Norman Rockwell adeptly coaxed his characteristic expressions from a cast of amateur performers with the skill of a seasoned filmmaker. The artist himself deemed this directorial ability “an art in itself,” underscoring the importance of a talent that was central to his storytelling process. After choosing the best photographs to tell his story, Norman Rockwell began the process of translating these images into his finished painting. First, a detailed charcoal drawing was required with which he developed and refined his narrative and worked out compositional details. Rockwell began by placing his initial sketch in the Balopticon, which projected onto roughened architect’s paper on a vertical easel. Positioning it closer or farther away to achieve the desired size, he drew lightly to outline his design.
Beginning with the most important subjects, Rockwell placed his photographs one by one in the Balopticon. Maneuvering each element into position until it fit the outlined sketch, he lightly traced the projected photographs, erasing the first sketched figures as he worked. Rockwell sometimes cut out and used only the specific details that interested him and discarded the remainder of the photographic image as he fine-tuned his composition. If the result didn’t please him Rockwell rubbed out or replaced the detail, rubber cementing in a new paper section. With the complete composition roughed in, he started again at the beginning, tracing each photographic element in greater detail and making notations on lighting and tonality.
To make the leap to canvas Rockwell transferred the outlines of his charcoal drawing to primed canvas using transfer paper. Alternately, Rockwell had his charcoal drawing photographed, projected onto canvas, and traced. In a separate step, Rockwell produced a new version – in color and to the size of the intended reproduction – with which he planned the palette of the final painting. Sometimes created early in his creative process, Rockwell’s color studies often possess a loose, painterly vitality quite unlike the finished, more detailed illustration.
After transferring his charcoal study to canvas and sealing it with thinned shellac, Norman Rockwell began the demanding process of laying down paint. Surrounded by all of the reference materials he had collected for the work at hand, his photographs played a final role as he tacked snippets cut from them to his easel as he worked.
Rockwell endured long, often stressful days at his easel as he completed his creative process. Striving to get everything exactly right, he was known to repeatedly paint over entire sections of a composition, or scrape the paint down to the canvas and start over. Sometimes, even finished works could be discarded. He routinely asked anyone who came into his studio to critique a work in progress as a way to test his artistic choices and gauge the clarity of his narrative.