Saturday, April 7, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, 1958-2012

Thomas Kinkade
Longtime readers of Lines and Colors may be surprised to find me writing about Thomas Kinkade, as I normally only write about artists whose work I personally find appealing, and I wouldn’t be quick to put Kinkade on that list.

I do find him interesting as a phenomenon, however, and his untimely death yesterday at the age of 54 prompted me to mention him in that respect.

Thomas Kinckade was an American painter noted for his extraordinarily popular paintings of deliberately charming cottages, lush gardens, idyllic landscapes and townscape Americana, rendered in wide array of high-chroma colors.

On one hand, Kinkade has been the subject of derision from critics and art lovers as a purveyor of kitschy greeting card and calendar art sentimentality; on the other hand, his work is enormously popular in the U.S., and seems to hold a strong and almost magical appeal for some.

Kinkade is noted for his aggressive merchandising, in which a chain of franchise stores, usually in shopping malls, sell prints of various kinds and levels of expense, as well as a secondary line of merchandise, perhaps making him the “Martha Stewart” of art related merchandising.

I can be critical of Kinkade’s business practices, in which “semi-original” commercial prints are touched up with oil by him or by assistants, signed by him in special ink, tagged with a special seal like a collectable coin from the Franklin Mint and sold for prices beyond what many other artists ask for originals in mall-based galleries that offer financing to purchase them.

There is also the controversial nature of his company’s gallery franchise profit percentages, coupled with the relentless marketing of his work and, most annoyingly to me, his absurd attempt to trademark the phrase “Painter of Light” (which has historically been applied to J.M.W. Turner).

However readers familiar with my taste in art may be surprised that I’m not as harshly critical of Kinkade’s actual painting style as some might expect.

I find the wide popularity of his work, and in particular the intensity of the appeal it has for many, creates a fascinating angle on the question of what is “visually appealing” in a work of art, and how artists have deliberately pursued, or eschewed, that element.

The late 20th century Modernists, of course, rejected anything with visual appeal as base and intellectually shallow — art was, after all, the provence of the intellect, and more importantly, of the intellectual few sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtleties of the theories on which modernist painting was based.

Representational art has a history of wavering between visual appeal and intellectual or emotional content, with enormous variation. There are elements, however, that can be identified as having immediate visual appeal as well as emotional resonance.

But what makes a painting visually appealing, in the combinations of subject matter, color composition, value, paint surface… all of the elements painters bring to bear in their work, and why is there such difference between the perception of those elements by different individuals?

Resisting the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and dismiss Kinkade’s work as treacle, I find it fascinating that he was a painter who evidently pursued the the question of “visual appeal” with dogged singularity.

Though I don’t respond to the particular style of visual appeal Kinkade has pursued in the way his legions of admirers do (and some respond very strongly indeed, spending quite a bit of money to purchase multiple “semi-original” prints), I can see within it many techniques that can be found in other styles and genres of art that are designed to have “Eye Candy” visual appeal.

One is the use of paired complementary colors, frequently associated with the French Impressionists, and notable in contemporary film and gaming concept art (as well as in the subsequent movies and games — as a case in point, look at something like the “robot assembly line” sequence in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and note the colors and lighting).

You can see the combination of complementary color pairs and strong value contrasts used by painters like John Atkinson Grimshaw and the post-Impressionist “Painters of Paris” like Antoine Blanchard and Edouard-Léon Cortès repeated throughout Kinkade’s work, sometimes overtly, as in the images above, bottom two, done under the pseudonym “Robert Girrard”.

You can also see nods to the 19th century history painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema in Kinkade’s fanciful arcadian gardens and faux classical structures, as well as a take on Maxfield Parrish’s use of similar visual props.

Similarity to Disney cartoon background painting is evident in Kinkade’s cottages and gardens, and becomes obvious in his own series of official Disney homage paintings (which look perfectly in keeping with the studio’s aesthetic).

Kinkade has extracted that aesthetic, distilled it, and applied it to his cottage scenes in heavy doses, with warm light glowing from multi-paned windows — even in daylight, and smoke wafting from idealized brick chimneys emerging from storybook roofs.

You can also see Kinkade’s adoption of the stylized fantasy shrubbery of Eyvind Earle, as well as his intense color combinations, though even more exaggerated.

