What happens at Magic Hour?

Dear Artist, 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?”

“Beach at Valencia”
oil painting
by Joaquin Sorolla 1908

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. Best regards, Robert 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.   Joaquin Sorolla

“Child’s siesta” 1918
oil painting, 6 x 8 cm
This tiny painting (6 x 8 cm) is a good example of nailing rich tones with little detail to convey everything needed, including the time of day.


“Maria at the Beach, Biarritz”
oil painting 1906
An example of Contraluz. Note the subtle differences between the woman’s dress and the water behind. A casual, simple composition.


“On the Sand, Valencia Beach”
oil painting 1908
The ‘truth’ is in the colour and the tone values, not in the facial or other details. Note strength of colour in the shadows in the girl’s wet garment


“Ninos A La Orilla Del Mar” 1903
oil painting, 96 x 130 cm
Far over into saturated oranges and yellows, this glowing, golden picture still makes significant use of greens to raise impressionistic energy.


“Chicos en la playa” 1910
oil painting, 118 x 185 cm
Note the differentiation between shadow and reflection. How dark and photographic are the shadows. How subtle the surrounding sand and water.


“El bano del caballo”
oil painting 1909
Note the changes in shadow over wet and dry sand. Also reflected light on horse’s belly, etc., that lift the similar-keyed subject matter from its canvas.

                The preferred light by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA  

“Castles in The Sand”
original painting
by Rick Rotante

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. There are 2 comments for The preferred light by Rick Rotante
From: Jeremy — Jun 25, 2013

Thanks for the good explanation. I was always wondering why I don’t enjoy whole day plain air outings. Good stuff only happens at the end by which time I am already exhausted trying to make a dull scene exciting. It’s a good idea to save the energy and go out in the afternoon.

From: Rick Rotante — Jun 27, 2013

Jeremy- It is better to save yourself and go out later in the day. Or at least go out midday and wait to paint later in the day. One other point not mention by Robert and that is that there is also another “magic hour” and that is in the early morning. If you really want to understand sunset light, go out in the early morning before the sun rises. The “cool” light will give you a greater understanding of the late afternoon “magic hour” with which we speak.

  ‘Color thought’ by Sam Liberman, Sacramento, CA, USA  

original painting
by Sam Liberman

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. There are 2 comments for ‘Color thought’ by Sam Liberman
From: Phil the Forecaster — Jun 25, 2013

Very nice work… And I quite agree with seeing colours that might not really be there in full force. Good for you!

From: Tatjana M-P — Jun 25, 2013

Modifying colors obviously changes the mood or even the whole meaning of the scene. Artists use that tool intentionally to communicate an idea or unintentionally to just project their personality. There are endless possibilities. It’s a fascinating concept!

  Sorolla and the camera by Jason Rebrick, Vienna, Austria  

“The Photographer Christian Franzen” 1903
oil painting, 40 x 26 inches
by Joaquin Sorolla

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  

“Grand Canyon Mules”
original painting
by Jackie Knott

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. There is 1 comment for You can’t order perfect light by Jackie Knott
From: Anonymous — Jun 25, 2013

Why not paint the long shadows and warm lights anyway? Just an idea…

  Peaceful and pleasant pastime by Fleta Monaghan, Asheville, NC, USA  

“West view”
oil painting, 12 x 12 inches
by Fleta Monaghan

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.     Sorolla refreshment by Lin Souliere, Bruce Peninsula, ON, Canada  

“Water, Earth and Spirit”
watercolour painting
by Lin Souliere

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. There are 8 comments for Sorolla refreshment by Lin Souliere
From: Constance Larimer — Jun 24, 2013

Wonderful, soft color. Light is perfection! I am envious of your ability to capture/create the light and colors in this work. I am inspired!

From: Susan Holland — Jun 24, 2013

Outside comment from here is all plusses. I LOVE what you show here! Rich in so many ways. Keep seeing and making beauty like this.

From: Dorothy (d.hunter) Adams — Jun 25, 2013

Listen to your heart Lin, it speaks in all your paintings, so just listen. “Your struggle to know what you are trying to achieve”, you have achieved it. Your work speaks volumes so go with it. Your admiring friend and fellow artist – Dorothy (d.hunter) Adams.

From: Grace Cowling — Jun 25, 2013

Lin, your skillful use of complimentary colours stopped me instantly. But dearer to my heart is your location. At 84 my memories of “The Bruce”, of our dear cabin in the woods all came alive as I pondered your beautiful “Water, Earth and Spirit.”

