We’re celebrating American painter, Wayne Thiebaud’s 102nd birthday this month with an Art History 101 Blog!
This legendary west coast painter was known for his colorful works depicting commonplace objects—pies, lipsticks, paint cans, ice cream cones, pastries, and hot dogs—as well as for his landscapes and figure paintings.
These iconic paintings of California topography and everyday pleasures represented a distinctive slice of 20th century pop art. He broke through as a major artist in the early 1960s, but according to his gallery, Aquavella, never adopted the mantle of American Pop artist, instead preferring “to describe himself as a traditional painter of illusionistic forms.”
Thiebaud was also a mentor to one of my favorite contemporary artists, John Brosio! Spoiler alert: We managed to track down John Brosio and have included his story of his mentorship with Thiebaud, in this blog.
We hope you enjoy this introduction to this master painter, his playful artwork, and story of how he paved the way for many artists. Info courtesy of theartstory.com.
Wayne Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona in 1920. When he was only six months old, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he spent much of his early life in Long Beach, California. He also lived for a number of years on his uncle’s ranch in Utah, as his large Mormon family retained roots in the Southwest.
During high school, Thiebaud developed an interest in stage design and lighting. Between the ages of 15 and 18, he worked part-time designing posters for a movie theater. He also worked at a cafe in Long Beach named “Mile High and Red Hot,” where “Mile High” referred to an ice cream flavor and “Red Hot” to a hot dog. At 16, Thiebaud took a summer apprenticeship in the animation department of Walt Disney Studios. Here he drew thousands of individual frames of characters such as Goofy, Pinocchio, and Jiminy Cricket. The frames, which when shown in quick succession would give the impression of movement, were known as “in-betweens.”
Education and Early Training
Although Thiebaud showed artistic talent from a young age, he was disinclined to pursue fine arts training due to the economy during The Depression. Instead, he studied commercial art at Long Beach Polytechnic High School and at the Frank Wiggins Trade School (now Los Angeles Trade-Technical College). He intended to learn sign painting, but once there he was encouraged to study commercial art and illustration.
World War II brought a temporary halt to Thiebaud’s early career as a cartoonist and graphic designer, although his artistic skills did keep him out of combat. From 1942 to 1945, he served in the Army Air Force, assigned to the Special Services Department as an artist and cartoonist, and he was ultimately transferred to the First Air Force Motion Picture Unit, commanded by future president Ronald Reagan. During the war, he met his first wife Patricia Patterson, with whom he had two daughters. The first, Twinka, was born in 1945 and the second, Mallary Ann, in 1951.
After the war, Thiebaud returned to his work as a commercial artist. While working for Rexall drugstore chain, he met Robert Mallary, who encouraged Thiebaud to continue his education by studying fine art. At nearly 30 years old, Thiebaud enrolled at San Jose State College before transferring to Sacramento State College, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
While working towards a new career in fine art, Thiebaud supported his family through teaching, which he continued until the 1990s. Michael Tompkins, Thiebaud’s student and assistant in the 1980s, said of his teaching style, “He preferred teaching undergraduates and ‘raw beginners’ …. He wanted people who were wide open. Without any irony, he told us his work was about scrambling around with the basic issues, like a baseball player who still goes to spring training each year to brush up on the basics.” Thiebaud believed that in teaching, “you have to constantly rethink things.”“Art means something very rare, an extraordinary achievement.” — Wayne Thiebaud Click To Tweet
From 1956-57, Thiebaud spent a sabbatical year in New York City, where he met Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns. It was at this time that Thiebaud began to explore a new style and subject matter – applying the bright colors and hyper-realistic shadows of commercial art to a series of paintings of cakes, pies, and candies in shop windows. With few galleries in Sacramento at this time, he exhibited in shops, restaurants and even the concession stand at a theater.
Although deeply inspired by his experience in New York, Thiebaud never felt part of the city’s art scene – finding its seriousness off-putting. Nevertheless, it was here that the artist first received critical acclaim.
In 1961, Thiebaud met New York art dealer Allan Stone, who, although initially unmoved by the slides he saw of Thiebaud’s food paintings, agreed to represent him after making contact a year later. Stone became a close personal friend to Thiebaud as well as his exclusive dealer until the former’s death. He said of the artist, “I have had the pleasure of friendship with a complex and talented man, a terrific teacher and cook, the best raconteur in the west with a spin serve, and a great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility. Thiebaud’s dedication to painting and his pursuit of excellence inspire all who are lucky enough to come in contact with him. He is a very special man.”
In addition to exhibitions at Stone’s gallery, Thiebaud’s work was featured in two major group shows in 1962 – the Pasadena Art Museum’s New Painting of Common Objects and the Sidney Janis Gallery’s International Exhibition of the New Realists. In both, Thiebaud’s paintings were shown alongside the work of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol – though the artist later expressed dislike for Warhol’s “flat” and “mechanical” paintings. While most consider the Pasadena Art Museum’s New Painting of Common Objects the first exhibition of Pop Art in America, Thiebaud does not consider himself a Pop artist. An interesting note – my boss, Linda Wehrli finds Thibaud’s “architectural” palette amazingly similar to Edward Hopper‘s palette.
