A superb example of Wayne Thiebaud's early mature works, Cold Cereal's blend of thickly impastoed brushwork and luscious colors together serve to depict one of his classic American still lifes. The present painting is both a celebration of a distinctly American foodstuff evoking memories of childhood, as well as a personal exploration of the artist's working methods. The artist here explains his choice of subject matter:
There is an aspect to foodstuffs, one that interests me a great deal. Food as a ritualistic offering--that is--making food seem like it is something more than it is--dressing it up and making it very special. It has something to do with our preoccupation for wanting more than we have (J. Coplans, exh. cat., Wayne Thiebaud, Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, 1968, p. 24).
Cold Cereal epitomizes an American breakfast ritual, and the artist's choice to depict the back of the box further underlines his theme of "dressing up" our food products. The bright, large letters announcing 'FREE' over a large beaming green star seem to promise more than just a nutritionally balanced meal, or even a free toy inside. The colorful imagery and luxurious use of paint remind us that the artist revels in the nostalgia and beauty of these familiar icons in spite of our weaknesses.
Thiebaud's approach to representational subject matter is an emulation of the effects of looking, rather than an attempt to achieve a photographic effect. He strives for his paintings to come alive with a vibrance that is true to the paint and canvas that compose them:
I would like the painting to create its own light, to create its own energizing forces...what I tried to do was to express metaphorically with the use of color the same sort of light energy that reflects off natural objects. I don't want the painting to be less intense. The longer you stare at an object the more pulsation it emits and the color has to have with what Matisse referred to as 'expanding propensities'. For example, a pink placed next door to a mauve and a green may seem to swell beyond its matrix (op.cit., Coplan, p. 32).
We see this effect in Cold Cereal wherein Thiebaud has created a dynamic and vibrant surface on the lip of the bowl which is indeed rimmed with the exact colors he describes. The bowl and cereal box are futher intensified by his technique. "When I stroke around the object with a loaded paintbrush it is calculated to echo the presence of that object" (op.cit., Coplan, p. 36). Here, the long sweeping highlights of the sky blue background end abruptly against vertical strokes that echo the edge of the bex on its left and right side, making it seemingly occupy more space than its outlines would allow.