How to Look at a Norman Rockwell Picture: Part 5 — Light and Color

If you want to appreciate the artistic side of Rockwell’s work, look for the ways in which his paintings celebrate the qualities of light.

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Read all of art critic David Apatoff’s columns here.

This is the fifth in a series of columns on how to appreciate the artistic side of Norman Rockwell’s paintings. See Part 1 on Rockwell’s use of hands, Part 2 on his use of black and white, Part 3 on how he leads your eye, and Part 4 on his interaction with the great artists in history.

You couldn’t be blamed for thinking that this painting, entitled “A Day in the Life of a Girl” is about a day in the life of a girl.

Norman Rockwell's illustration, "A Day in the Life of a Girl," which depicts a young girl as she goes about her day.
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

But if you look closely there’s a second subject staring you right in the face: that subject is “light.”

Rockwell could easily have painted each event in the same consistent light. Instead, he spent a great deal of effort capturing light’s subtle changes throughout the day. Light is a separate character in this painting, as important as the girl.

For example, compare the girl at the beginning and end of the day. Rockwell saw that the morning sun illuminates the full range of color in her skin and hair, with emphasis on warm colors such as red, orange and yellow. Moonlight, on the other hand, diminishes the color spectrum and creates cool colors such as blue and gray.

Close-up detail from the Norman Rockwell illustration, "A Day in the life of a girl". It shows how Rockwell portrayed the morning sun and the moonlight as they reflect off the girl's face at different times of the day.
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

Next, notice how Rockwell captures the way artificial light from a bedside lamp looks different from natural light:

A detail from the Norman Rockwell illustration, "A Day in the Life of a Girl", which shows the girl writing in her diary next to a lamp with its shade turned away from her. This close-up shows how the artificial light affects the scene.
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

And electric light from the bedside lamp looks very different from the electric light of a movie theater marquee (below):

A detail from the Norman Rockwell illustration, "A Day in the Life of a Girl". It shows how a movie theatre's marquee lights shine on the girl and her boyfriend as they pay for their tickets.
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

The sharp-eyed Rockwell can even distinguish between two different kinds of theater lighting:  he paints the light from the marquee (above) differently from the way he paints the light from the silver screen (below). Then, after the movie ends and the children step out into the golden glow of the late afternoon sun, the light transforms their color completely:

A detail from the Norman Rockwell illustration, "A Day in the Life of a Girl". It shows how the light from a movie screen and the front porch affects the scenes.
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

Painting the effects of light required as much artistic skill and observation as painting the girl. This brilliant painting could just as well be called, “A day in the life of light.”

Artists have always been inspired by light; it is the magic ingredient, the source of what we perceive as color. Rockwell may have been a commercial illustrator who painted entertaining magazine covers for a corporate employer, but he was simultaneously a gifted artist, solidly within the artistic tradition that regards light as a source of wonder. (In a previous column I compared Rockwell to the famous impressionist Monet, who painted the same haystack several times to show that color looks different at different hours of the day.)

If you want to appreciate the artistic side of Rockwell’s work, look for the ways in which his paintings celebrate the qualities of light.

For example, why does the lighting of this fellow in the doorway look so warm and welcoming?

Dickensian gent with baskets laden with food
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

The source of light is from the ground up, rather than from the normal top down. Also, the light has an unusual warm glow. This is because the light is coming from a crackling fire in a fireplace. Rockwell doesn’t need to paint the fireplace for us, he can imply a fireplace using light.

In the next example, Rockwell uses color to contrast an ancient scholar at night in his study with a bold young explorer sailing into the dawn.

Geographer studies globe/Explorer steers ship
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

Rockwell didn’t have to clutter up his painting by showing additional objects, such as a black sky with stars and a moon, in order to set the scene. He was able to explain to viewers that it is night because he understood the palette of moonlight.

Finally, it’s important to emphasize that the artistic role of light goes beyond having the keen eye and technical skill to reproduce shades of light accurately. Light can also play a major emotional and psychological role in art. For example, look at Rockwell’s Post cover of a group of amateur musicians playing together after hours in the back of a barbershop:

Musicians in back room viewed through window
(Norman Rockwell/SEPS)

Why didn’t Rockwell paint the entire scene in a well-lit room so he would have more space to show all those warm, folksy details and facial expressions for which he was famous?

The answer is that it was psychologically more effective to use a narrow sliver of light to reveal a partial glimpse of the beating heart of the picture. The joy of this picture is that these musicians are playing for their own private pleasure, not performing publicly. Their shining time together is surrounded on all sides by the darkened place of business, which makes this a more powerful, emotionally moving painting.

All this was achieved with color — one more example of how the mastery of light made Rockwell an excellent artist.

Featured image: Norman Rockwell/SEPS.

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Comments

  1. This series of articles about one of the most famous painters in America is absolutely fascinating. I have appreciated Rockwell pictures for decades, and yet, I learn something new with each story by Mr. Apatoff, and I see nuances I never considered before. Because Norman Rockwell painted with such skill, each detail in his pictures tells a story within itself, and I begin to understand the entire meaning of the whole. This recognition has increased the enjoyment I have with every one of the master’s drawings. Thank you.

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