I tend of think of Kinkade essentially as a fantasy painter, despite the lack of overt elves and fairies, in that he presents his viewers with an escape into an alternate world where harsh reality doesn’t intrude, and magic has more sway than physics. In the process he also borrows additional techniques from fantasy artists in terms of adding elements of fantasy landscape “eye candy”.

If I look through Kinkade’s images, I have to admit there are passages that I find visually appealing, and might admire more readily in a different context, particularly if utilized in a scene with less “visual charm density” — notably the effects of dappled light and the look of backgrounds faded into textural renderings of mist and haze.

So whatever you think of Kinkade’s work, you may find it worth putting prejudices aside and taking a closer look at individual elements in his paintings in the context of Kinkade as a “Painter of Charm”.

[Addendum: I received notice that the first scholarly analysis of Kinkade’s work, Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, edited and with writing by Alexis L. Boylan, has been published by Duke University Press. There is an article in the premiere issue of Pacific Standard Magazine.]

25 thoughts on “Thomas Kinkade, 1958-2012

  1. Noadi

    If you want to lay claim to being a “painter of light” then you need to also be a painter of darkness. It took me a long time to pin down exactly what in Kinkade’s style, aside from subject matter, that bugged me so much. It’s the fact that his paintings are too evenly lit, everything in the foreground is well lit enough for all the details to be visible even when they really shouldn’t be, for example: light from windows wouldn’t reflect off the ground when it’s so bright out. They seem very flat to me.

    I happen to love fantasy so I want my fantasy pushed further than Disney landscapes and Kinkade’s paintings are too boring to me. I do get why they have the wide appeal they do, the subject matter is charming and nostalgic.

  2. Charley Parker Post author

    I agree that subject matter is part of the appeal, but there are numerous others painting similar subjects, and utilizing some of the same techniques to prompt a response based on visual appeal, but without the intense devotion an wide appeal associated with Kinkade’s work. I’m interested in that difference. Thanks for the observation about the distribution of light.

  3. David J. Teter

    Interesting post and although he certainly has his place in art I largely agree with your points regarding his aggressive marketing/business practices and especially his self bestowed title of “Painter of light”.
    I always found it to be too sweet for my taste like way too much icing on a cake. Disney, and for that matter Norman Rockwell, it seems knows exactly when too hold back, stopping just short of that level and IMHO retains more sincerity.

    I’ll bet if he did more work like the bottom image (under the pseudonym Robert Girrard) he may have won over a few critics. He does not lay it on so thick there.

    I actually think his Disney homage paintings teeter (no pun intended) dangerously close to being lowbrow art (which I do love), intended or not, in the vain English, Ryden and the like.
    Maybe he could have some (serious) fun and critical acclaim if he worked both in his famed style then turned right around and parodied his own work, but on a serious level. Presenting it then questioning its very nature.

    He certainly had the technical skills having studied art and as you pointed out shares similarities or borrows from artists past.
    He just chose to paint idyllic eye candy for the masses.

  4. Ben Valentine

    I’m trying to get an honest read on how I feet about all this.

    The only real problem I have with him (although I feel a little arrogant having a “problem”, in a “what makes me so special kind of way”) is that his subject matter is a little too “easy” and appeals to the masses. The same way that most “pop” music is criticized for being that way. Paraphrasing a quote I once read from Michaelangelo who basically said “Your only an artist if you can impress other artists”. The fact that he doesn’t impress many “artist” is his biggest shortcoming IMO.

    But I still feel a sadness. I’ve almost never cried during a movie but I did at the end of ‘Basqiat’ and also after some Van Gogh Documentary. I don’t really care for either of their work, especially Basqiat, but I still feel like we’re still on the same team. Ya know? Like we’re the same species and everyone who doesn’t think like us is a different species. Of course, Kinkade’s story isn’t as tragic, grossing $100mil a year, but still.

    I think it’s possible that in a 100 years Kinkade could be “re-discovered” as “legitimate” much like Bouguereau has been today and Rembrandt was 100 years after his death. Taste is so transient.

