Norman Rockwell: Artist Biography


Norman Rockwell was born in 1894. Rockwell enjoyed drawing at an early age and soon decided he wanted to be an artist. At age 15 he left high school and enrolled in two art schools simultaneously. His mornings were spent at the National Academy of Design, and his afternoons, spent at the Art Students’ League. He is perhaps best remembered for his countless Saturday Evening Post illustrations and artistic contributions to the advertising industry. His early covers made Rockwell a star, and his paintings appeared in magazines and advertisements for the next half-century. Rockwell never considered himself an artist, but rather a commercial illustrator. After all, Rockwell never painted freehand, and almost all of his paintings were commissioned by magazines and advertising companies. No matter how many contributions Rockwell made to the commercial arts over his career, they all had something in common. He understood the importance the drawing process had in order to achieve effective illustrations for his advertisements and magazine covers.

In the beginning of his career Rockwell worked from real life. He used models drawing directly onto his canvas. “It has never been natural for me to deviate from the facts of anything before me,” he says, “so I have always dressed the models and posed them precisely as I have wanted them in my picture; then I painted the thing before me. If a model has worn a red sweater, I painted it red – I couldn’t possibly have made it green. I have tried again and again to take such liberties, but with little success.”

To keep up with the demand for a quicker turnaround for finished art, Rockwell began to use photos as a reference for his drawings. “For twenty-three years I did all of my drawing and painting without any help from the camera. Even today I often work without photographs, yet I have found that if they are properly utilized they can sometimes prove an invaluable aid. I feel very strongly, however, that no one should resort to photographs until he has learned to draw and paint extremely well without them.”In Guptill’s book Norman Rockwell Illustrator a description of Rockwell’s technique is given in extensive detail. The first step was to get an idea. “Without a good idea right at the start, only failure can result,” Rockwell said. Once he had an idea, his procedure was to make small scale thumbnails with pencil. When the idea was approved, the models were selected. He commonly used friends and neighbors and his models. He always insisted on getting the perfect model even if it entailed a lengthy search. Rockwell then acquired the necessary props and would hire a photographer to shoot the scenes, while he directed the models. With his okayed preliminary pencil sketch and his selected photographs, Norman then did a small sized study in pencil. This was done to organize his materials and his thoughts about layout and composition. Next, he made a full size detailed charcoal drawing on architect’s detailpaper. This was made to the exact size which he intended his final painting to be which varied according to the subject matter it was used for.Now the photographer was called again to reshoot the desired layout. Rockwell then painted from the photographs and did several color studies which allowed him to make tweaks to the tone, form or color. Rockwell then made a transfer from his full size charcoal layout on to his prepared canvas. First, he would trace this ona sheet of architects’ tracing paper, which he would then attach to his blank canvas. Between the tracing paper and the canvas he would place transfer paper and traced it onto the canvas. After all this meticulous prepping he was now ready to paint.

Eventually, Rockwell altered his sketching process by using an opaque projector called a balopticon, which allowed him to cast photographic images onto his drawing surface, and lightly trace them. Rockwell said, “When using the balopticon in this way, I do not simply copy everything which is projected from the photograph. Instead, I make many, many changes, large and small, in order to make the drawing like the image in my mind of what I want to portray. I cannot emphasize this point too much. The real danger in using the balopticon is that you will develop the lazy tendency to follow the image exactly instead of following the creative idea or image within yourself.””Painting from photographs canbe a wholly creative performance if the artist himself is creative. To copy the form, tone and color of a photographic print certainly is not creative. But one can be creative by modifying drawing, values and other aspects of the photo to realize the creative needs of the subject. The camera is no substitute for those creative faculties of mind and hand which have always produced art – and always will. The artist who can’t draw or paint will never getanywhere trying to work from photographs.”

Probably the most important stage in Norman Rockwell’s technique was the drawing stage. In this stage, subjects were drawn in great detail, going so far as to indicate differences in light and shade by filling in areas with varying values of grey. If you look closely at a Norman Rockwell painting, much of his pencil lines can be seen lurking below the paint. “I take the making of the charcoal layouts very seriously,” Rockwell once remarked. “Too many novices. I believe, wait until they are on the canvas before trying to solve many of their problems. It is much better to wrestle with them ahead through studies.” Knowing that the success of his covers and advertisements depended on the strength of his ideas, Rockwell struggled to develop engaging picture themes. With the emphasis on preliminary drawings this allowed Rockwell to produce strong illustrations for his commissions. His successes in commercial art and the advertising industry are a result of those drawing phases.

