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Creating the Norman Rockwell Look


Norman Rockwell was one of America’s most beloved artists. He is one of my favorite artists because his paintings tell a story. His paintings were the front cover of The Saturday Evening Post for many years and we still see his art used in various forms of advertising today. Rockwell’s works have brought outstanding sums of monies; hang in the Smithsonian and with collectors who can afford it. As I said, his work tells a story and one only has to take a brief look to understand the meaning he is trying to convey. What a great inspiration for a photographer as a good photo should tell a story or convey a message with only a quick glance. Few people know that his oil paintings started as photographs [below] and were sketched onto canvas. He started using friends and neighbors and meticulously directed them into a scene and then took their photo. He used a balopticon projector to transfer their image onto a canvas [below] and then traced their image onto the canvas in charcoal. Looking at his original painting one can still see the faint lines of the charcoal under the diluted oil paint. I was never a great fan of portrait photography, always getting elected to shoot seasonal events and parties. I do believe strongly in order to be a good photographer one must try all types of techniques whether it is landscape, architectural details, wildlife or any other form of photography. Each topic teaches you something that can be used in your particular passion and who knows you may find something that you like shooting better.





I recently went to two war reenactments. The first was the Revolution and the other was the Civil War. I got some great candid shots but the next question was how to edit them. The images looked to me as if they were a Norman Rockwell photograph but not a Rockwell painting. This intrigued me. I wondered if I could achieve that look with some post editing. Examining his work discloses that Rockwell loved muted colors and tried to use earth tones. They had over tones of sepia. Although he used oil paints, he diluted them with turpentine which came close to water colors. The paintings were then transposed onto paper for the Saturday Evening Post; this had a look of matt paper. They also had a slight grunge look much like tone mapping in Photomatix HDR software. Although there are many software's on the market today, which one would serve as the closest copy of his technique? I have Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements and Topaz which seem to be the best panacea for doing everything under the sun but it isn’t necessary to always use them. I also have Smart Photo Editor and Photomatix which sometimes have some great effects. So what was my process?






The first step in getting the Norman Rockwell look is to get an interesting photo that is candid and tells a story. The Iroquois was doing nothing in particular but the expression on his face was one of deep thought. I needed to select the most candid shots that conveyed some sort of story or message. Now I could have directed a scene with models or family members and I still may construct such scenes but here were thousands of opportunities at hand. These photos were taken at Genesee Country Village; there are reenactments usually in any community. Having the raw photos at hand I did some minor touchups sharpening and with exposure. This could be done in any basic software but in this case I ran them through Canon’s DPP. The next thing that really stood out was that his work had slight effects keeping that natural look of realism. Now I cannot over emphasize do not use too much of any treatment. Most any software uses slider bars and if they were broken in increments from 1-10 I am going to use ½ to 1 with any treatment. In other words, use almost no treatment. The look is realism not a cartoon look. The first effect that Rockwell used in his work was a very slight grunge look. This can be found in most HDR software. I decided to use Photomatix software. There are a couple of parts to the software; one is the HDR which is used with bracketed photos to achieve the best combination of light, midtones and dark in a photo. This is great for tough shooting conditions but isn’t necessary for a good raw photo. The second item is tone mapping in an artistic look and that’s what we are trying to achieve. Notice how the Rockwell photo of the little girl has a slight grunge to her face. Again I’ll emphasize slight. We’re not trying to overdo effects. Take a good photo that may not need bracketing but in either case load your images into Photomatix and press the tone mapping icon. When the images come up on the right select an artistic effect that has the least change, this could be Painterly 3 or 4. Next start working your way through the slider bars on the left. In most cases it will be obvious where to move saturation, lighting effects, luminosity and contrast. The most important sliders are smoothing and you will need to move them almost all the way to the right removing much of the effect.












Again I will state little manipulation is required. You should end up with a photo that is almost there at the end of the process. [Below]





















Next move the image into Smart Photo Editor or Lightroom with Topaz. SPE has some nice effects for this type of work. The sequence is not important nor will the process always be the same but I will typically use image treatment first to adjust the photo for color and contrast. [Below]











Next go through some of the different gallery effects. Some that seem to work well are improve skin and hair, hyper-real and sharp old sepia. In each case case again move the slider bar all the way to the left removing all but a slight amount of the effect. Too much of any effect used will not yield a Norman Rockwell look. From there go to Pastel under artistic effects, this one is important to yield a painted effect. Move the slider [master fade] all the way to the left having the pointer position an eighth of an inch from zero. Do not use too much. Finally crop and go through one more image treatment. At this point the image should have a look of a Norman Rockwell painting. The final image should look like a painting, be muted but look realistic. If you double click or zoom in on just the face you should see a print pattern on the face. The final step is to print the image on matt paper. The matt paper will be similar to The Saturday Evening Post front cover. Avoid using gloss or semi-gloss paper for it will give a photo look and that is not what you are looking to achieve. Attached below are some of the different images that I captured and edited.





In conclusion I had a great time attending these events and I changed my mind about shooting people pictures. It is tough copying a true master but it is possible to end up with a Norman Rockwell look from a raw photo. Find a good shot and edit it in one of the many painting soft wares. Today on the internet you’ll find a great variety of software's available to create this look. It is a matter of going from a digital image to a painting. Photography is art just like painting or any other type of media. Realize that Norman Rockwell was also a photographer.

Credit goes to Norman Rockwell and Genesee Country Museum

Paul Anderson




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