  5. Ben Stansfield

    I always considered Kinkade a fantasy artist, and while his work does not appeal to me, I appreciate your post. It bothers me that (in art schol, too), despite wanting to be on the edge, avant-garde sort of people, artists frequently have a line, on either side they’ve decided what ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’ art. can it simply be good or bad art, but still art? or more accurately, art you like and art you do not?
    Thanks Charley!

  6. Dave Dubé

    I think it was Edward Gorey who said that “art is always about some thing – and good art is also always about something else”. That isn’t a direct quote, but rather a paraphrase. I never got both from Kinkade’s work, and I know fans who cannot tell me what you’ve expressed so well in this post – which seems to me to be the “something else” which is not there.

    I’ll not begrudge another artist his or her magic. I’m still looking for mine, and I certainly don’t need his.

    Perhaps he died too young to discover that magic for himself. I look at art with an artist’s eye. I admire art that gives me both the taste of the real thing and the added boost I get from the something else in it. I always considered his work Sugarless Eye Candy.

  7. David Clemons

    To set aside any evaluation of his skill, his choice of subject matter, or his questionable business practices, it’s hard to find fault with anyone who achieves immense financial success at what they did and who apparently loved doing it.

    The amount of success he had and how he acheived it says more about the art market itself than it does about him or his work, in my opinion.

  8. Mtowery

    I agree with your assessment of Kinkade’s popularized works. However, I recently looked through a book (by Ron Ranson, maybe?) of Kinkade’s earlier landscapes, done plein air. They look like they are done by a completely different artist. Usually we tend to think that an artist’s later work is more . . . something. In this case, his earlier work is worth looking at.

  9. Rownd

    I really didn’t use to care ether way about the guy. Good for him for making money. BUT…. when I heard he wanted to set in Norman Rockwell’s chair and do a paint. ARE YOU F….. KIDDING ME!

  10. Christina

    Aside from any reaction one might have from his art, I think the more interesting aspect of Kincade’s career is how hated he is.

    I have always been repulsed by the “art as a commodity” scene played by gallery owners and high end collectors that seems to have little to do with art and more to do with artificially inflating the value of their investments.

    The only difference I see here is that there was an active campaign to convince those who bought his work that they had been victims of fraud.

    As far as I can see, what he did was not that different from any who sell to high end collectors (many of these artists do not produce their work, but have a lot of assistants do the work (like Hirst for example)). The only difference was the collectors of his work were not high end billionaires who fund museums and “lend” their collections.

    This is just an interesting observation. I am curious what others think about this. It is not meant as a commentary directly of the man and his work but the world of art and collecting in general.

  11. Brendan

    Charley – the subtlety with which you discuss this artist is a great demonstration of why LINES AND COLORS is one of the best art sites on the internet. This article would have been totally beyond the capabilities of most art critics in its perception and detachment.

    By the way, I have always found the careers of Thomas Kinkade and Damien Hirst strangely congruent (in both levels of financial success and – frankly – cynicism, and I suspect history will eventually link their names permanently.

  12. Charley Parker Post author

    I think the difference between using assistants on a painting and what Kinkade’s organization does is that the basis for the “semi-original” works is commercial photomechanical printing on canvas, that is then touched up, rather than an original painting by however many hands.

    Sculpture, particularly at a large scale, has since the Renaissance often been executed by craftsmen at the artist’s direction, particularly in metal at a large scale. Artist’s could seldom afford to run their own foundries.

    Brendan, thanks for the kind words.

    I hadn’t made the connection between Kinkade and Hirst, but now that it’s been pointed out, I can see it, particularly in terms of reaction to the work.

  13. Scott Sackett

    A few months ago we were having a disussion about Thomas Kinkade and I was taken back at some of the venom some of the other artists had for the guy. I get not liking his subject matter or not liking how he marketed his art, but these people really hated him.

    Ironically one person who was the most vocal about his hatred, does something very similar to the “semi-original” works. He creates a image with 3d software, paints it in photoshop, has prints made on canvas, touches them up with paint and sells them as originals.

    Thanks for the even handed and well reasoned article. Not my cup of tea, but what the guy chose to do, he did pretty well!

  14. Beth

    Thank you for this post. I think you said most of what I wanted to regarding his death. I briefly worked for a frame shop which was attached to one of his licensed galleries, and had to learn more than I ever wanted about his tiered system of prints and their respective values. I can’t say I approved of his methods or his work (a friend of mine calls it “cottage porn”) and by all accounts he was rather too full of himself, but he certainly was ingenious at getting people invested in his art and willing to spend quite a bit of cash on it.

