Sunday, October 18, 2009

Rockwell and the Camera

Norman Rockwell went to great lengths to get his models to act. He spared no expense in hiring photographers to document their performances. The resulting photos—20,000 of which are in the Norman Rockwell Museum’s archives and have just been digitized—served as references for most of his famous Post covers after the mid-1930s.

As a new book and an upcoming exhibition demonstrates, Rockwell was always conscious of going well beyond the photo, striving for a exaggerated reality to communicate his ideas.

His painting “The Gossips,” 1948 (Oil on canvas, 33” x 31”) is a good example. The 30 heads in the painting pass along a piece of gossip about Mr. Rockwell himself, who confronts the source of the rumor in the last pairing.

The old lady and the young woman with the scarf went through a big transformation from photo to painting. The older woman in the painting is seen more in profile; and her smile is broadened. The younger woman’s eyes and her mouth open wider and her head tilts more forward.

The man in this pairing gets a bigger shock of hair, a pointier nose, and a more wide-open mouth. His neck protrudes from a greatly simplified collar. The woman is brought more into profile, and she’s given a hand.

The man at left loses his hat, probably to avoid duplicating his counterpart. All his expressive features: eyes, eyebrows, and mouth are exaggerated—and he gets a hand with a cigar. The man at right, who appears just before the crescendo of the story, is pushed to the extreme. His chin tucks in, his hat tips to the side, he’s gets a bow tie, and his head takes the shape of a light bulb.

Rockwell also lifts his eyebrows. Hardly any model—except maybe Jim Carrey--can simultaneously drop the jaw, squint the eyes, and lift the eyebrows. It’s not easy; try it! But it looks right, and Rockwell got it in the final.

Rockwell always wrestled with his conscience over his use of the camera and the projector, which he called “an evil, inartistic, habit-forming, lazy, and vicious machine.”

But he should have been easier on himself, because he really set a good example to the rest of us about how to use photos intelligently. He rarely forgot his initial conception, and he only used the photos as a starting point.

As he said in his classic work “Rockwell on Rockwell,” 1949, “I feel that the characters which I produce in this way more nearly express those which I have in my mind and which I am trying to portray.”
More about new book Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera, by Ron Schick on Amazon.

The exhibition: Norman Rockwell Behind the Camera will run at the Norman Rockwell Museum from November 7 – May 31, 2010, link for more info.

There’s an article in this month’s Vanity Fair with lots of images and a surprisingly respectful biographical overview.


Erik Bongers said...

When reading the section 'Creative Process' on David Wiesner's website, for the final painting you will find the caption:

The final painting is executed in watercolor. No ink line or opaque paint is used.

I want to be clear on this: I love Wiesner's sober gentile watercolor paintings and his textless storytelling, but I feel like mocking his above statement.
It is incomplete. Not only did he use ink nor opaque paint, he painted it while riding an untamed mustang through Monument Valley, using the tip of the stallion's tail to render the finest details.
I provide you this info as proof that he is a far greater painter than Rockwell.

But seriously, just like Rockwell felt like he was cheating by using pictures, Wiesner's statement shows that it is not uncommon for artists to feel that one modus operandi is more legitimate than another. As if one technique is purer than two. Or an older technique more respectable than a modern one.

But perhaps these fobias have already been overcome by a younger generation of artists.

Unknown said...

The art scholars are quicker to give him his props than they used to be! I'm glad to see him get the well-deserved accolades.

Super Villain said...

i think the thing that seperates the good artists from the legends is time....the amount of time they are able to sit and work on an image/work of art.

rockwell was a BEAST!! i've read a few bio's on him, and his work ethic was rediculous.

he is one of my favoirites! cant wait to get to the rockwell museam, it is going to be an awsome experianc.

great post! youve talked me into taking the drive up to see the exhibit!

Lester Yocum said...

(Sigh) Great job, Gurney. Now I have to order another excellent book you recommended. Sheesh! And I had other plans for that money! :-)

Seriously, the Rockwell Museum is excellent, even if you don't appreciate his style or themes. Rockwell is one of my all time faves, and the museum does him good. Not too far from the site of the Illustration Master Class, either, for those who are going. Too bad the exhibit ends before the class starts.

Have you seen the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Mass? Before or after IMC I may check it out. I've heard it's pretty good. 1.5 hrs East of Amherst.

Robb said...

Great post. Reminds me a lot of the information about pushing poses and attitudes that Walt Stanchfield tries to drive home in his books.

Anonymous said...

I had no idea Rockwell changed people's expressions so much in his paintings. Great post!

The Devil's Red Rose said...

I saw this book when my teacher Ron Lemen showed it to me. I knew that Rockwell used photographs, but I never knew how much he altered from photography. I am amazed that the photographs he took look just like his paintings and how he is able to exaggerate from the photograph, but still retain an accurate likeness.

James Gurney said...

Erik, you are right to warn us against advocating any single method for making art. Some artists, such as Gruger and Moebius and Frazetta, have done wonderful things purely from their imagination, with no models or photos or maquettes.

Rockwell himself was careful to title his book not "How to Make a Picture," but rather "How I Make a Picture."

John Calvin said...

Thanks for pointing me to David Kamp's article about Norman Rockwell in "Vanity Fair." Very interesting and informative. said...

I heard Ted Key, who drew the "Hazel" one panel strip, had a hand in this. Does anyone know what his participation consisted of?