Friday, January 31, 2014

Let's Take A Closer Look, Shall We?

I know what you're thinking.  You're saying, "Gosh Kev, it's been days since you last posted an insightful and eloquent commentary about Norman Rockwell.  What took so long?"

Well, first off-- you're welcome.  And secondly, February 3rd marks the one hundred twentieth anniversary of his birth in 1894.  Since he's been in the news recently with the selling of one of his masterpieces for 46 million dollars, and had a bad book written about him, I thought I'd take a moment to show why I like the guy:

Say what you will about his impact on American Art, he was a great painter.  Don't believe me?  C'mere, I'll show you.

The above advertisement was for a little mom-and-pop telephone company named AT&T.  In 1949 they commissioned him to portray a lineman in the act of stringing wires.  Back then, telephones were connected by wires.  How archaic!  Anyway, it was a simple enough project; One lone guy against a nondescript back-drop.  Just a typical, run of the mill assignment for any illustrator.  The painting looks like this:

You can already see the differences between the poor reproduction of the ad against the painting. Illustrators got paid for the ad, but not for the size of the painting.  Most of them would probably have used cheap illustration board for this ad and made it relatively small, say 24X36 inches or even smaller.  After all, the image was only going to be seen in newspapers and magazines. Rockwell, though, painted this (as he did almost all of his work) on premium Belgian linen.  And he made it huge.  The actual painting is five feet by three and a half feet.  It was common practice by most illustrators to ship off their finished pieces to the client unframed.  Again, it's not going to a gallery or anything, so what's the point?  Not Norman.  He always had his paintings framed before he sent them off.  He felt it made a greater visual impact to the art editor, and thus would get him more work in the future.

Apparently, it worked...

To get this scene, AT&T set up a telephone pole, and supplied the worker.  Rockwell's photographer set up below and took photos at Rockwell's direction.  The first posing session was in early spring.  Norman came up with a design for the painting, but apparently either he or AT&T wasn't happy enough, so that summer they did it all over again.  That meant all the work he did earlier was out the door, and he had to start from scratch once again.

Next came the painting.  If you are ever in New England, take a trip to the beautiful Berkshire area of western Massachusetts and visit the Norman Rockwell Museum.  Not only is this painting there, but even better-- they let you take photos!  Recently I visited there and took full advantage of that policy.  (Don't forget to click on these up-coming photos for an even larger view.)

One of the knocks on Rockwell was that he used photos in his work.  The feeling was that all he did was copy them.  In truth those photos were not only in black and white, but they were rarely the entire scene.  He pieced them all together from the collection of specific shots; an arm, then a leg, then a foot, etc.  Rockwell then added his brilliant sense of color.  Take a look at this segment of the painting:

See how the man's face is seemingly a monotone shadow?  Let's look closer:

He didn't get those colors from a black and white photo!  It is a bit blurred, and that's not because of my photography, but because he didn't want a lot of detail in this face.  But rest assured that if he had wanted detail, he would have had his photographer do a close-up.  At that point in his career Rockwell never did "Good enough..."

Now, when we look at that ordinary plaid coat the lineman is wearing, it would seem rather a simple thing to paint, wouldn't it?  I mean black and red.  How tough is that?  Here's how Rockwell treated that coat:

A technique that he used very effectively almost all of his life is called Variegated Color. It isn't just slapping all kinds of different colors around, but breaking up the main color with various harmonies and compliments. Here he used thick, juicy impasto paint with every shade of red, orange, pink, brown, black and blue you can think of. Absolutely marvelous!

Have you ever stood beside a telephone pole?  Its bland weathered grey wood seems rather featureless.  How would you paint it?  Here's how Norman handled it:

Can you see the thick clumps of color applied with a trowel?  This is another example of Rockwell using variegated colors.  Here a grey telephone pole is a wild array of ochres, greys, browns, reds and blues.  Did he need to do this?  No, not for an advertisement-- but yes to make it Art.

Speaking of variegating colors, check out how he treated the lineman's simple brown leather belt:

My word-- are you seeing this?  From a distance (and scaled down to a photograph) it seems brown enough.  But this belt is anything but brown.  Since brown is a tertiary color, Rockwell broke apart the colors that combined make brown.  That, my friend, is how you bring a dull little detail to life.  Oh, and don't forget that bolt sticking through the pole; it too is filled not only with detail, but life.

Now, the object of this commission was to show some fancy, high tech gadget that AT&T was trotting out.  They were very persnickety for him to show it in beautiful, but exacting detail:

I'd say another job well done.  (And I didn't even mention that spectacular apple tree he painted!  It's as good as any branch that Andy Wyeth drew).  All in all, there were eleven changes that AT&T had Rockwell make before they were satisfied.  Of course, that doesn't count how many changes Norman made until he was satisfied-- all the while knowing that most of the nuance he imparted would be lost in the printing.

It's this seemingly simple painting for an ordinary advertisement that makes me want to bow down in front of it and say, "I'm not worthy... I'm not worthy!"  The amount of effort and attention to detail-- while still making a beautiful piece of art-- is breath-taking. 

THAT'S why I am a fan of Norman Rockwell.

So happy birthday Norm!  The good may die young, but the greats like you will live on forever.


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