Some of the best workshops in the world are offered there. Also, for online material, please take a look at our Bob’s Best page where you’ll find tutorials by Stephen Quiller, Richard Robinson, and others.
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