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What Norm Taught Me

by Kevin Mizner on 12/14/2010 8:34:39 AM

This post is by guest author, Kevin Mizner. This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.  We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 13,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.


When Norman Rockwell died in 1978, many books about the great illustrator came out. Many were reprints from the Forties and Fifty's. I recommend three books for the artist: Norman Rockwell Illustrator by Auther Guptil, Rockwell On Rockwell, How I Paint A Picture, and My Life As An Illustrator by Norman Rockwell. These three books give great insight and behind the scenes glimpses of Rockwell and his practices. They are available on fairly cheap, except for the Rockwell On Rockwell which will set you back at least $70.00. Back when I bought them on sale, I didn't spend more that $10.00 on any of them.


As I mentioned yesterday, Rockwell was a classically trained artist. During the time he went to the Art Students Leaugue in New York City students were expected to go through the same type of instruction that was offered in Ataliers in the mid nineteenth century. First, the student spent months laboriously drawing plaster casts of ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Then, they graduated to drawing the live model, and lastly, they had painting class. The League didn't care what you did with this knowledge. You could become a Fine Arts painter or an Illustrator. And the early years of the 20th century was the "Golden Age of illustration". Long forgotten, but huge in their day were artsists such as James Montgomery Flagg, Howard Chandler Christy, Howard Pyle, Charles Dana Gibson and J.C Leyendecker. (Jeez, maybe I should change my name to Kevin E. Mizner). Google them, they're all good. Every magazine had a painting on it's cover. Newspapers used artists and drawings for their news stories. Books were often lavishly illustrated. And illustrators made a damn fine wage. In an age when a new automobile cost $400.00, a successful illustrator made over $100,000.00 a year. That's not exactly chump change even today!


So what did I learn from Norman? Well, the routine I use to this day is derived from those books that explained his methods. Roughly speaking, the first step Rockwell would do is make a small "thumbnail" sketch of a painting idea. Then he would gather his models and props. During his first fifteen or twenty years he painted live from the model. After 1932-33, he primarily used photos. He would then make a drawing, in charcoal, the same size as his painting. After he transfered it to canvas, he would put a one color wash on the canvas, then a color lay-in, and lastly his final colors. How do I do it? Pretty much the same. Now, of course, I don't paint human interest stories like Rockwell, I'm interested in landscapes. But I do start out with a small sketch. Instead of the full size charcoal, and because I usually paint on gessoed masonite, I draw my design directly on my painting surface as fully rendered as I can. After that, I do the washes and layers pretty much like he did.


Now, even though I follow his routine, there is no one alive who would ever mistake a K. Mizner for a Norman Rockwell. I kind of think of it as my little secret. I am not averse to taking any one of those books down from the shelf and re-reading them just to keep me on the right track. They are very much my old friends. And, on occasion, when someone pays me a compliment on my work, I just give a silent thanks to good ol' Norman Rockwell.


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mimi torchia boothby watercolors
Nice post Kevin! There is much we can learn from our predecessors.

Stede Barber
Thanks, Kevin, I love learning how other artists work, and find their inspiration.

I recently reread Scott Christensen's "On Distant Ground". It was as if I was reading it for the first time (it's at least the 10th...) because...I'm not the same painter I was during the last reading.

It was a lovely reflection on my own path and growth as an artist.

ps: When I went to college, I wanted that classical atelier training...and was dismissively told I should leave art school and just get some training as an drawing was too realistic during those "do your own thing" art days. I finally got a good grade when I taped a long series of paper on a wall and splashed watercolors on was fun!

Sharon Weaver
Thanks for letting me into your method. Rockwell had an amazing sense of time. I doubt you can go wrong using his painting tips. I'll have to look up those artists(illustrators) and his books.

