I have been in an unrequited love affair for over 30 years. And what better time to indulge my passion – or at least immerse myself in his legacy of genius – than as we enter the sixth week of the third lockdown in the UK in less than 12 months. Our confinement this time falls in winter. The wettest January in years and a pervading dense greyness of cloud-cover are conditions that neither bode well for morale – nor as a landscape painter. Unlike many artists, I fail to get inspired by the UK landscape in winter. My painting tradition was born and grew during the 16 disjointed years that I lived in Spain. I yearn for those saturated colours of southern Spain, those red-ochre rocks, those blue-grey olive trees against cobalt-skies and the sounds they conjure of cicadas at midday, the screeching swallows at dusk and the hum of bees on the almond blossom. Had it not been for the pandemic and Brexit, I would have been back in Spain by now. So what better way to bask in these visionary pleasures and to hang out with my love-object than to spend these weeks of lockdown studying and copying the works of that great Spanish ‘Master of Light’, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923).
The Valencian-born painter created many of his best works on his home turf and in the great gardens of Andalucia. He first captured my heart when I moved to Valencia 30 years ago and took up oil painting. Since then I have snapped up any opportunity to study his originals in the flesh, getting my nose as close as possible to his canvases without being ejected, in exhibitions around Spain, in New York and, in 2019, the first ever retrospective of his work in the National Gallery in London. How did he create that effect? Which colour layer of paint did he put on first? Look at the direction of that brush stroke! But analysing the paintings and trying to recreate them are two entirely different things. So why not spend this lockdown trying to find answers to my frustrated endeavours at capturing light in paint. Using the book Sorolla Painted Gardens (Pub: Rizzoli Electa) as reference, I accompanied him on a winter walk through the gardens of the Alcazar in Seville (Gardens of Charles V, Alcazar of Seville, 1908 marvelling at the wealth of greens and the lemon light; I have joined his daughters in the heat of their siesta (Siesta in the Garden in Valencia, 1904), grappling to capture his turquoise shadows in the overhead vine and the creases in the girls’ white dresses; and basking in the colours of his Fountain at the Alcazar of Seville (1908) with the magical lilac shadows on the yellow wall and the unlikely use of red in his foreground shadow. Studying his virtuosity under a microscope and copying his brushstrokes has only increased my passion – and it’s certainly helped to ease the lockdown blues. And now excuse me as I’m off with Sorolla to the Alhambra!
Volume 35 no 4 March – April 2021