Beyond Reality

Ora Sorenson uses intense color and scope to enhance nature

BY Christine R. Gonzalez

Magnolia, 24 x 30 inches, oil on canvas.
Magnolia, 24 x 30 inches, oil on canvas.

Examine a lone blossom, a blue hydrangea set off by a bold orange background, captured at a moment in time. The flower is showing a few signs of age — minuscule brown spots on a few petals, a piece of leaf turning from bright to fading green.

It is at least twice the size of any hydrangea you’ve ever seen. It looks like an enhanced photograph, but artist Ora Sorenson calls it exaggerated realism.

Viewers often wonder if her oil paintings are photographs. They are not, but she uses some technology to push her pallet ideas just beyond reality.

“I’ll take a photo, run it through Photoshop, make it larger, brighter and ‘glowy’, then I’ll paint from that photo. I think it looks exaggerated; everything is brighter, more sparkly,” she says.

Ora Sorensen holding her painting Hydrangea, 14 x 18 inches, oil on canvas. Steve McMillan

Sorenson likes to focus on still life, drawing out keen details in a hyper view of the subject. She is inspired by the color-splashed paintings of American realism artist Janet Fish. Sorenson took classes from Fish years ago.

“I saw her art and said ‘I have to paint’ because of her. She inspired my career. She’s great; she’s in every major museum in the country,” Sorenson says.

While attending the course, she picked up a book featuring the works of Giovanna Garzoni. She thought Garzoni was a current artist because of her bright color pallet but was stunned to find out that she was a baroque artist from the early 1600s. Garzoni painted for the powerful Medici family and Grand Duke Ferdinando II of Tuscany.

Sorenson was impacted by how Garzoni described her still life technique: “A little bit of death makes everything more lifelike.” So she adds freckles and details of decay or bug bites in petals and leaves to show the reality of the imperfect flower or fruit.

“Showing a bit of decay makes the work seem less plasticky to me. The very bright colors can make a piece look a little cartoony, so the flaws add a realistic touch,” she says.

Sorenson was a controller with clothing company Lillie Rubin, and co-owned a children’s clothing store,but switched to a career as an artist shortly after launching a gallery in Delray Beach, Florida, more than 20 years ago.

Sorenson took inspiration from gallery visitors’ reactions to the contributing artists.

“The public kind of edited what I painted,” she says. “They told me they wanted bright flowers, so that’s what I painted. I started painting orchids, birds of paradise, ginger, all types of tropical flowers.

That’s what people wanted in Florida. So now I live in North Carolina and people like peonies here, and that’s very different.”

Stargazer Lily, 60 x 48 inches, oil on canvas.
Hydrangea in Pot, 30 x 24 inches, oil on canvas.

Tropical flowers are architectural and easier to paint due to their large, abstract shapes. She says laughingly that peonies have “a million petals,” so they take a bit longer.

Sorenson never know how long each painting will take. Some could take a week, others a month.

“I love to see the  process of other artists,” she says. “How I paint is so different from how my friends paint. I’ll paint the entire canvas with a base coat, just base colors, then go in with more detail, and more detail. I use glazes to give shadows and highlights detail. It just builds and builds so I paint many paintings at once, because each one has to dry before I can add the next layer.”

Even with a fast-drying agent, it can take two days to return to a piece for the next layer.

“When I go in with the next layer, it will be a thinner bit of oil paint. I thin it down more and more, until the last layers are just completely sheer. Like a sheer fabric because there is so much glazing medium in it,” she explains.

She said it is a very relaxing way to paint.

“You can’t make a mistake. If you don’t like it, just wipe it off because the layer below it is dry,” she says.

A native of New York, Sorenson has lived in some exotic countries, including Libya, Turkey and Iran, due to her father’s job. Now that she lives in Wilmington, she plans to take up painting the ocean. But mostly she loves fruits and flowers.

Sorenson’s work can be viewed at and she soon will be among the artists on display at the new Beck Fine Art Gallery at 200 Willard Street.

“It will be my first foray into Wilmington,” she says. Most of her work is sold by commission.

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