On the look out is contemporary with The Missing Boat (1876; Royal Holloway & Bedford College, London), one of Nicol's most important pictures. The latter depicts a group staring out to sea, whilst the waves themselves threaten to invade their open-air enclosure. On the look out employs a similar compositional format, including the viewer within a constricted visual space in order to enhance dramatic impact. Three figures huddle near a window; a man peers through his telescope. (The woman reappears alone, reading, in the contemporary study Sunday Morning). If this is indeed Nicol's Royal Academy exhibit of 1876, A storm at sea, then we can assume that they are likewise united in their anxiety as they track an incoming storm.
Nicol, who was born in Leith, became famous for the genre works he executed in Ireland from 1846-50 and on frequent return visits. Both his Irish and Scottish subjects tread a fine line between sympathy and satire. At their best they subscribe to the social realist tradition which emerged during the latter decades of the 19th Century. London-based artists such as Frank Holl and Hubert von Herkomer depicted the horrors of urban poverty. Nicol depicted the problems encountered by small rural communities; works such as Notice to quit (1862) and A deputation introduced the problems of eviction and emigration to a wider public.