A Closer Look At The Little Worker by Helen McNicoll

Let’s take a closer look at The Little Worker by Helen McNicoll—a pleasant landscape with high-key colors, compressed values, and an intimate perspective.

Helen McNicoll,The Little Worker, c.1907
Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1907

Dimensions: 20 x 24 inches (51.3 × 61 cm)

Year Created: c.1907

Medium: Oil on Canvas

Current Location: Ontario Art Gallery, Toronto

Click here to download a high-resolution photo of the painting.

Painting the Landscape (Free Workshop)

I’ll walk you through the entire process using one of my recent paintings. You’ll see how I go from idea all the way through to reflecting on the finished painting.

High-Key Colors and Compressed Values

The first thing that strikes me about the painting is the sense of light. Apart from a few dark accents, the colors are compressed towards the light end of the value scale (known as painting in a high key). You can see what I mean in the grayscale image below.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, grayscale, 700w

Compressing the values like this flattens the value structure and simplifies the painting. It also contributes to the painting’s soft and pleasant feel. The downside is a lack of contrast, as you aren’t taking advantage of the full range of values from black to white. In an exhibition room, this painting probably won’t be the first to grab your attention, but it will eventually draw you in. There is a little value contrast around the focal point (the girl and chickens), with the dark accents positioned close to the lightest lights. This is a simple and effective way to draw attention to an area in your painting.

What the painting lacks in value contrast, it makes up for with subtle changes in hue and saturation. Look how the colors dance between all the different greens, yellows, and blues.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, Detail, Grass and Color Variance

It’s also worth noting the theme of warm lights and cool shadows. The lights are vast, with yellow being the dominant color. The blue shadows are sharp, scarce, and saturated. This gives the painting an overwhelming sense of light, with little room left for the shadows.

The White Dress

The white dress provides an interesting display of light and color. Let’s break it down:

  • There’s hardly any pure white; just a few strokes to convey the brightest highlights. The dress is conveyed with mostly yellows and blues. Despite this, the dress still clearly reads as a white dress.
  • The yellow strokes suggest reflected light from the ground and the warmth of direct sunlight.
  • The light blues represent areas that are not in complete shadow but also not in direct sunlight. They are being illuminated by a weaker light source—the ambient blue sky.
  • The dark blues, greens, and yellows represent areas shielded from direct sunlight and ambient light from the blue sky. These are the true shadows. A bit of reflected light hits these areas, hence the greens and yellows.
Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1907, Dress Color

The dress also demonstrates color constancy. This is part of our visual perception system that autocorrects the colors we see in order for us to make sense of the world around us. When we see a white object in shadow, color constancy makes it so that the object appears whiter than it actually is so that we can correctly identify it as a white object. In the image below, I have isolated one of the light colors of the dress.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1907, Dress Color 2

Watch what happens if I duplicate this color square and place it on top of the dress. I’m not sure about you, but the color square on the dress appears a touch lighter than the original, even though the color is exactly the same. If this seems confusing, don’t worry too much. The main thing to remember is that the appearance of a color can change based on the surrounding colors.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1907, Dress Color 3

Tip: Be careful about using too much pure white when painting white objects. What is the nature of the light illuminating the object? That will determine what colors you should use. A warm light source may give the white object a yellow tint, while a cool light source may give it a blue tint.

Contrapposto

This painting is a great example of contrapposto (Italian for “counterpoise”)—a concept typically associated with Michelangelo’s David. The girl carries a bucket in one hand, with her arm pulled straight and her shoulder pulled down. She grips the bucket with the end of her fingers. You can feel the weight of the bucket and the water I assume it carries. Her other arm extends out and acts as a counterbalance. Her shoulders tilt against her hips.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, Gesture

Intimate Perspective

The painting features an unusual perspective, with no sky, only land. The lack of sky limits the depth and makes the painting appear more intimate, playing into its unassuming and candid nature.

At first, I interpreted the land as being flat and we are looking down at the subject. But the shed at the top suggests that we are looking into the side of a hill from a standard, or perhaps even upward-looking perspective. I always find it interesting when seemingly unimportant parts of a painting play a defining role in its interpretation. Samantha Burton, an art history lecturer at the University of Southern California, confirms this interpretation and provides an eloquent description of the painting:

The Little Worker shows a young girl on a hillside, walking with a metal pail, her arm outstretched to balance the weight of her burden. She is alone in the landscape but for a trio of accompanying chickens; a fence and shed are only just visible at the top of the canvas. The perspective McNicoll adopts is surprisingly modern: the viewer, situated at the bottom of the hill, looks up at the girl as the landscape rises sharply, creating a relatively shallow sense of space in which both the viewer and the girl are immersed.”

