July 09, 2013

Color Palettes: Norman Rockwell (1894 - 1978)

When discussing Norman Rockwell's artistic genius, his color palette is rarely, if ever, mentioned, and this is probably rightly so.  The strength of his art was in his storytelling abilities, where he was able, through his own affinity with the common man, to portray love, loss, patriotism, humor, absurdity, and whimsy.  It is unlikely that Rockwell himself would have considered himself a skilled colorist, and as a painter, he struggled continuously, not with his facility in applying paint, which seemed to have come unnaturally easy for the artist, but with his ability to make his paintings look the way he envisioned them.  For Rockwell, it was  not the final paint layer which was most important, but the preliminary charcoal drawing, and it was in his drawing that he excelled and found the perfect vehicle for his narration.


Rockwell's initial technique was learned through courses of study begun at age 15, when 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, where he was under the tutelage of George Bridgman and Thomas Fogarty.  From the age of seventeen, when he did his first paid illustrations, through age twenty-two, when he began doing covers for the Post, and for the next twenty years of his career thereafter, Rockwell worked exclusively from life.  He worked at his easel drawing directly on his canvas, and painting with his models in situ, altering nothing. "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 have painted the thing before me.  If a model has worn a red sweater, I have 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."†

As tastes changed, and more and more illustrators began using photographic reference to accommodate the stylistic preferences of the publishers, as well as to keep up with the demand for a quicker turnaround for finished art, Rockwell too abandoned working from life.  After his idea was approved, and Rockwell had acquired the necessary actors and props, he would hire a photographer to shoot the scenes, while he, Norman, directed the models, often performing the exaggerated actions he wanted the characters to assume.  From the many 8 X 10, black and white prints of the scene, Rockwell would cobble together the information he needed, and execute a full-size, detailed charcoal drawing of the finished illustration on architect's detail paper.  This he would trace on a 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 would next re-trace the image on the top sheet, conveying the outline to his working surface.   Rockwell then painted from the photographs, which allowed him to "recompose in many ways:  as to form, tone, and color."†

An example of Rockwell's finished charcoal drawings

Eventually, Rockwell altered his sketching process by employing a balopticon,  an opaque projector which enabled him to cast photographic images onto his drawing surface, and lightly trace them.   Said Rockwell, "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 can be 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 get anywhere trying to work from photographs."†††

At some point, Rockwell employed studio assistants to wash his brushes and trace the images projected from the balopticon to the architect's detail paper, and from the finished charcoal drawing to the canvas itself.  This was a concession with which Rockwell was never satisfied, though it was a helpful means to speeding up his process.  He found these assistants were often too literal, tracing every little line, or too lazy, ignoring too much important information during the transfer.  Possibly he eventually found someone who worked to his satisfaction, but it is most likely that Rockwell continued to do most of the tracing for the remainder of his career.

Once his sketch was finished, Rockwell would send for the photographer again, who then shot the sketch, and made several matte, black and white prints enlarged to the size of the finished product (ie.  the size of a Post cover).  Rockwell would mount the photographs to pieces of cardboard, and would quickly paint on top of these to establish his color scheme.  Usually, he only made one such color sketch, which he would then use as a guide for his finished painting.

Rockwell's method of applying paint was pretty standard, though he did make a few decisions about materials which have proven detrimental to the life of his paintings.  His standard technique, once the charcoal drawing was affixed to the canvas, consisted of an imprimatura, followed by a monochromatic underpainting to establish values, then a quick color lay-in, and finally, the finished details, working the entire canvas at once.  This was probably the method he learned while studying in New York City, and most likely had its origins in the European ateliers. Unfortunately, Rockwell modified this method by adding layers of varnish between the different steps, and often painted a new section before the underlying, thicker areas were  adequately dry:  also, Rockwell often enjoyed applying a surface of Benjamin Moore's Sani-flat housepaint to his canvas, which he ticked and incised to create an under-texture upon which to do the final painting.  Even he admitted that his procedure was "technically terrible," and it was likely his paintings might some day explode, but it was the only method he could possibly use, and still meet his deadlines.  Rockwell agreed with Richard Miller, who said, "Let the next generation paint its own pictures," so he was not too concerned with his art lasting beyond its use as illustration.††††

The colors he generally used  were manufactured by Winsor & Newton and consisted of the following hues (his standard palette is written here in all capital letters, while those in lower case represent the colors he only used on occasion, as necessity dictated):

  • rose madder
  • burnt umber
  • mars violet
  • cadmium orange
  • terre verte
  • cerulean blue
  • payne's gray
  • cobalt blue

His medium, when he used one, consisted of rectified turpentine and Grumbacher's Oil Medium #2.