With his art on cover of the Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell became an American icon. Although hesitant about approaching the Saturday Evening Post, he had dreamed for years of having his illustrations on the cover. Rockwell put aside his fears and in 1916 took two paintings and three sketches to Phildelphia and Mr. Lorimer’s office. Mr. Lorimer liked the two paintings and approved the three sketches for future covers for the Saturday Evening Post. The first Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover was published May 20, 1916. Entitled Boy with Baby Carriage (See fig. 1), it shows 2 boys in baseball uniforms making fun of another boy dressed in his Sunday suit pushing a baby carriage. One of Norman Rockwell’s favorite models, Billy Paine, posed for all three boys. On June 3, 1916, the second Saturday Evening Post Norman Rockwell cover was published. His second effort featured a kid’s circus with one kid in long underwear being the strong man. Another kid in a top hat was the circus barker, extolling the other kids in the painting to see the show (See fig 2). This was the second of the two finished paintings Rockwell originally showed to Mr Lorimer. All in all, more than 300 Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post covers were published.

Norman Rockwell’s painting of a colonial tavern sign painter in the February 1936 issue of The Saturday Evening Post had caught the eye of Princeton architect Thomas Stapleton, who decided to commission Rockwell to do a mural for the reconstructed 1756 Nassau Tavern located in Princeton. Rockwell enjoyed doing colonial subjects and because Princeton was the site of a major Revolutionary War battle, a painting of Yankee Doodle seemed appropriate. “Yankee Doodle” was placed behind the bar to be enjoyed by all the male guests (See Fig. 3). Rockwell researched and had new costumes made for his models. He engaged his friend, Fred Hildebrandt, a professional model and illustrator, who had posed as the colonial sign painter, to pose as Yankee Doodle.

This painting underwent several phases in preparation for the oil painting. First, a drawing was done from the model, with very little changes being done (see fig 4). Second, a drawing was done from the first drawing. In this version the drawing was pushed further. Here he makes the body thinner, the arms and legs are elongated, and the shape of his nose is changed. The clothing also adds to the character and his action. The vest now creates a more interesting silhouette, while the smaller scarf helps thin the shape of his upper body. The negative space between him and the saddle, as well as the disheveled hat, flowing hair and coat, convey a bouncing ride (see fig. 5). Third, the drawing is transferred and a color-study is done (See fig. 6). Finally, the finish changes are made. Most are subtle, but there is improved contrast to the coats folds, and changes to the negative space in relation to the elbow. (see fig 7). These process images support Rockwell’s comments that the ability to draw is the most import.

In the cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post on April 16, 1955, “Art Critic,” Rockwell was far from beginning his final painting when he completed this drawing. His photographer recalls that Rockwell considered this one of the most difficult paintings he had done. He spent more time on it than on almost any other Post cover. Using his wife Mary as the model, the face of the woman in the portrait changed no fewer than 17 times. (See fig 8). For each alteration, Rockwell painted a separate oil-on-acetate sketch, which he then could place for consideration within the portrait’s frame. At some point Rockwell replaced the 17th-century landscape on the opposite wall with a group portrait of Dutch cavaliers. The cavaliers’ critical observation of the student’s close examination of the lady’s pendant added a new dynamic and further compelled the viewer’s participation in Rockwell’s painting. You can also see Rockwell’s process drawings leading up to his finished Post cover paintings in “Fixing a Flat” August 3, 1946 (See Fig. 9) and “Weighing In” June 28, 1958 (See Fig. 10). Record of his work process is rare and really provides insight in to his technique.

On the cover of The Saturday Evening Post, Norman Rockwell earned his reputation as an artist. Inside, however, his work was just as moving. His paintings regularly appeared inadvertisements. Rockwell’s advertising career started in 1914 with a Heinz ad in the Boy Scout Handbook and ended 64 years later in 1976 with Lancaster Turkeys. Rockwell also did advertising illustration for companies like Jell-O, Willys cars, Grape Nuts and Orange Crush. He is also remembered for his numerous advertisements for such companies as Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, and Sun-Maid Raisins.

Even in Rockwell’s advertisement illustrations he continued his technical processes and the use of drawing with models and photographs. “When people ask why I sometimes resort to photographs, I tell them what a job it is to get models to take and hold poses like in this Interwoven Socks advertisement. Any time you wish to become a model, try either of these poses for a few minutes,” says Norman. (See Fig. 11). In the Fisk Tire advertisement he draws from a live model rather than a photograph to create his painting (see fig. 12). “In this case my model was old Pop Fredricks, known to all illustrators. He was a great guy, an old actor. He used to pose twenty-five minutes and then rest. Before the pose we would set the alarm clock, a noisy Big Ben. Waiting for the blasted thing to go off was nerve-racking; after about twenty minutes I would be on edge. Once I had Pop in a sleeping pose and he actually fell asleep, I let him sleep until noon.” One of Rockwell’s advertising campaigns resulted in 81 black-and-white drawings. The Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. commissioned him to create scenes reflecting family life for a national advertising campaign. Rockwell reportedly used a hard, grease-free type ofcrayon for the sketches (see fig.13). Massachusetts Mutual chose the black-and-white medium because it represented a contrast to the color advertisements used by most companies in the 1950s and 1960s, and the company hoped it would grab people’s attention. The company ran ads with the drawings in The Saturday Evening Post, Time and Newsweek.

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