Thursday, October 15, 2009


Comments by Tom Watson

Illustration #3

When I first saw this illustration, I was a little puzzled as to what was going on. Of course, a story illustration is often most effective when it entices the reader to read the story without revealing too much. And, perhaps that was Rockwell’s motive in choosing this unusual scene in the story.

The odd looking dark spot on the floor is a “hair-ball, which he (Jim) had took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it”. Jim is listening for the hair-ball to talk to him. The composition shows a stove top and a strong vertical stove pipe that quickly lead us up to Jim and Huck.

The diagonal lines of the floor boards also direct our eye towards the main subject matter. Rockwell often showed small portions of background props. In this painting they are bleeding out of the top of the illustration, but identifying a general location. His color scheme is primarily warm muted neutral tones with a few small red accents in key areas.

The limited colors add to the mood of the event, eliminating any visual distraction that might reduce the focus on Jim, Huck and the hairball. With the support of Mark Twain’s detailed writing and his own well honed insight and knowledge, Rockwell felt very comfortable portraying period illustrations, and identifying with the common people in America was his stock and trade.

Illustration #4

This illustration has some of the vertical characteristics (floor boards, chair back and chair legs) that the last illustration had.. but less pronounced. The black cat functions similar to the previous black stove. It anchors the entire scene within the vertical page. This time Rockwell only showed two structural props, the two chairs. The background is simply a dark tone gradating into the light floor boards. He resists even showing the molding or corner where the wall meets the floor.. breaking it down to just the important essentials of the scene.

For each scene, Rockwell carefully evaluated as to what elements to include and what to leave out. Notice the stripes on the red dress and a suggestion of a white print on the green dress, which gives variety to otherwise all solid tones.

The angle of the slats on the back of the rocker follows the angle of the women’s head, which is looking directly at the focal point. The top of the bonnet, forearm and the straight vertical line of Huck’s back (who is dressed as a girl), are effective horizontal and vertical directional lines that also lead us to the focal point.

And, the character of Huck’s bare feet is a telltale clue at his attempt at looking like a girl.

Again Rockwell weaves together a tight knit composition, which all elements, color, tones, patterns and shapes fit together into a functional solid composition. Virtually all these illustrations are quite loose and painterly in the foreground and background areas, centering our attention at the all-important and more defined focal point.

* Tom Watson is a retired West Coast illustrator, art director and educator. He has been a frequent contributor to Today's Inspiration and his storyboard work for film was a subject of a post on my other blog, Storyboard Central.

This week's images are © MBI/Heritage Press, 1940 and are used with the permission of the Norman Rockwell Museum. This past summer the museum featured the grand opening of a traveling exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.

Stephanie Plunkett, Chief Curator of the Museum would like readers to know that the Museum does travel an exhibition of signed lithographic prints from the Tom and Huck series to other museums and cultural centers. Stephanie writes, "We do have two upcoming bookings for that exhibition that are listed below, so perhaps your readers will have the opportunity to visit if they live in the region."

Here is the information about the traveling exhibition:

Norman Rockwell's Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn

Nova Southeastern University, Fort Lauderdale-Davie, Florida
November 14, 2009 through January 29, 2010

Averitt Center for the Arts, Statesboro, Georgia
March 12, 2010 through May 7, 2010

"It also might be interesting to note that the original paintings for the series are in the collection of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri. The originals are beautiful. A study from the series will be on view in our upcoming exhibition, Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera, which opens on November 7, 2009."


  1. Charlie Allen10:39 PM

    Great blog this week, Tom, on NR. He was not America's best known and loved illustrator (or artist) by chance. The contrast between so-called 'modern art' and artists with Rockwell....and many of the other illustrators (I'm thinking N.C. Wyeth at present) overwhelming. The difference.... Rockwell and the other great illustrators communicated. They brought words and the abstract to life....they brought characters, scenes, and locations to life....something outside of themselves to which viewers and readers can enjoy and relate. Most of 'fine art' and 'modern art' fails at this. Probably have my 'tang toungled' here....but that's my 'penguin state of mind'

  2. Charlie, I couldn't agree with you more. Seems that what a relatively small amount of quality traditional paintings I see, is in small pockets.. although, I'm hearing there is an ever growing return to literal painting that people can easily understand and relate to. I hope so.

    Tom Watson

  3. Hi Tom, I actually have the "Huck Threads a Needle" as a three part set along with "Huck and Miss Mary Jane" and "The Duke and the Dauphin". These look like originals from The Heritage Press, New York. They are still in their original sleeve. If you would like to contact me, let me know via this blog. Thank you.

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