Philly Creative Guide

Creative Personality

Ernie Norcia | Illustrator and Painter

Interview :: Ernie Norcia
by Ruth Weisberg, 1 Dec 2006

Ernie Norcia is an artist living in the Philadelphia area who specializes in painting the human figure in many variations, real and imagined. Several years ago he fell into an interesting avenue creating images of Santa Claus.

Norcia worked as an artist at KCET-TV in Los Angeles on Carl Sagan's Cosmos television project and won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Creative Technical Crafts for work on "The Shores of The Cosmic Ocean," the first of twelve segments for the PBS program Cosmos.

In 1981 he established Norcia Studios, a freelance illustration business with a nationwide roster of clients. Norcia designs and produces images, paintings, drawings and illustrations for advertising, publishing, and other corporate clients. His partial client list includes Time-Life Music, Procter & Gamble, Simon & Schuster, Gibson Greetings, NCR, Coca-Cola, MCS Industries, and Warner Books.

Norcia has a MFA degree in painting from the Maryland Institute College of Art, and a BFA degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design. He currently teaches art at the The Hussian School of Art and the Wayne Art Center, as well as teaching privately and continuing his commercial and portrait work.

Ernie Norcia can be reached at: 610-566-2868, or [email protected].

PCG: Seems like painting comes as easy to you as breathing.

EN: Thanks... it does feel natural to me. I've been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. I loved those activities so much I took private lessons throughout high school from age 13 through 17. The strongest influences for me have been the teachers of those private lessons, Gaylord Gessner, Kenneth Bates, and later on, Grace Hartigan, who was the head of the Graduate program at the Maryland Institute, College of Art when I was there.

Above: Ernie painting Montalcino in Italy (2006).

PCG: How exactly did your teachers influence your own artistic inspiration?

EN: Gessner taught me that an artist could make his own materials, most of which I do. Bates taught me to compose, in paint, the way the world looks to me. His lessons were full of love for the old masters and the natural world outside his door in Connecticut. Hartigan exposed me to concepts concerning the rich tradition of western painting, from the vibrant primitive forms to contemporary attitudes.

PCG: In your professional career as an artist, you've had some amazing assignments. What are some commissions that particularly stand out for you?

EN: Painting the human form is a specialty of mine, and what I've become known for. For example, I received a commission to paint about forty portraits for a recording company's release of music on CDs and cassette tape. The portraits were of many legendary country music singers, classical and R&B musicians. They were icons like Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Mel Torme, and Brahms. For these assignments I received photographic materials for each personality. The main objective was to create an image of the performer as he or she was viewed by the public. At about the same time I started work on another series, illustrating the covers for Nancy Drew books. My main mission was to restore the "larger than life" concept of the 16 year-old Nancy Drew as she was in the early stories. Her image had changed visually over the years and my goal was to present her as she was originally conceived.

Ernie Norcia, Illustrator and Painter

PCG: What skills or insights did you particularly tap into?

EN: These were challenging assignments, requiring various degrees of realism, and a great deal of humanity. Real or fictional, these figures are all icons. As a result of doing so many portraits for these commercial products, I started receiving private and corporate commissions to do formal and informal portraits. I enjoy doing them because they introduce me to interesting people, and allow me to produce images reflecting the best aspects of humanity.

PCG: What are some of the joys and challenges of doing portraits for living people, as opposed to creating portraits of cultural and fictional icons?

EN: The big difference is that I get to meet them and find out a bit about who they are as human beings. My process is fairly streamlined, and is not disruptive to the schedules of my clients. My goal with all who sit for me is to present my portrait clients on their best day, and in the best light. I've worked with a range of clients, from patrons with serious medical conditions, to cute but fidgety children to busy CEO's. My greatest joy is capturing the sense of life and spirit of the sitter, and knowing the sitter sees it too. To me, portraiture goes beyond capturing a likeness.

Left: Miranda, Right: Darrel

PCG: Earlier we were talking about painting iconic portraits. You have a developed specialty painting portraits of Santa Claus. How'd that happen?

EN: Here's a bit of the history ... when I was a child, I drew various characters such as portraits of our founding fathers from postage stamps and other printed materials. I drew and painted knights doing battle in armor or riding massive horses, copied from books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. It was when I was about 8 or 9 years old that I became fascinated with the images of Santa. I read "The Night Before Christmas" to my younger siblings many times during the Christmas season (I'm the oldest of seven children!) It was a favorite book and my favorite time of the year. And it still is because of the wonderful spirit that pervades the environment. My wife, who is also an artist and a gardener, grows most all of the things we use to decorate our home for the season. I love the scent of the outdoors, brought inside. As a child, I loved the way artists captured the warmth and goodness of Santa in illustrated books and advertising art. I copied, as best I could with pencils, crayons and watercolors, this character I admired. My mom, noticing that one of my younger sisters was having trouble drawing Santa, asked me to help her. I got a lot of positive reinforcement because of my drawing ability, and my first taste of being a teacher.

PCG: Imagine your delight and surprise when you got the opportunity to draw Old Saint Nick in a professional capacity!

EN: Jumping several decades ahead, I received an assignment from a greeting card company to create an illustration of Santa at the hearth. I took to it like a tree to sunlight. The company loved the results and I was thrilled because I got a chance to do something that felt natural and joyful. For me, Santa is everything that is generous and kind, giving freely of himself to others, and doing it with good humor and a twinkle in his eye. This was the beginning of many Santa paintings.

Left: Searching for Pine Street, Right: Sweet Dreams

PCG: What happened from there?

EN: After continued interest in my Santa paintings, I began to license them. Licensing allows me to maintain full ownership of all of the rights to the images I paint. Yet, it also allows companies to use certain limited rights for limited periods of time in specific geographic areas. This way, I know how each image is being used. I license these paintings of Santa Claus to various companies for use on greeting cards, gift bags, tins, music boxes, rugs, and many other products.

"In an age saturated with poorly produced images, I continue to believe high quality images make a difference in the lives of the people who see and use them."

PCG: It's always amazing to me how an artist can render an everyday, simple image. Not as easy as it looks, eh?

EN: Images are not simple things. At their best, they are complex orchestrations of subject and paint, there for each viewer to receive what they can from the experience of seeing them. With my training in the fine arts, I've worked to create images that grow out of the great western tradition of realist painting. The roots of this tradition spread throughout my work, whether it's for a fine art venue, commercial use, or portrait destined for the boardroom of a corporation. I believe that well-crafted images can have a strong positive impact on the viewer. In an age saturated with poorly produced images, I continue to believe that high quality images make a difference in the lives of the people who see and use them.

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