An interesting observation about the hill: its slope brings the land closer in perspective and gives us a clearer look at the grass, flowers, and ground. This gave McNicoll more opportunities to use intricate brushwork and finesse, which is important in a painting that lacks sky. If the land were flat, these details would be harder to see.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, detail grass, 700W

Visual Path

The broad stroke direction creates a curved visual path in the painting. There’s a sense of flow as your eyes follow these strokes up and around. There are a few areas that interrupt this flow. Notice the girl’s right arm, the downward tilt of her head, the abrupt shadows around the bucket, and a few of the edges of the plants at the top. These areas cause tension and add interest. (Flow without tension tends to appear bland and uninteresting. Like a movie where everything goes to plan and nothing goes wrong.)

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, Flow

Brushwork and Detail

The brushwork looks simple at first glance, but as you look closer, you realize there’s actually a lot going on.

For the girl and chickens, McNicoll used simple strokes to capture the key features, highlights, shadows, and contours. She didn’t do much more than that. She didn’t render the eyes or the individual strands of hair—she did just enough to give an impression of realism and left it up to us to fill in the blanks. For this kind of simplified brushwork to be effective, you must be accurate with your strokes and colors. That’s because if you’re using less detail to convey information, then the detail you do use becomes even more critical.

For the ground at the bottom, McNicoll used fairly intricate and dynamic brushwork to convey all the leaves, grass, flowers, colors, highlights, and shadows. Her brushwork here is actually more detailed than what she used for the girl and the chickens, despite them being the focal point.

For the shed, fence, and nature in the background, she used blocky strokes and flat color shapes. This pushes the area back in attention and perspective. It also plays into the solid and rigid nature of the shed and fence. On a separate point, notice how this area has lighter colors, and how this seems to soften the contrast and increase the harmony between the colors. I remember learning about this—how colors appear more harmonious the lighter they get—from Richard Schmid in his book Alla Prima II.

Helen McNicoll, The Little Worker, c.1902, detail building, 1200w

Want to Learn More?

You might be interested in:

  • Painting Academy: I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting.
  • Composition Breakdown: Learn how to speak the language of composition. Together we will analyze twenty stunning paintings in terms of composition and why they work.

Thanks for Reading!

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Feel free to share with friends.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

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Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.


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16 comments on “A Closer Look At The Little Worker by Helen McNicoll”

  1. This i a beautiful painting and you have done wonderful job of describing it in detail. I have often thought that I would like to complete a painting in this style and in fact have it on my list of projects this year although I had thought I would do a field of flowers. I have painted several pieces with children and could do something similar to Helen Nicol’s piece.

    Thank you for this. enjoy your day.
    Penny Perrier

    Reply
  2. Thanks Dan, I always enjoy your emails, perhaps even more so now that I’m a reasonably experienced painter. It’s still so good to be reminded of what makes paintings work and your points make a lot of sense in the context of real and often not so well known pieces that you have skilfully deconstructed. Very much appreciate that you continue to send these out for free and hope you plan to keep doing so!

    Reply
  3. Your analyses of paintings are always helpful, and this one is particularly instructive. As I learn and progress as a painter, your instruction becomes increasingly more useful in moving me forward. Each time I read one of these analyses, I better understand the techniques you point out. Thanks ever so much for all your help!

    Reply
  4. Thank you so much for the interpretation of this wonderful painting..it is so interesting to read about then see the details that you pointed out…I never would have seen all of them!
    Rebecca G.

    Reply
  5. I fully agree with Mary Lu as I feel exactly the same.
    I always look forward reading your postings and hope I learn from it.
    Thank you also for the book tip.

    Reply
  6. Thank you so much for sending this. You constantly give is new insights and viewpoints and we feel more and more knowledgeable because of your continuing emails!

    Reply
  7. Dan
    I enjoyed all of your explanations and all of the illustrations.
    I’m slowly beginning to review some of your courses and you make art enjoyable through seeing through different perspectives.

    Reply
  8. Thank you for your interesting and always instructive emails, and I have particularly enjoyed this week’s analysis. I’m only just learning to deconstruct paintings and today’s was a fine analysis……it has helped me to understand better the components of painting.

    Reply
  9. Thank you Dan,
    How beautifully you have taken us through this painting journey. All the comments that go before me I concur with.
    Thank you again
    Julie

    Reply
  10. Excellent Dan! Very informative, well explained and interesting. Where did you learn about all the painting techniques used in great paintings? Thank you for sharing. Ann

    Reply
  11. I agree with everyone’s comments. I look forward to your emails Dan and always learn so much. You are very generous with your time and I appreciate it so much. Thank you!
    Judith

    Reply
  12. This has been such a fantastic breakdown of this lovely painting. So very informative and although I paint with watercolours, everything you have commented on can be applied. Thank you!!

    Reply

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