Another source from the same time period says Rockwell used Shiva paints, with which he employed the following palette:

  • magnesium blue
  • cadmium yellow medium
  • cadmium orange
  • light red

With these, he used Shiva's artist medium.

I am not sure if the omission of ivory black on the list of colors for his later palette was intentional, or an oversight.  His earliest illustrations were executed in black, white, and a single color, usually red, as dictated by the printing methods of the time (or the budgets of the publishers).  Perhaps as printing processes improved, Rockwell dropped black from his palette in favor of mixing his own.

I remember hearing a story about Norman Rockwell from another illustrator.  Here I will attribute the anecdote to Bob Eggleton.  While I might be mistaken, it could very well be Eggleton, who at the time, seemed to be on every artist discussion panel at every convention,all around the world, even when those panels and conventions were occurring simultaneously.

Eggleton related the tale that Rockwell, upon trying to be more painterly while doing one of his Post assignments, grew frustrated with how slick his painting looked.  Ripping the canvas from his easel, Rockwell rushed to his garden and started throwing dirt at his wet canvas, and then broke off a shingle from his home, and began using the shingle to continue his painting.  Unfortunately, Rockwell returned to his studio, dejected, as the painting still looked as slick as ever.  Every illustrator in the room gave a collective "sigh" as we all wished we could paint as well as Rockwell did with a piece siding.

I doubt the story is true, but I do think it has a place more in legend, than in myth.  I seem to remember reading somewhere that in his piece, A Family Tree (which includes references to Howard Pyle in the painting), that Rockwell couldn't achieve the color and texture he wanted, so he gathered dirt from his yard, and crushed it into his wet painting to get the look he desired.   For Rockwell, who was a fan of modern art, this doesn't seem too odd. 

Rockwell on left : Trachte on right

 My favorite story involving Norman Rockwell, however, is just from a few years ago, when it was discovered that the painting Breaking Home Ties on display at the Norman Rockwell Museum was a forgery.  The owner of the painting, cartoonist Don Trachte Sr., had purchased the painting from Rockwell in 1960 for $900, but had at some point, made a copy of the painting, as well as several others he owned done by fellow artist-friends in the Arlington, Vermont area.  Apparently, Trachte Sr. was concerned over the ownership of the originals while he was going through a divorce in 1973.  His children were given the paintings in the divorce, though they hung in their parents' households until the children asked the Norman Rockwell Museum to care for Breaking Home Ties in the museum's facility.  After Don Trachte Sr.'s death, questions arose about the authenticity of the art he once owned, and during a search by his children in 2006 for clues to the whereabouts of the originals, it was discovered that Breaking Home Ties and the other missing originals were hidden behind a secret wall in Trachte's former home.

There are two great books which deal with Norman Rockwell's technique.  One is the much sought-after Rockwell on Rockwell:  How I make a Picture, by Norman Rockwell, and the other is Norman Rockwell:  Illustrator, by Arthur L. Guptill, which has a nice section written by Rockwell himself on his working methods.  Both books were relied upon heavily for this post.

† Arthur L. Guptill.  Norman Rockwell:  Illustrator.  New York:  Watson-Guptill Publications, 1975, p. 200.

†† Norman Rockwell.  Rockwell on Rockwell:  How I Make a Picture.  New York:  Watson-Guptill Publications, 1979, p. 118.

†††Guptill 199-200.

††††Guptill 207.

Article from Underpaintings

1 comment:

Chris R said...

Thanks - a very interesting article. Great to get a better understanding of his Rockwell's process.