This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera

There have been many books on Norman Rockwell over the years, but Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera is the first to shed light upon the reference photographs from which he often painted. Published in 2009 this book features a selection of images from among some 18,000 black and white negatives that are held by the Norman Rockwell Museum at Stockbridge, Massachusetts. This collection of images was recently digitised to ensure their preservation and this book is a product of that effort to make the photographs more accessible to researchers and the general public.

Admirers of Rockwell’s art should consider this book unmissable, given the fresh ground that it covers. It will also have some appeal to illustrators and portraitists, because of the description and examples provided on Rockwell’s working methods.

Why did someone with such a sharp drawing and drafting ability take such heavy recourse to use of photography? It should be understood that Norman Rockwell laboured under huge pressure to produce paintings at a rapid rate to meet deadlines of magazine editors and to satisfy other lucrative commercial commissions for his art. And complicating his pressured work pace, Rockwell was a perfectionist, always striving to render convincing details from foreground to background.

To spare time from doing dozens of preparatory drawings for each painting, Rockwell eventually began instead to use photographs and select among them before choosing a final composition. He quickly discovered that the snapshots enabled him to convincingly capture a broader range of exaggerated facial gestures and dynamic action poses than his models could sustain during a long sketch sitting. These two melodramatic elements soon became key ingredients in a contrived Rockwell tableau. The photos did not displace the need for models, costumes, props or any of the rigour of painting preparation, like sketches and colour studies. But these snapshots did ensure great efficiencies: they saved re-sittings by models, avoided movements of sunlight; and made possible a far more phenomenal output in one man’s career than otherwise could have been conceivable.

Author Ron Schick, an expert in photographic art, explains the considerable efforts that went into composing the photos and what Rockwell was aiming to conjure up. It is a tale of an artist scouting locations, assembling props, and amusingly positioning and directing the models like actors in a play. Part of Rockwell's appeal lies in his ability to show heightened moments of human drama and capture the personality of his models in his art. And part of the appeal of his paintings is that they accurately chronicled the clothing fashions, home decorations, workplace layouts and personal oddments of contemporary American life. His works have an air of authenticity that the artist could not have achieved by working from the imagination alone. Norman Rockwell excelled both as a comedic storyteller and a quasi social historian.

This book shows some of the tricks used by Rockwell for getting the best out of life models, including using stacks of books to support the feet of figures as they feigning leaps, running, or other exertions "in motion". We also see how folding screens in varying shades were used to help the artist accurately capture the tones and outline of a model, without distraction from background clutter.

The book is well designed. The author and publishers juxtapose paintings opposite source photographs, sometimes showing how several separately photographed models might be assembled on canvas into one composition. It becomes apparent how the artist selectively modified and spliced poses, or added or varied details in clothing and props, to drive the narrative power of his final paintings. I particularly like the photographic montage used to model the hilarious paintings “The Gossips” and “Day in the Life of a Little Girl”.

Unfortunately there are few pencil sketches and colour studies reproduced in this book. These were the intermediate elements of Rockwell’s endeavours, bridging the creative gap between a jigsaw of photographs and a final image transposed to canvas. The such inclusions are a couple of colour sketches at the very end of the book. Perhaps such working drawings are hard to locate and many may have been discarded?

A fairer criticism is that, while there are some photos showing close-ups of hand gestures and faces, there are no zoom-ins to the detail in the final paintings. It would have been nice to see Rockwell’s brushwork up close – to understand where he preferred to lay down impasto, or where he would utilise thin washes of colour. Given Rockwell’s famed perfectionism, I would expect that these paintings would demonstrate some beautiful technique when viewed up close.

This book is printed at a size that makes it an affordable buy. But in my view the typical Rockwell artwork is so abundant in detail that these images really ought to have been printed in a much larger format. The best of Rockwell's art was commissioned to appear on the front of popular magazine the Saturday Evening Post and his lively pictures packed maximum fun onto these large format covers. For this reason many previous books about Norman Rockwell's work have been printed at about 14 inches high, commensurate with the size of a Saturday Evening Post. For instance among my most prized illustrative art books is the three volume series on Rockwell’s work for the Saturday Evening Post magazine, reproducing all the Rockwell covers at original size (I saved pocket money to buy two volumes in my late teens, then I had to wait over a decade for the advent of to hunt down the third). With several more Norman Rockwell books also sitting at the same height on my shelf, I would really like this latest one to measure up to the unofficial "industry standard".

The visual extravaganza in this book is well supported by pithy and pertinent stories about the featured artworks, spiced up with quotes from Rockwell, his models and other associates (Rockwell was a little abashed at his use of photography, but he has written several accounts of his working methods for the benefit of fellow illustrators who have sought to learn his secrets). Schick threads the book together with writing of his own that is informative and perceptive. The book is a good length at over 200 pages, but Rockwell was such a prolific artist that it is hard not to wish for even more of his paintings in this enjoyable monograph.

Rockwell’s nostalgic and entertaining artworks have earned him a huge following. I would suspect that this book could sustain a sizeable print run and potentially justify reprints in future. I keenly hope Mr Schick and his publishers might be persuaded to consider an expanded second edition of this book which could pack in even more artwork and blow up the images to the proper size at which Norman Rockwell had designed them to be seen.

Book specs:
Hardcover, 224 pages, 11.1 x 9.3 inches

Other recent books on Rockwell:

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