Ernie Norcia might be 64, but he still believes in Santa.

This time of year, Norcia's renderings of old St. Nick could be anywhere - on greeting cards, gift bags and collectible plates, on puzzles, paper napkins, and tapestry stockings.

"The idea of Santa is real to me and I think he should be real to more people," Norcia said from his Wallingford home in Delaware County. "My goal is to make things real."

An art professor at Moore College of Art and Design, the Hussian School of Art in Philadelphia, and the Wayne Art Center, Norcia has gained national renown and commercial success for the artistry of his Santas.

In Norcia's hands, Santa scenes are filled with warmth and emotion. They are fantastical, yet realistic, portraits of a yuletide icon who could be the Nick next door.

Norcia was an 8-year-old in Connecticut and already the artist in his family when his mom told him to help one of his sisters draw a Santa.

"I remember that because I had so much fun teaching her how to do this," he recalled.

A Santa painter was born from that mundane moment.

"His Santas are the most realistic ones today," says Susan Ross of Stave Puzzles, a Vermont company that uses several of Norcia's Santas on its hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles, with prices starting about $600.

"He tends to capture more, humanize more, make Santa look more like a human than a cartoon," Ross says. "His work is gorgeous as a puzzle."

One is cut to look like a snow globe, and shows Santa sitting on a crescent moon, a bag of toys nearby. Another has him searching a world globe, an elf holding a long, long list (yes, that list) at his side. That painting's title: Looking for Pine Street.

Norcia embraced oil painting at age 12, when his mother gave him his first paint-by-number kit. He's been creating art even longer - he still remembers a crayon masterpiece he drew as a small child on a wall at home that his father had just plastered.

He kept drawing, through his father's death from an illness when he was 6, and through Christmases he fondly remembers - "We always would get something even if it were something small."

He earned an undergraduate fine-arts degree in painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and a master's from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

But he became discouraged trying to navigate a fine-arts world that demanded an artist be good at making connections and wooing critics.

Norcia switched to commercial art and landed in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio, where his paintings of Pampers-clad babies and happy Pringles eaters were used in packaging and advertising for Procter & Gamble in nearby Cincinnati.

Since then, his figurative paintings have adorned covers of Nancy Drew books and Time Life music CDs. His resumé includes work for MGM/United Artists Home Video, Sony, Scholastic, and World Book among other companies. He has won national art awards and even earned an Emmy in 1981 as one of the astronomical artists who worked on Carl Sagan's Cosmos series for public television.

His cards have been sold at Target and Walgreens. Collectibles such as decorative tins surface on eBay, and an electronic Christmas card featuring one of his Santas is available online from Leanin' Tree cards, at http://www.leanintree.com/.

Norcia still does freelance illustrations through his Norcia Studios, sometimes collaborating with his wife, Martha Roelandt, an artist and art director who also feeds Norcia ideas and advice.

They moved to Wallingford 15 years ago when she got a job as a design director at a local business. Norcia reveled in being in the homeland of Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth, and his son Andrew Wyeth - the artists who built the Brandywine school of art.

"I've totally admired it, actually from when I was a child," Norcia says of the Brandywine style, which emphasizes light and dark and the shades in between. "My mom used to get books illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I would copy them, doing terrible little watercolors of his beautiful oil paintings."

He ended up befriending Andrew Wyeth and visiting the famed artist at his Chadds Ford home, Norcia says, where the two traded praise and talked about painting.

Norcia didn't plan to become a Santa portraitist.

In the early 1990s, his wife was an art director for Gibson Greetings when an artist reneged on a Santa design. Roelandt turned to Norcia.

Wanting a model for what he considered a portrait, Norcia turned to Neil Lawhun, a neighbor and mechanic at a local GM components plant.

A physical resemblance wasn't important to Norcia - Lawhun was stocky and his beard was red.

On the inside, though, Lawhun looked just like Norcia's ideal Santa.

"There was a joyousness about him, a crackle in his voice, and a twinkle in his eye," Norcia says.

"I sure had him fooled, didn't I," jokes Lawhun, 59, a laid-off forklift mechanic who still is in the Dayton area.

Norcia took 250 photos back then of Lawhun-as-Santa. Now, Norcia said, he has exhausted them as a reference and is looking for someone else with those inner Kringle qualities that are so rare to find in people who are not the stuff of legends.

"Wouldn't the world be a better place where love and joy prevailed," Norcia says, "and giving of oneself were more common than they are now?"

Contact staff writer Carolyn Davis at 215-854-4214 or cdavis@phillynews.com.