Norman Rockwell (1894–1978) may well be one of the most important American artists of the 20th Century. His work is popular still today not only because he told stories in his paintings, but also because he captured universal experiences and displayed them on canvas. His finished works, however, are not his only contribution to the American creative scene. Even though Rockwell was deceased by the time I became aware of his process, this American icon taught me a valuable lesson about writing.
My wife and I visited the new Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, a few months after its opening in 1993. Our two daughters were pretty young at the time, so as I stood in the main hall, I was a bit distracted. I was pushing a stroller with four-year-old Katrina, I was holding hands with seven-year-old Maria, and I was trying to hold on to our tickets and read the Museum’s brochure while I put my change in my wallet and listened to both my wife and the nearby tour guide. In the midst of all that chaos, I heard a voice on the loudspeaker say, “If you move toward the main entrance of the Gallery, you will see an exhibit that shows the six steps that Norman Rockwell used as he painted numerous covers for The Saturday Evening Post.”
Six steps? How could there be six steps? At that point in my life, quite honestly, I didn’t think it could be that hard to paint a picture. With no artistic ability or experience myself, I simply assumed that artists were born with God-given talent, and all they had to do was get an idea and paint. I sincerely believed that Rockwell and other artists like him followed an easy two-step process. Fortunately, the exhibit proved otherwise, and by the time I had fully digested my discovery, I realized that some or all of Rockwell’s six steps can be modeled by artists in any field but particularly by writers.
1. The Idea (Write to Get a Good Idea). In his autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator, Rockwell said that “Thinking up ideas was the hardest work I did” (201). Although Rockwell used different methods to generate ideas, the one that he used most often during his long career was the simple method of sketching a lamppost. Typically, Rockwell would begin by drawing a lamppost and, then, drawing something — a person, an animal, or an object — next to that lamppost. If he liked what he had, he would continue, but if it didn’t feel right, he would throw the first drawing away and begin again with another sheet of paper and another lamppost. He would continue in this way, sheet after sheet and lamppost after lamppost, until he felt comfortable with his starting point (Rockwell 200). Yet, those who are familiar with Rockwell’s work probably realize that none of his finished Post covers actually include a lamppost.
So if Rockwell began his process by sketching, what should writers be doing? Obviously, some could benefit by writing, but many writers fail to follow Rockwell’s model. These writers try to get their ideas by thinking or daydreaming or engaging in other activities. And while it’s possible to get an idea in this way, it may not be quite as efficient as simply sitting down with pen and paper or typing at a keyboard. In The Writing and Research Center and in my classes at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York, I encourage my students to free write for five minutes, and I tell my students that they can’t stop to think. I want to see their pens moving or their fingers typing at all times. In fact, sometimes, when the students are composing at the keyboard, I instruct them to turn off their monitors, so the students can’t see what they’re writing. The whole idea is for their thoughts to go directly from the brain to the page or the screen without editing. Too many writers stifle their own creativity by editing before their ideas are completely exposed or formulated. Granted, much of what students write at this stage may be unusable, but often, they find at least one little idea that seems workable.
2. The Gathering (Gather Thoughts and Information). Once Rockwell had his idea, he set about gathering his models and his props. Generally, Rockwell wanted to see the exact scene with all the details in his studio before he began a more formal sketch. Thus, he often asked family members, friends, and neighbors to pose for him, and he made sure that the clothes his models were wearing and the accompanying props were appropriate for the setting and the time period of the painting. In fact, Rockwell was so meticulous about this step in the process that he sometimes hired local businessmen to bring animals into the studio to be part of the posed scene as well (Rockwell 95).
Just as Rockwell needed models and props, most writers also need to gather two elements: thoughts and information. When students are about to write an autobiographical piece, a personal essay, or a reflective poem or short story, they may benefit by gathering the thoughts, emotions, feelings, and memories that are stored away in their minds. Some writers can dig up this information through free writing about the experience while others can find their words by looking at old photographs, sifting through souvenirs and mementos, or talking to others who experienced the same event or ritual.
