Saturday, January 12, 2013

An Artist Date at the Museum

Judy Coates Perez here

A few months ago I moved to Sacramento and one of the first outings I took was to the Crocker Art Museum. Right now there is a fantastic exhibit of Norman Rockwell paintings and I have already seen the exhibit twice in less than a week. Wow!
We think of Norman Rockwell's paintings portraying the spirit of true Americana, with charm and humor, sadness and strength, capturing moments in our lives and history with such clarity that it stops us in our tracks, making us smile, laugh, feel tenderness and awe.

But I got more than that from seeing Rockwell's body of work in this exhibit,

I was struck by Rockwell's use of color.
To be more specific his use of working with a limited color palette. It reminded me of early renaissance paintings, when the palette was predominantly red (vermillion), yellow (ochre),  blue (azurite) because of limited access to pigments in that time period.  
Screen Shot 2013-01-11 at 10.43.20 AM
Altar of Archangel Michael, Gerard David 1510
That particular warm bright red which Rockwell seems to use in a large body of his work is striking.


I thought it was also interesting to see this reference to the dutch masters, through composition and color.
Sunmaid Raisins ad by Norman Rockwell, The Milkmaid by Johannes Vermeer
And his being influenced by his contemporary, fellow artist, Maxfield Parrish, 
Christmas Eve in Bethlehem, Norman Rockwell
who was known for his amazing way of creating images that literally glowed with warm light.
Jack and the Beanstalk by Maxfield Parrish
Jack and the Beanstalk by Maxfield Parrish

I found Rockwell usually used between one and three primary colors in his palette; vermillion red, golden yellow, and cobalt blue or pthalo green. One of the benefits of working with a limited palette in this way is that the areas with strong pure hues draw the viewers eye to the places the artist wants to give emphasis to in an otherwise subdued neutral image.
In this painting Rockwell is using two complimentary colors; vermillion red and pthalo green as the predominant colors, the rest of the palette is muted and fairly neutral.

Red visually comes forward in space, so that color immediately grabs your attention and your eye moves from the heart, (the focus of the action), to her hat, the patterning in the boys sweater, the book in his pocket, the paint can, and back up to her pants again making a complete circle of the canvas. This technique keeps the viewers eye constantly moving around the space, something you ideally want to achieve with your work.

I think sometimes we feel compelled to use every color in the paint box and because of this we may  inadvertently reduce the overall impact of our work. So I'd like to suggest, try using a limited palette the next time you're adding color to your sketches and see what happens.

I know this lesson from Mr Rockwell will be on my mind when I'm working in the future.


  1. Great post! You really made this little lesson super clear to me. Love the eye candy. Hugs & Aloha.

  2. Thank you for the insight! This makes me appreciate his work so much more.

    1. your welcome Jennifer, I came away from the exhibit seeing his work in a whole new way, that I don't think I would have gotten if I'd only seen a few examples of his work.

  3. Living in the northeast, I have always enjoyed Rockwell's work. I used to visit a small museum in a small town in Vermont. They had no originals, but most of the volunteers either were or knew the models that Rockwell used. It was always an interesting visit. Unfortunately, it is no longer open. I also enjoyed the fact that Rockwell and Grandma Moses were friends and lived in the same area. I also appreciated her primitive work and love to visit the museum in Bennington. Vermont which houses a great deal of her work.

  4. Wonderful post. Norman Rockwell is one of my favorites.

  5. I have always loved Norman Rockwell, but never really analyzed what made his work so appealing! Thanks for your insights.

  6. Several years ago I was at a large dinner; among the guests were Gayle Fraas and Duncan Slade. One of them (alas I forget which one) was heard to mutter about some of contemporary art "have they not heard of tertiaries?" Yes, those lovely muted tones. So much of what we see today, in quilting and beyond, is rainbow brights. I love the vibrancy of color as much as the next person, but I've also learned that those brights are much more enjoyable, at least to me, when set against the tertiaries and muted, neutral tones that let the clear tones sing! Great post, Judy--thanks for searching out those early Renaissance, Vermeer and Parrish paintings. Off to play with dyes (for a nearly monochromatic night quilt!) and paints, Sarah

  7. What a wonderful post Judy!! I loved reading it. I've loved Norman Rockwell's painting most of my life and never realized until I read your post why the color scheme resonated so well with me. These are my favorite colors to use when I create!!! So, wayyyyy back when I was a teenager these colors were singing their song to me. And now, when I use them in my own work I feel such a deep satisfaction!! Thanks so much for such an interesting post!!!
    HuGGs! Debi

  8. Great post, Judy! Very clear and well illustrated. You are a master teacher indeed.

  9. What an interesting post, Judy, and you made some observations about Rockwell's work that really intrigue me. Thank you so much! I believe I'll take another looks through Rockwell's work. Fascinating.

  10. Thank you for the insightful analysis and lesson in color theory. I've always admired Rockwell's technical mastery and accessible subject matter, but have never taken a closer look at his color sensibilities.


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