Norman Rockwell is often considered a painter of warm-hearted scenes of mid-century Americana. But Rockwell’s genius is that he was a storyteller. He was a master of composition, and a master of posing characters who are filled with life, emotion and character.

In this painting of a checker game in a circus the clown has made the winning move and the circus boss can’t believe he’s lost. It’s not possible, but there it is on the game board. The dancer and ring leader both reinforce the perplexity of the boss. Neither of them can believe it, either. As they overlap one another they form a mass that unifies them in the composition.

There is a rhythmic movement between them that supports the story, leaning forward, leaning back, and leaning forward. The one leaning back is the boss who has lost the game. The clown sits upright, without a lean in any direction. He’s the only one not looking at the game board. He’s waiting for the others to acknowledge his victory.

There is no sound, no dialog, no action, no narration, yet the story drama is all there, and we catch it within seconds of looking at the image. This is the genius of Rockwell.

The posing of the characters work from a distance, as in the image above, and as we get closer to the image in detail, even these details help to tell the story in their own way. Every eye lid, finger, hat, wrinkle, bend of the wrist, even the cigar, participates in the storytelling.

Here is another great example of Rockwell’s masterful storytelling. A young girl with her friends, is stricken with love for the waiter boy at the diner, and it seems he returns her affection. Each one of these characters contributes to the story and we can read their souls. The waiter is happy, and confident. The young girl is a bit shy, but she’s forward enough to gaze back into his eyes. The girl with her head in her hands admires her friend’s boyfriend.

We know the two who are in love because they stare into each other’s eyes, and they mirror each other’s posture, curved back, elbows on table, and head held high. The boy’s head is slightly forward, while the girl’s head is slightly back.

The composition is just as strong as the posing of the characters.

Even up close, every one of their features support the story. The details are just as strong storytellers as the larger compostion and the posing of the characters.

Very few artists and animators ever achieve the beautiful simplicity and clarity of storytelling found in Rockwell’s work. He is as important for painters to study as John Singer Sargent, and just as important for animators as Charlie Chaplin.

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