Selection and rejection


Dear Artist,

Norman Rockwell never called himself an artist. When I met him in his studio some years ago, he made it clear to me that he was an “illustrator.” I told him I loved cruising his paintings up close because his surfaces were so interesting, and that made him a “painter.” He told me he didn’t think painter was a bad word.

The Runaway (1958) photograph (left) oil painting (right) 35 x 33 inches by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

The Runaway, 1958
photograph (left) oil painting (right) 35 x 33 inches
by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978)

Over the years Rockwell has come under fire for his use of photographs. Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera shows how Rockwell set up models and employed professional photographers to give him big black-and-white reference. That’s when Rockwell’s eye for selection and rejection took over. It’s the sort of thing all of us need to do whether we are looking at a picture of a human figure, the human figure itself, or a tree.

The Runaway, (1958) was set in a coffee shop with a little boy, a cop, and a soda jerk. Some pens in the soda jerk’s pocket coincide with the boy’s nose. Out! The burly cop is beefed up into a real heavyweight for greater contrast with the puny kid. The kid’s arms are pulled in to show he has something to hide. Rockwell knew that in silent media, body language counts. The photo also shows the background to be cluttered and indistinct. In the painting it’s simplified with the addition of a wall-radio and a blackboard menu — two icons of American life. I invite you to cruise for yourself. If it were your painting, you’d probably find other things you might have changed.

The Stay at Homes (Outward Bound), 1927 Illustration for Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1927 by Norman Rockwell

The Stay at Homes (Outward Bound), 1927
Illustration for Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1927
by Norman Rockwell

Some selections and rejections can appear to be arbitrary, perhaps merely the result of whim or preference. The brim of a hat may be wider or smaller; a hat may be on or off, or even replaced with another hat. This individual choice is the personality of art, no matter how it’s derived. Rockwell’s personality inclined him to show a loving, benign, optimistic America, where good things happened regularly. The great artists, illustrators or not, leave a trail of their own personality.

Best regards,


PS: “Even if it isn’t an ideal world, it should be. So I painted only the ideal aspects of it — pictures in which there are no drunken slatterns or self-centered mothers. Only foxy grandpas who played baseball with the kids, and boys who fished from logs and got up circuses in the backyard.” (Norman Rockwell)

Freedom of Speech, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943 Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943 by Norman Rockwell

Freedom of Speech, from the “Four Freedoms” series, 1943
Story illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, February 20, 1943
by Norman Rockwell

Esoterica: In my book, it’s the cultured ability to select and reject that makes or breaks a painter — and it mostly comes from within. Sometimes a second opinion can be valuable. When I visited Norman Rockwell he was painting a portrait of Richard Nixon. Quite openly he surprised me by asking if his depiction of Nixon was “not threatening enough.” Intimidated, I missed an opportunity. I told Rockwell I thought his President was just fine the way he was.

This letter was originally published as “Selection and rejection” on January 7, 2011.

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys. 

“Some folks think I painted Lincoln from life, but I haven’t been around that long. Not quite.” (Norman Rockwell



  1. I am partial to selection and rejection. Robert’s conclusion resonates – “ it’s the cultured ability to select and reject that makes or breaks a painter — and it mostly comes from within. ”

    Last weekend I had to drop something off a collector’s home and we were looking at a new work by another artist, taking a photograph of the last one he had purchased from me, having tea and generally talking art. In the course of this conversation he asked if I ever painted people or animals or pets. I said no, my love and passion is for the landscape. I can have a wonderful weekend with family and friends and come home with no photographs of them – only nature shots. I have to remind myself to even take photographs of my own grandchildren. He asked if I didn’t like people. I replied I like people just fine but it is not my first relationship or orientation to the world. Our natural landscape is and this is what inspires my work. It might be part of my very rural upbringing or it might be just who I am. Either way, I paint trees, the sea, mountains, fields, sometimes flowers for a change – all within sentiment of natural light. It is just most interesting to me. I have taken years of figure drawing class in the past but my intention for doing this was to strengthen my eye-hand relationship to paint better landscapes. And landscapes require a LOT of selection and rejection due to the massive amount of choices and limited ability to physically organize the subjects or control the light.

    Happy selecting and rejecting everyone!

