This week, I’d like to take a look at Norman Rockwell’s “The Tattooist.” The composition isn’t particularly symbolic, but what makes this a stand out is how Norman Rockwell is truly a master of composing the subject. In other words, while many artists will inject symbolism or use color in a sweeping dramatic fashion, Rockwell uses his art to draw out the personality of the characters in his painting as well as infer an entire narrative.
For starters, there is the background that exists outside the primary subject — outside the primary subject because it isn’t within the context — it’s just a flat background. With that in mind, it (literally) fades into the background – more as a “tone” or “emotional setting” as opposed to a room which the characters are in. A point about this is: while there are individual points of interest in the background, they call less attention than if they were actually part of the setting. For example: Rockwell could’ve painted a room, with “sample tattoos” but that would draw too much attention. Rockwell would’ve known this, and wanting to focus exclusively on his subject he gave the essence of the room.
Next we take a look at the sailor, who becomes our viewpoint character because he’s the only face we can see. And, it’s an expressive face. Whether it’s humiliation on there, or embarrassment, or a sheepish skepticism about the whole thing — it’s in direct association with the work at hand. The work at hand being the tattooist crossing out names of past loves. It also appears he’s blushing as his cheek is rather red. Also, if you look closely, you’ll notice the names that have been crossed out are a variety of ethnicities implying the ports the sailor has docked at.
The tattooist is also an interesting character, from the ‘traveling man’s’ suitcase to what appears to be pajamas worn under both vest and pants.
In short, if artists are looking for ways to develop character in their own work — they might do well to see how Norman Rockwell tells a story through nuance.