If, however, students are writing about an unfamiliar subject, they probably need to do some research, so that their writing is accurate and believable. They may gather the needed information by visiting the library, talking to experts, or using the computer to explore web sites or databases. I find that some students are so eager to proceed that they limit this gathering phase. They lock themselves into a thesis and an outline, and they don’t want to be distracted by a new idea or more current information, even if that idea or information could strengthen their papers. This approach could be short sighted. By contrast, students who gather as much information as they can about their subject may find the additional information leads them to places they hadn’t anticipated.
3. The Pencil Sketch (Write a First Draft). Even after Rockwell had his idea and had gathered his models and his props, he still wasn’t quite ready to pull out the paint. Instead, he began a pencil sketch of his tentative scene. He used this sketch primarily to figure out where everything would go. His rough pencil sketch for Shuffleton’s Barber Shop (1950), for instance, is so rough that some viewers have a hard time recognizing the three main components: the left side contains a barber chair and a magazine rack, the right side includes a pot-bellied stove, and the middle shows a back room where three men are engaged in some vague activity. Only in the final painted version does it become clear that the men are playing musical instruments, and Rockwell is trying to demonstrate that Mr. Shuffleton is more than just a barber; he’s a human being who also has friends and personal interests that he enjoys in the evening when his shop is closed (Bauer 92). Rockwell wasn’t that meticulous at this stage in the process because he was more concerned with the big picture and how everything fit together than with the specific details that he would fill in later.
Most writers are familiar with this step in the process because so many writing instructors emphasize the importance of the “rough draft.” In fact, my daughter’s second-grade teacher used to call it the “sloppy copy.” At this point, writers don’t have to worry too much about spelling, grammar, punctuation, or other essentials because they will have time later on to clean up any problems or inconsistencies. Students simply need to focus on the main body of their essay or story. If they can figure out their thesis or central idea and, then, put together a tentative outline or some rough body paragraphs to accompany that thesis, these students may be well on their way to completing the first draft.
4. The Feedback (Gather Comments from Readers). When Rockwell had filled in the details and refined his pencil sketches, he was ready for some feedback from viewers. Rockwell felt this feedback stage was extremely important because he knew his paintings wouldn’t simply be displayed in a museum; instead, they would grace the covers of national magazines with circulation in the millions. His paintings for The Post, in fact, were so popular that the company usually printed an extra quarter of a million copies whenever a Rockwell painting was scheduled for the cover (Cohen 20).
Typically, Rockwell showed his sketches to the people around him and to other artists, and many of these people show up in his 1948 painting entitled Homecoming. This particular painting shows Rockwell’s oldest son, Jerry, coming home to Arlington, Vermont, for the Christmas holiday after his first semester away at college. His mother, Mary, welcomes him with a big hug; his father, smoking a pipe, looks on approvingly; and his younger brothers, Tom and Peter, wait off to the side to greet him. The other relatives, neighbors, and friends fill the frame, and one in particular deserves special mention. Fellow artist Grandma Moses (Anna Mary Robertson) stands between the two younger Rockwell boys (Bauer 95). At times, in fact, Rockwell relied on Moses and other artists who lived in the Arlington area to help him when he struggled with the technical aspects of his paintings (Rockwell 303 and 340–341, and Guptill 202).
Typically, student writers can also benefit if they have at least one other person who will read their work before they turn it in to their teachers. For example, my wife, Barbara, usually reads my work, and we talk about it. Since she loves me, she’s probably not as objective as she could be, but since she’s a very expressive reader, I can tell if I’ve succeeded if she reacts in the right spots. For additional feedback, I rely on Mary, a fellow instructor who critiques my work just as harshly as she grades her students’ papers. And that’s exactly what I need. Serious writers may want to find at least two similar readers: one who will lovingly point out the major errors and another who will brutally assess every minor detail.