The artist’s first marriage broke up in 1958, and he later married filmmaker Betty Jean Carr, with whom he had a son, Paul. Paul took over from Stone as Thiebaud’s art dealer until he died in 2010. His daughter Twinka, from his first marriage, became a well-known artist’s model, author, and painter.
In the mid-1960s, the artist made his first prints at Crown Point Press – a practice he would continue for the rest of his career. As a reaction perhaps to other artists beginning to adopt Pop Art motifs, Thiebaud turned first to portraiture and then to landscapes. Both display a characteristic style; his portraits are meticulously detailed but with a detached sense of solidity that renders his subjects more like objects than people, while the dramatic perspectives of his landscapes are such that they read almost as flat arrangements of color and form.
Beginning his landscapes in the 1970s, Thiebaud continued to produce these works for the next 20 years. Living now in California, he has recently painted a series of mountains; while the subject matter diverges from his earlier still lifes, Thiebaud still renders them with thick brush strokes of paint, reminiscent of the frosting of his earlier cakes.
The Legacy of Wayne Thiebaud
Thiebaud’s transition from commercial to fine art is an experience he shares with other post-war artists such as Willem de Kooning and Warhol. Speaking of his regard for commercial art and artists, he says, “Those wonderful people showed me what to do – sign painters, women’s fashion illustrators. There’s a lot of craft in it, and that’s admirable. They would tell you very quickly: ‘You’ve got to shape up! You can’t do that lettering like that!’ … So I’d go back and do it again, do it again, do it again.”
Notwithstanding this unique vision, a number of comparisons have been made between Thiebaud and his near contemporaries. His landscapes, streetscapes, and cityscapes are said to have been influenced by Richard Diebenkorn, while Sunset Streets (1985) and Flatland River (1997) are often compared to the work of Edward Hopper, who was also interested in scenes of everyday life in America. We featured Hopper in our last Art History 101 Blog; check it out!
As I mentioned at the top of the story, I was ecstatic to learn that one of my favorite current-day artist, John Brosio was lucky enough to study with him! When I told my boss, she asked if he might be up for an interview about his experiences. I extended the invitation and Brosio graciously accepted a brief interview. We’re pleased to share his story with you.
JLS: How cool that you were able to study with one of the greatest American painters! Can you explain to our readers and students what that experience was like for your art style and career?
JB: Well, for starters, I still use his palette. He was so careful to lay it out the same way every time, emphasizing that, like piano keys, you can never improvise if they are not in the same place every time. He was beyond knowledgeable, beyond articulate – and very generous to so many students over so many decades.
JLS: Love the palette comparison to piano keys. Thanks for sharing. Have you always been a fan of Wayne Thiebaud’s work, even before you studied with him? May we ask how you first met and if you were nervous to meet him? How long did you study with this master painter?
JB: I barely even knew of him. I went to Davis because it was near George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic, where I wanted to eventually work. And in the midst of so much abstract work being done at the time, he was one of the few representational artists teaching in the area at that time. I wondered at first why he always seemed to work with clown paint for colors (humor 😉 )
JLS: Hah! It seems like that at times.What are some of the most invaluable lessons Wayne taught you, both art and non-art related?
JB: Way too long to list. And I hope that I am one day mature enough to incorporate all of it. I claim still that he taught me how to paint in one day. Truly. Granted, he did not tell any of us in the room how to make it interesting – but he walked us through it top to bottom. And with demos. But he is quoted as saying, “what’s the most important thing of all, and that’s: Slow living, Slow looking, Slow eating, Slow thinking.” I keep that quote where I can see it.What’s the most important thing of all, and that’s: Slow living, Slow looking, Slow eating, Slow thinking. ~ Wayne Thiebaud Click To Tweet
JLS: Wow. What an inspiring quote to live by. Thank you for that. For those that don’t know, Wayne passed away last December 2021 at the remarkable age of 101! Did you do anything special to honor his passing? Was there some sort of ceremony highlighting his life? I’d imagine he touched many peoples’ lives.
JB: I was not nearly as close to him as others I know. And he had so many students over time of which I am just lucky to be one. Some of us reminisced. We talked about the articles and such that were written upon his passing. We all marked the occasion in our own way but I know some who talked with him at least monthly and they miss him very much. This obituary is written by his stepson and is quite something.
JLS: Very heartfelt. Thank you, John for this insightful interview!
Please enjoy photos below of Brosio and Thiebaud.
Can’t get enough of Thiebaud’s paintings? Same. Please enjoy the YouTube slideshow video below for more of his beautiful work, courtesy of Grant Thomas.
Art History 101 reviews selected artists from periods of history that continue to influence today’s culture and taste. If you enjoyed this story, please feel free to share on your favorite social media. Comments appreciated! If there is an artist you would like us to feature, please comment below. Thank you for your support!
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