Tuva Stephens
Recently in a critiquing class it was mentioned that Rockwell was "all technique" but I disagree. I should have spoken up. In his paintings he not only tells a story in a realistic, detailed way but he captures so many emotions.(realistic,organized/design and expressive) Thanks for sharing the information about Rockwell's process Although watercolor is my medium,recently someone mentioned that my work reminded them of NR. I was pleased.

Spencer Meagher
It is refreshing to have an artist share their process with other artists. And I especially appreciate the brief biography of the master painter and american icon Norman Rockwell. I also believe I will see if I can't locate these books to add to my collection. Thanks Kevin E. Mizner. LOL

Carol McIntyre
Hopefully all of us have gems like this on our shelves. I enjoy and learn every time I return to my quiet teachers.

I will never forget the first time I saw a Rockwell original. His brush strokes were marvelous! Wow, could he paint!

Marvelous post, thank you.

Donna Robillard
Norman Rockwell is one of my favorites. I once took a college class from a visiting illustrator artist and Normal Rockwell was high on his list, also. Needless to say, I really enjoyed the class.

It's instructive to revisit artists that we discovered earlier in our artistic lives. I have books on several that I hadn't looked at in years, and looking at them again I found new things about them that I hadn't recognized when I was younger.

Dian Rentschler
I studied under artist John W Bruce III, an illustration artist, who lived in Connecticut and worked with artists, John Clymer, Bob Lougheed and Tom Lovell. He taught, basicily, the same way of creating a painting, a thumbnail sketch, an actual size charcoal drawing, than transferring the drawing to a canvas or board. After Tom Lovell died his charcoal compositional drawings were part of his estate and sold.

Like you, I work the same way, up to the actual size drawing. That is done on the blank support, than fixed with a spray fixative, before beginning the block in.

I have been told that Norman Rockwell varnished his under drawing on the canvas or board, so that he could wipe it down to the drawing, if he wasn't happy with the way the painting was going.

Jan Perkins
Nice article, I really enjoyed it. I too have a couple of Norman's books, the one's you mention and they're fascinating. I've learned a ton from them and other books on the old illustrators. I really like reading about Howard Pyle's classes and his methods. THere is so much to learn from these guys.

Joanne Benson
Kevin, Thanks for sharing the information on Rockwell and his methods. I think I will check out those books you mentioned and perhaps some other illustrators as well.

Thank you all for your comments on the great Norman Rockwell, and my OK blog! Writing a blog on how one can learn from a great artist like Rockwell isn't exactly paving new roads. I appreciate everyone who took a moment to write something nice. Kevin M.

Jo Allebach
I enjoyed the article. I have "My Life as an Illustrator". I got it at the Art Museum when there was a show of Rockwell's cover paintings. It was fantastic to see that work depicting our American life. What a way to learn to be an artist, but it sure worked!

Virginia Floyd
Really enjoyable article, Kevin. I've had a few instructors who sniffed disdainfully at Rockwell's art, but they themselves couldn't paint nearly as well. Thanks for your insight.

And I liked your latest post on your blog as well!

Stede Barber
Something I've noticed about all the great "old" illistrators was their amazing sense of design...a lot of creativity went into the perspective from which to present a painting. Carlson also emphasizes this in his book on LAndscape Painting.

Funny you should mention that, Stede. I wrote a blog about that very thing. Here's the link:

Thanks for your comment!

Marian Fortunati
Rockwell's work has always inspired me and the stories his paintings told touched my heartstrings. They still do when I see them.

What surprises me is from what I understand, Rockwell struggled with depression. It also surprises me that he wasn't considered a "fine artist" by so many. Yes.. he was an illustrator... oh my but he was also a fine artist in my book.

Thanks for sharing your insights and information on Norman Rockwell. I love hearing techniques of other, particularly successful, artists. By the way, Kevin "this is the best blog ever".

Barb Stachow
It's always helpful to learn from those who have gone before us, recently I took a free webinar with Johannes Vloothuis at and landscapes forum. I've come away from this with more information than a brain can handle and it was such a treat to learn from him. It was a learning experience that I too will never forget!


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