From: Cristina Monier — Jun 25, 2013

I loved your painting but I could not believe that you had never heard of Sorolla.

From: Anonymous — Jun 25, 2013

wow, the level of detail in this drawing is incredible

From: Lin Souliere — Jun 25, 2013

Thank you all for your generous and kind comments on my work. I am so grateful to have discovered Sorolla’s work. There are so many artists to discover still and I feel we find them when we are open to being inspired by them. – Lin

From: McCluskey — Jul 01, 2013


  Painting in the land of light by Stephan Giannini, Italy  

“Pulcino della Minerva”
original painting
by Stephan Giannini

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!    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for What happens at Magic Hour?

From: Anonymous — Jun 21, 2013

I just looked at Sorolla’s work which is posted on the clickback, and I find myself a bit uncomfortable with all the naked young boys portrayed in those paintings. Is it just me?

From: Homer — Jun 21, 2013

Yes, it’s you and all of the North America. The rest of the world doesn’t have that problem.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 21, 2013

Dear Anonymous, What you are suggesting but are afraid to put into words is that because Sorolla has painted a bunch of NAKED BOYS he’s not only a homosexual- he’s also a pedophile. Your discomfort with these unfounded suggestions is YOUR discomfort. Who knows! Maybe he was a homosexual. Many artists are. Maybe he did like young men. So did Michelangelo and Leonardo. Girls used to get married between the ages of 13 and 18 a whole lot. Puberty makes that possible. Victorian prudery is alive and well. Get over it.

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 21, 2013
From: Anonymous too — Jun 21, 2013

Young boys/men do not loll on the beach naked today, and I’m quite sure they did not in in the early 1900’s, which means that Sorolla did not paint reality, but his fantasy. The motivation for such paintings diminishes (in my mind anyway) the ‘art’ that is otherwise present in his skillful renditions.

From: Jose Delgado — Jun 21, 2013

Late afternoon light lends such a beautiful glow. If warm paintings are automatically more appealing (and therefore more popular) than cool ones, then surely this is a condition worth learning to go with.

From: Allan Powell — Jun 21, 2013

Mr Genn is right, there is nothing magic about the color relationships that take place in magic hour. Only laziness keeps potentially great painters from learning these subtle relationships. Paintings really sing when they have it.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt – Toronto ,Ontario — Jun 21, 2013

Thank you for the valuable lesson on “swatch painting” and “relationship swatches”. Being an amateur I have not really done a great deal of work nor have I studied in a school of the arts. I am not versed with techniques and other methods to make my work more interesting. I am learning so much with your letters. Thank you very much.

From: S. M. Dempsey (Ireland) — Jun 21, 2013

Onwards on Hollyhock invitational call to action video, makes me think don’t we spoil nature, what are we like! Hail isolation.

From: Mike — Jun 21, 2013

All my childhood in the mediteranean we used to spend all summer on the beach – naked. I got my first swimming trunks when I was about 12. Nobody in my village would have spent money on swimming suits for children, it was unheard of.

From: Leo Assaggio — Jun 21, 2013

High key sand and beaches are ideal backdrops for strong figurative forms and interlocking patterns. Does anyone know from the literature on Sorolla if he used a Kodak to get reference material? Many of the views of children look like he might have been standing over them looking down. Also, black and white photos would be ideal for the basic drawing on which he might add his brilliant understanding of color. Just wondering.

From: Manmohan Mukherjee — Jun 24, 2013
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jun 25, 2013
From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 25, 2013

According to Mike here- what Sorolla saw and painted- is still common today. So anonymous too- you have NO MIND- only a set of prudish beliefs stuck in your likely religious moral code. And both you and anon were likely abused by a heterosexual male.

From: Sarah Atkins — Jun 26, 2013

Comments such as “you have no mind,” and assumptions about prudish beliefs and religious moral codes are extremely rude – especially when one has never met the person they are directed to. It’s difficult to believe this is the kind of dialog Robert expects on this outstanding web site about art. Someone’s small-mindedness is showing and it isn’t a pretty sight.

From: anonymous2 — Jun 27, 2013

Seriously, Bruce Wilcox, your posts are simply hateful. Obviously you have issues from your own childhood. As you would say, get over it!