    • Agree with everything you said! Interesting, I feel about people and pets the way you feel about landscape. I love the beauty of the outdoors but feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed when it comes to painting it. Thankfully, we all have our special inclinations that make the world a more creative place!! thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      • Glad my thoughts resonated Gwen! :) I actually am drawn to all sorts of work as a viewer that includes figures, animals, abstract and even large instillation. It is just not what I am driven to create. Like you say – thankfully, we all have our special inclinations.

        A pleasure to connect!

  2. “Drunken slatterns”? Self-centered mothers? Much as I respect Rockwell’s work, I can only wonder how he came about his attitudes toward women. Of whom there is only one, btw, half-hidden amidst the nine men in “Freedom of Speech.” (Yes, I know, a different time, etc etc.) I didn’t use to think all art was political, but I’m beginning to change my mind.

    • Louanne J. Headrick on

      So sorry Joan for your misunderstanding…… It was the era and a way of life… I know for I have lived through it. Once upon a time, in Virginia, I had to have my husbands signature on a design change to a historic preservation job being done by the both of us. At least I was part of the overall job. In fact by those little acts over the years taken by many women, with patience, the general acceptance of women in the workplace has been gained. Being angry or blaming politics does not help the situation for it tends to put individuals in labeled boxes – “the angered”, “the political”. In fact, it is much bigger than our little individual senarios. The picture of life is in the beautifully woven cloth, the patterns, the textures, the slubs, the softness that we weave together when we grasp the purpose in every act.

    • I also was perturbed by Norman Rockwell’s singling out ‘drunken slatters and self-centered mothers’ and I wondered “what’s that all about?” and decided – ‘Ah well, he’s a misogynist as quite a few men are, and there are plenty of misandrists too.’ I hope I’m neither! But I share his wish to paint only ideal aspects of the world. My tutors at art school did their level best to make me paint ugly things but why would I when there is so much beauty and wonder and kindness to celebrate. Takes all sorts, of course.

    • Aha! You caught that too!…….I was just wondering if anyone else did or has. Sadly…..isn’t this another indication of the deeply embedded sexist attitudes in. Our culture? ……”foxy grandpas” ..? And “boys who fished”. Where are the girls/grandmas?

    • The Whitney Biennial 2019 and how its curators and artists managed to oust a Whitney vice chairman is a good example of “art” and politics. Some contemporary art is mainly political.

  3. Through history artists have embraced communism, socialism and now it appears someone here has embraced wokeism. It might interest you to know an interesting demographic says the people who buy the majority of art are female, younger and have an income over $100,000 a year. From demographics produced by Fine Art Magazine.

  4. brenda j butka on

    Mr. Rockwell’s eye has been called “sentimental”–I don’t think this does him justice. His paintings of the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi are profound, as is his painting of the little girl — Ruby Bridges? — desegregating a school.

  5. What a timely article for me! I tend to favor painting portraits of both people and animals, but am trying to expand on including the background to tell more of a story overall. I use both a black and white and color reference photo and study it to either remove, change, or add information, to make the painting complete! My mentor has often told me to really look at the photo and either add or remove from it to enhance it, to take it to the next level. Thank you for this article!

  6. Sexism, Racism, Heterophobics, Homophobics, Religious bigotry….Politics….the credo of humanity. Rockwell knew his audience and how to please it with his warm & fuzzy renderings of idealistic American life. He worked in a perfect era for his vision….when social mores were rarely challenged and males ruled with impunity….and beneath this glossy idyllic facade a revolution was brewing that spawned dissenting more realistic views which have yet to be fully realized. Visual marketing has always been a powerful ally of politics and popular culture (think of all those stuffy royal portraits) and now digital editing can create perfect anomalies to fool the public. Eye candy is distracting enough to keep most folks docile and obedient until their cupboards are bare.

  7. On the issue of artistry, I have been to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, many times. I was fortunate to live just across the border in CT. Rockwell’s paintings are amazing, regardless of the method he chose to complete them, or the stories he tried to tell. Seeing the cloth weave in a shoelace, and a tiny glint of reflected light on the plastic tip, should be enough to convince anyone that he was much more than “just an illustrator.”

  8. I too live a few miles from the Rockwell Museum
    And go to all their special shows and take many visitors there. As a painter myself, iI want to add that
    Rockwell is one of our finest American draftsperson.
    Along with many of our other illustrators. My
    Favorite is N. C. Wyeth. He was so proficient also, and very prolific. Also fearless.

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