Norman Rockwell

When I was a child with dreams about becoming an artist, few illustrators inspired me more than Norman Rockwell. Though the "art world" looked down their noses at his simple, emotional, quaint slices-of-life paintings, he captured what I loved about illustration: paintings could tell stories. His 318 covers for the Saturday Evening Post jumped off the page, calling the viewer to get involved, to connect with the people he painted.

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) still stands as a giant in the field of illustration, with few equals. I've gathered a few interesting facts about his life, which I've posted below. And I've sprinkled in a few of the expressions he painted so well. I hope a new generation of kids can rediscover and enjoy his wonderful paintings.

Bruce Van Patter
Creative writing motivator

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Fun facts about Norman Rockwell

These are just some of the interesting things I've learned about his long and active career:

Runs in the family. Norman's grandfather was an English artist, Thomas Hill, who specialized in very detailed animal drawings. Norman's father liked to copy illustrations from magazines, and would pull up a chair for Norman to do it with him.

Silver lining. As a boy, Norman was very thin and awkward. His pigeon-toed feet caused him to wear corrective shoes at the age of ten, and glasses at twelve -- giving him the nickname "Moony". Poor at sports, he found he could entertain his friends through his art.

Early work. When he was just five years old, other boys played with store-bought ships to have naval battles. Since he couldn't afford them, Norman cut some of his own out of cardboard and painted them. They became so popular, other boys asked him to make some for them!

What a start! He had his first paying assignment by the time he was sixteen. By the age of nineteen he was the art director for Boys' Life magazine. His first cover of Saturday Evening Post appeared in 1916, when he was just twenty-two. He got the job with the help of his roommate who was already doing cartoons for the magazine.

Eating his way in. When he was turned down for the Navy because he was too skinny, he stuffed himself with bananas, warm water and doughnuts and went back. He was accepted, but when they found out who he was, they allowed him to continue to paint for his regular clients while doing his service in the Navy.

A new tool. In his earlier work, Rockwell worked from live models. When he began to use a camera to snap picures of the models, he began to work in wilder, more exaggerated poses -- ones that would have been hard for a live model to hold for hours.

Tom and Huck. Before he illustrated Mark Twain's classic books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Rockwell went to Twain's boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri. Rockwell walked the streets and country lanes. He even was able to interview townspeople who lived during Mark Twain's lifetime. Such research helped to make his illustrations capture the sense of mythical boyhood in the books. What a perfect combination: Twain and Rockwell.

Out of the flames. Disaster struck in 1943: his studio was destroyed by a fire. He lost not only the paintings he had made, but all his props. But he didn't let this stop his creative growth. In some ways, it kept him from relying on his past successes. It was about this time that he turned from the more historical illustrations and started to paint everyday life scenes.

Rockwell's mastery of composition inspires me. He arranges his paintings wonderfully. For example, in the painting above from Tom Sawyer, note how well he frames Tom with the bending figure around him. Adding to the woman the dark upper part of the painting and even the poised cat, Rockwell makes the whole painting seem to be pressing down in on him. Notice also how he throws a bowl on the floor to break up the foreground.

Another of his strengths was expression. Some of his paintings have strong, almost exaggerated poses. But others have gentler moods. Rockwell was a master at catching a moment of emotion, whether it played on the surface of a face or lay hidden behind a subtle gesture.

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text and illustration © 2006 Bruce Van Patter

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