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 27, 2013

Simply hateful- or simply truthful? Issues from my childhood? I was trashed at 8 for being a faggot by a group of mormon christians. Look online anywhere and you’ll see I continue to get trashed by heterosexists every single day. You? I worked through it decades ago- thanks. So now I can hold up the mirror to prudish bigotry so you anonymous folks who are both unwilling and incapable of putting you names on your bullsh*t can look into the mirror and see your own reflections! Fun! Huh! Robert’s edited me before- but not for a long time now! And he’s never thrown me off- so there must be a reason that’s the case. But your opinions of me aren’t it. I’m going to share a poem I wrote- called Rude…

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 27, 2013

Rude Anyone Who can label Somebody else’s Sacred Cow Bullsh*t Is usually Perceived to be Rude It’s the very first poem in my poetry book! Enjoy! © J. Bruce Wilcox

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 27, 2013

Ooops- I realized something else! Anon posts: “I just looked at Sorolla’s work which is posted on the clickback, and I find myself a bit uncomfortable with all the naked young boys portrayed in those paintings. Is it just me?” And then Anon too posts: “Young boys/men do not loll on the beach naked today, and I’m quite sure they did not in in the early 1900’s, which means that Sorolla did not paint reality, BUT HIS FANTASY. The motivation for such paintings diminishes (in my mind anyway) the ‘art’ that is otherwise present in his skillful renditions.” Note my no mind comment… So- Sarah- neither of these posters ever met Sorolla- yet both are making total judgments about who he is and what is motivations for painting what he painted- are. And they are totally negative judgments- but apparently- it’s OK for them to say what they are saying (about Sorolla- someone they do not know) but it’s not OK for me to turn it around and hand it right back to them- because I don’t know them- according to you. Sorry honey- BUT YOU CAN’T HAVE IT BOTH WAYS.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 27, 2013

And then I went home (a 10 minute walk- a 15 minute bus ride)(because my art isn’t supporting a home computer) and immediately thought of something else! So here I am back at the computer! First you have an anonymous poster doing something I’m going to refer to as ‘casting aspersions’ (Websters: asperse- to attack with evil reports or false or injurious charges) in the hopes that ‘she’ will find someone else on here that agrees with her ‘discomfort’ that will then allow the seed she hopes to plant- that Sorolla is somehow a pedophile- and therefore a PERVERT- take hold. And this is so she can get confirmation that she must in fact be right- and therefore everyone else will then agree with her and DISCOUNT the artist the she has decided (without knowing him) (and without being able to ask him and without him here to defend himself) is bad. Unfortunately- she got 2 people- both men- including me- who were both willing to use at least our first names- who immediately called her on her erroneous judgment. But she did then get another female (please tell me if I’m wrong about your gender) to agree with her aspersion and in fact make further comments that she’s just absolutely sure about Sorolla’s motivation- (but his fantasy) and that she has now also decided that Sorolla must be bad. And all of this is moralist religionist passive aggressive sick behavior- something that’s really easy to do if you can post anonymously- because you think you’re safe and will be able to get away with it without anybody saying anything that might be construed as RUDE- because we all live in a polite society- even though the behavior exhibited by said anon and anon 2 is anything but polite. Unfortunately- I don’t let anybody get away with anything- because I have nothing to lose- because there isn’t one person in here who’s ever bought something of mine- and you can’t do anything to me anyway. I’ve written a book about my perspective on things just like this. And I put my name on everything. You put out crap and I mirror YOUR CRAP right back at you.

From: anonymous2 — Jun 27, 2013

Get some therapy! You are a sick little man!

From: Sarah Atkins — Jun 29, 2013

If I’m not mistaken, the purpose of this web site is to provide a forum for discussing art-related matters. Everyone is entitled to their opinions, including those with which you do not agree, Bruce. It is not necessary to be personally insulting in order to disagree with each other. Doing so is not productive; it simply turns people off. As for Sorolla, I neither know nor care what his motivations were; I love his work for the masterful way he captured light. Isn’t that what we should be talking about?

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 29, 2013

I didn’t start the bull- Anon did and then Anon2 seconded it. I just finished it. And quite frankly I’m sure Robert hopes for the conversation that is beyond the art dialog- though I don’t think he saw this one coming. He’s not a prude. And anon2- I’m 6’4″ and almost 60 years old. So I’m a BIG MAN- who has suffered through 5 decades of your religionist moralist crap- directed at me and making me the pervert- and it’s YOU who needs therapy- not me. Your reality is dying, and I’m the one pushing it over the cliff. Note this week’s Supreme Court decisions. And you’re welcome.

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Evening in Lake Placid

oil painting, 30 x 30 inches by Aleksandr Fayvisovich, New York, NY, USA

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