Lessons from Norman Rockwell

To celebrate the birthday this week of one of my very favorite illustrators, I’d like to give you a glimpse into the childhood of Norman Rockwell. I’m always curious to see the beginnings of creative people.

He had art in his veins. His grandfather (on his mother’s side) was a painter of some note, and his father also loved to draw. Frequently, when he was young, Norman and his businessman father sat side-by-side copying illustrations they’ found in magazines. His father also fed his son’s imagination by reading aloud every night. Dickens was the usual choice, and many of Norman’s early illustrations were of Dickens’ characters.

His mother, though, had a less enthusiastic view of art. When she was a girl, her artist father would line up his children to mass-produce his paintings: a child, brush in hand, was responsible for a single color of the work – one filled in the blue of the sky, another the orange of the sun, and so on. The paintings, not particularly good, each earned the family a few dollars. They also taught Norman’s mother how hard it is to make a living from art.

It was an eighth grade teacher who gave him his chance to shine. Instead of criticizing him for his incessant doodling, Mrs. Smith gave him an outlet. One December, she volunteered all her chalkboards as a canvas and loaded him up with colored chalks. His elaborate, painstaking work drew the attention of the whole school. Soon after, the principal allowed him to spend every Wednesday at a distant art school. Norman was on his way to finding his huge audience. (Read more about his work and career.)

What makes a truly creative person? Is it nature or nurture? Did Rockwell become an artist because he had innate talent, or because he had an environment in which his art could grow? It’s hard to know. Probably both.

But this is clear: encouraging adults do help. Having a dad who shared a love for art was a big factor. As was having an understanding teacher. But so was having a practical mom, who encouraged him to be clear-headed and hardworking in his approach to his career in art.

Don’t underestimate how much you can add to your child’s creative growth.

Bruce Van Patter

all material ©2006 Bruce Van Patter