Norman Rockwell’s Technique – Peak Whites

Norman Rockwell's techniques

It seems like over the past ten years or so Norman Rockwell’s reputation in the art world has been rehabbed. Instead of being tossed aside as a sappy illustrator popular among People Who Don’t Know Anything About Art, the art world has slowly embraced America’s favorite son. I’ve seen his work reappear in plenty of museums. On a visit to the Rockwell studio and museum years ago, I noticed something about his technique. This discovery made me think about him as a painter for the first time. Here’s what I leaned about Norman Rockwell’s technique.

“How will I be remembered? As a technician or artist? As a humorist or a visionary?”

Norman Rockwell

I’m going to strictly stick to technique here, and let his style, illustration, kitsch and social aspects of his work simmer elsewhere. Rockwell was pretty sure about his sappy sentiments in his paintings, but he was wildly insecure about his technique.

Norman Rockwell idolized the Old Masters and their influence can be seen throughout his work. Despite his talents, he never felt that he could measure up to their work, and resigned his work as ‘illustration’ instead of ‘paintings’.

Let’s look at his techniques and I’ll tell you what I noticed.

Norman Rockwell’s Techniques

Use of Photography and Projectors
It’s no secret Rockwell used actors and staged most of his paintings and recorded it with his camera. What most people find shocking is that he projected the image onto his canvases and traced the pictures before painting the. At the turn of this century, modern artist David Hockney figured out artists have been doing this for centuries and wrote an entire book detailing his research. Here’s an interesting article about ‘cheating’ in art.

Reduction of Images
A time honored tradition of illustrators everywhere. Whenever artwork needs to be made to be reproduced, the original artwork is created on a larger scale. When reduced, this scale contains all the details in the original work, but it appears more complex and impressive at a smaller scale. Often, Rockwell would paint images around 30″x60″ for 12″x20″ illustrations that would run in print magazines. This shift in scale gives him three times the amount of space to paint details, which will show up in the smaller print.

Treatment of Surface
Rockwell preferred a heavily built up surface of paint. He would often use dirt from his garden and mix it into the grounds he applied on his canvases. Out of this knowledge that Rockwell liked thicker grounds comes one of his greatest tricks:

Peak Whites

Peak Whites
How much whiter can you get?

While visiting the Rockwell Museum, I noticed how much thicker and ‘peaked’ his whites were in his many of his works. The whites looked chunky and thickly applied, perhaps even with a palette knife. The whites ‘peak’ like egg whites or frosting on a cake. Once I noticed this in some works, it became obvious in others. Rockwell’s paintings have a lot of whites in his paintings. (notice the whites in his painting ‘Freedom from Want’ above) Clothing, cars, and walls used copious amounts of white, as did almost all of his highlights. The areas that were clothing or walls got the heaviest ‘peaks’.

Whites are extremely tricky to paint. You can’t get whiter than white, so using white out of the tube and onto the canvas is hard to pull off. Painters will mix other colors into their whites to achieve off whites, which allows them to add a highlight to that area with a purer form of white. Of course, painting with lots of whites are tricky, as they need to stay *close* to white. Look at the number of greys and whites in the shadows and reflections underneath the glasses and dishes. 

‘Painting with Light’


illustration from this helpful site:

Rockwell knew every painting of his would be photographed and reproduced. With large strokes and textures able to show up as details at smaller scales, Rockwell used this to his advantage. The illustration above shows how art is shot. The light shown from both sides will leave subtle shadows on any peaks of paint.

Armed with all of this knowledge, I believe that Rockwell would purposefully layer and ‘peak’ his whites higher than any other color on the canvas. This ‘peaking’ would allow for the photography to cast shadows among the whites, and in these shadows, Rockwell would gain a wide swath of greys and off whites that he wouldn’t have to paint himself.

The pictures below demonstrate this idea. The two photographs are the same piece of white paper under the same lighting, before and after being crumpled up.  The first picture appears flat and white, which it is. The same piece of paper (now with depth from being wrinkled) will shows off a wide array of whites, dark shadows, off whites and greys. The depth created by crumpling the paper is the same created by painting thicker ‘peaked’ whites.

Norman Rockwell's techniques

In Conclusion…

The same effect can be achieved with thicker amounts of paint, and our friend Norman knew this. By layering his whites high and thick, he let the process of photography and reproduction do the dirty work. With the numerous shadows cast from the photography, Rockwell’s peaked whites appear more complex in print than they really are in person.

It’s a smart move! It saves time and labor, and the results are exactly what he wants to create. It’s a purely technical invention, one born out of process and really, as an artist, that’s what Rockwell is remembered for.

For more reading:

I didn’t do scholarly research on this article, but I did help some helpful references. There’s plenty of books to explore, but here are some online resources for you to check out. Read more about Norman Rockwell’s techniques using this link. A great, in depth read of Norman Rockwell’s techniques can be found here. You should also check out the Norman Rockwell Museum online or in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Here are some of my other thoughts on seeing art.

More art links: