The Photographs Norman Rockwell Used to Create His Famous Paintings


Painter Norman Rockwell‘s illustrations graced the covers of countless magazines over the course of the 20th century, becoming a much-loved piece of American culture for their simple snapshots of life. You might recognize many of the works, and even the name behind the paintings, but did you know that virtually all of the images started out as photographs?

After coming up with a concept for a painting (he was almost always commissioned by magazines and ad agencies), Rockwell would enlist the help of a photographer (he rotated between a group of them) to turn that idea into a photo. The subjects in the photos were his friends and neighbors.

Once the photograph was made, Rockwell then used his artistic talents combined with simple tracing to translate that photograph into the painting he had in mind. Rockwell never painted freehand.













NPR has published a fascinating article and radio segment on this story containing behind-the-scenes photos and more details on Rockwell’s process. They write that the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts is planning to put Rockwell’s photographic archive online in the very near future.

Rockwell’s use of photography is also explored in a book titled Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera by Ron Schick.

(via NPR via PDN via VisualNews)

Image credits: Photographs and paintings from the Norman Rockwell Museum

  • Rz67

    I thought it was Ken’s….

  • Richard

    The Norman Rockwell Museum has many of the original prints hanging next to the paintings they were templates for. Great to see work like this in person, it’s spectacular.

  • Scott M

    Mr. Rockwell would come up with an idea, sketch it out in charcoal, work up a composition and then get a photographer to take photos of his neighbors. Rockwell kept a large collection of clothes for costumes in his studio. Once he had all the reference he needed, he would work up the finished drawing to be painted. A hired man would then transfer the drawing onto the Clausen, Belgian linen.
    Obviously, the photos were a part of the process. You will notice the editorial changes which turn the photos into art. Not to mention the photos are in black and white, not color. More about his technique can be found in his autobiography, “My adventures as an illustrator.” He considered himself an illustrator, rather than a fine artist. Times change.

  • Leonardo Abreu

    No, he sucks bad…

  • Adam

    Given the outcry over artists using photos to base their artwork from, this is an important backstory to explain how these photos were not the origin of the vision, but an intermediary step.

  • sayan Dey

    just amazing…..

  • Paul Newon

    nice… innovative…

  • Matt

    Well, considering Rockwell hired the photographer to take a photo of a scene that Rockwell created it is nowhere near the same as the recent outcries. The recent outcries were over using another’s photograph without collaboration or
    permission, which is wrong. If those artists had collaborated with or even just received permission, then it would be a good example of how the two mediums can interact. But, instead they are examples of unethical behavior.

    What is funny is that quite a few of the examples above I like the photo more than the painting. Even though they are staged photos. Weird, I guess I just have a preference for photos…

  • Craig Banholzer

    never painted freehand.” What the heck is that supposed to mean?
    Rockwell wrote very clearly about exactly how he worked. Nonsense like
    this amounts to deliberate misunderstanding.

  • Salguod Xam

    I’ll note the blog authors ignorance in maters of art – in point of fact what Rockwell did IS called “freehand”.

    He would work with the photographs present around the canvas, he did not project the image onto them, use a grid, or light-box his paintings.

    ALL are also illegitimate ways to use photographs to help render a painting.

    But Rockwell specifically used freehand, sketching out his compositions with the images posted near his canvas. He was quite capable of drawing from imagination but in the world of commercial art, when your client wants something VERY specific, composing from photos is often the way it’s done.

    He also used live models occasionally, but most images of his work space show a preference probably for freehand referencing photos and a mirror to aid in facial expressions.

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  • Brother Art isT

    It is not illegitimate to use a photo in the ways you mention if it is a photo the artist took or otherwise has rights to copy. Grids and projections, though not of photographs, have been used by “legitimate” artists as an aid in perspective and proportion since before Brunelleschi. Though you are certainly correct about Rockwell and actually it should be obvious from the variations in pose and other details in the photos versus drawings/paintings that in fact, Rockwell did quite a lot of freehand drawing (though I believe in some cases he did trace, as well, and that is not illegitimate in my view. The ultimate artistic statement involves so much personal choice and freehand detail that the gestalt can be considered a product of creative generation rather than ” mere copying”.

  • Brother Art isT

    PS many of Andy Warhol’s paintings and prints started out as photos too. Photography IS an art. I find the whole distinction among various types of media so much childish territoriality.

  • Patricia Ann Rizzo

    Rockwell was a master. Whether anyone claims he freehanded, copied, traced, etc. In the end, he was great in the way he interpreted his material from real life or photo to his canvas. Many artists would hit a blind spot painting under the constant deadlines of magazine covers for Saturday Evening Post. I have a few of his old Post covers including the April Fool cover April 3, 1943. It hangs in a place of prominence in my home. As a fellow artist I understand the difficulties involved in his paintings and I so admire him as an American master.