5. The Color Painting (Write a Final Draft). Once a student receives some constructive criticism, he or she must decide whether to accept that criticism or reject it. After all, the final work will have the student’s name on it, so the student has to decide if the suggested changes are consistent with what the student is trying to accomplish. Rockwell’s 1960 painting entitled “The Window Washer” is a great example of how Rockwell improved his final color painting from two suggestions he had received based on the previous pencil sketch for that painting.
In the painting, a young female secretary is taking notes from her boss who sits behind his desk in a high-rise office with a huge window. Outside, the window washer is harnessed to his safety equipment, and while he works, he peers in at the office scene and appears to be flirting with the young secretary. One change involved the secretary’s hair, and the other involved the window washer’s equipment.
First, Rockwell’s pencil sketch showed the secretary with her hair down, and I’m guessing that Mary Rockwell, or some other female, told Norman that this hairdo was not appropriate for the workplace in that more conservative era. Thus, the final painting shows the secretary with her hair tied up in a bun. Also, the pencil sketch showed a rather loose rope that helped to support the window washer outside. In this case, I’m guessing a male viewer suggested that the rope be taut, so that the window washer could feel comfortable and secure as he did his work and as he flirted with the secretary (Finch 399). The changes, of course, made the painting more realistic, and viewers would be less likely to find fault with Rockwell’s depiction of that scene.
At times, writers may receive suggestions from readers who may want more words (or less), minor (or major) alterations, or other changes that that may affect the tone, the feel, or the overall message of the work. At that point, writers have to decide if the suggested changes will strengthen the work or drastically alter the artistic value. Novice writers may be more likely to listen to their readers, but with some experience and some success, accomplished writers might be more willing to rely on their own instincts for what will — and what won’t — work. Through experience, these writers may also find that they need fewer drafts before they reach the draft that they consider “final.”
6. The Framing (Gather Mistakes and Eliminate Them). Whenever Rockwell finished a painting for The Saturday Evening Post, he always put the painting in a frame before he delivered it to the magazine’s office in Philadelphia. This last step wasn’t really necessary for Rockwell because the editors at the Post always had to take the painting out of the frame in order to reproduce the painting on the cover of their magazine. Rockwell persisted in this task, however. According to Arthur L. Guptill’s book Norman Rockwell Illustrator, Rockwell said the frame “will give the editors the proper impression of my painting. They won’t be distracted by the tacks and the rough edges of the canvas, or by other disturbing elements nearby” (208).
Naturally, writers, too, should take special pride in their work and in their attention to detail. They should make sure that they don’t have any “rough edges” or “disturbing elements.” This final step is critical because step three placed less of an emphasis on spelling, grammar, and punctuation and more of an emphasis on the central idea and the major outline. So, if students don’t go back and clean up all of their minor errors, they may receive a lower grade than expected, regardless of the overall strength of the work.
Finally, as students look over the steps in the writing process that correspond to Rockwell’s six steps, they will probably notice a pattern, a three-time repetition of two key words: “write” and “gather.” This repetition is purposeful, and I hope both teachers and students will remember that “WG3” is the formula for good writing.
1. Write to Get a Good Idea
2. Gather Thoughts and Information
3. Write a First Draft
4. Gather Comments from Readers
5. Write a Final Draft
6. Gather Mistakes and Eliminate Them
If student writers will at least consider these six steps for all of their writing tasks, the students may experience not only academic success, but also, like Norman Rockwell, great artistic success.
Bauer, Fred. The Faith of America Illustrated by Norman Rockwell. Artabras, 1980.
Cohen, Joel H. Norman Rockwell — America’s Best Loved Illustrator. Franklin Watts, 1997.
Finch, Christopher. Norman Rockwell: 332 Magazine Covers. Artabras, 1994.
Guptill, Arthur L. Norman Rockwell Illustrator. Watson-Guptill / Ballantine: 1946.
Rockwell, Norman. My Adventures as an Illustrator. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1988.