    I think you’re absolutely right about his work being fantasy art. I observed as much myself during my time at the frame shop (The owners were not as amused as I was by this concept..) Instead of imagining a world with dragons and epic quests, however, he gives people an imagined world of rural tranquility and nostalgia. Personally I prefer the dragons, but if it makes people happy, then I suppose I can’t fault them for enjoying it.

  15. Elwood

    Thanks, Charley, this is a wonderful, thought-provoking article and your readers posted some excellent comments. It’s easy for many of us to dislike the Kinkade treacle, but instead of dismissing him, you took that extra step beyond your initial reaction to his work and gave us this article. Bravo.

  16. gary d

    Personally, I do not find Mr. Kinkades work particularly technically proficient (except, perhaps for the “Robert Girrard” works). His colors are too high key and he overuses black. The images are not particularly well composed and the Disney pictures in particular seem to cram every visual hook from the films into the picture. (Comparing his works to the masterful Disney studio backgrounds seems insulting.) But I really wanted to respond to Scott Sackett’s comment. I don’t think what he describes is similar to Kinkade’s “Semi-originals” at all. This is just a description of a method of producing a final image. The computer is just a tool. Artists have always used the technology available to them, from camera obscura to the invention of photography. The final image is still an original, presuming the artist only does one copy. If the artist makes multiple copies then it should be represented as a multiple.

  17. Ed Cahill

    I once saw some plein air work by Kinkade that impressed me along with some of his less commercial landscapes. He made an outstanding amount of money from visual art and that is in my experience quite unique. “Selling out” is another matter… I’m sure he lost no sleep over it.

  18. Lou

    I love Thomas Kinkades work and I among the millions who purchased his painting find his work quite good. I think the purchasers are the real critics.

    Why paint a dozen paintings a year and sit around and be a starving artist? He shared his work with the world and at a price the common man can afford. At least, he knew what the market wanted.

    He painted originals and they are still available for those that can afford them. But, he did so much more, he shared the reprints with everyone so that peoples of different income levels could purchase a print in a size and at a price they could afford.

    I think the market place decides who the real artists are not just a few elites and cookie cutter, so called educated want-a-be’s. Some people just have the gift and Thomas Kinkade sure did.

  19. Gerry

    The comment about the too-even lighting is a good observation, and in combination with the indifferent compositions and uniformly high-chroma palettes, Kinkade’s paintings give a feeling of proficient painting but nothing going on underneath.
    They remind me a little of the imagery they had to develop so they could put pictures on euro currency. They’re supposed to be inspiring, but they’re of no place in particular.

  20. Michael

    An excellent and thoughtful analysis of the man, Charley. It’s good to read such a non-hysterical, non partisan appreciation of Kinkade and his work. It would have been interesting to watch him age and mature – even Tretchikoff has been re-evaluated now – and there is a completely new audience who approach these populist artists in a less judgemental light.
    Thanks!

  21. Blackfly

    I’ve been a longtime fan and reader of this blog. However, I’m a little disappointed at the tone of this review- and frankly of many of the comments as well.

    To be frank, there’s a lot of art snobbery here. Kinkade chose a theme, and he was a master at it. Say what you like about the theme itself, the execution was pure genius. Beyond the amazing technical mastery required to produce such (literally) picture perfect paintings, his ability to speak straight to the heart is marvelous.

    Art snobs reflexively deride anything popular. Yes, a lot of popular music is dross, but a lot of popular music is also pure genius. Kincade was a genius- an uncommonly gifted technical master with the ability to make a profound emotional impact.

    And at the end of the day, if that is not good art, then what is?

  22. Charley Parker Post author

    Thanks for the comment, Blackfly. The tone of the post is perhaps more critical than most from me, in large part because I normally only post about artists I personally respond to — and, as I mention in opening, Kinkade doesn’t happen to be one of those artists. However, I felt that he was important enough and interesting enough to warrant the time to write what I hope was a thoughtful article, even if not overwhelmingly positive.

    The fact that his work elicits strong opinions, both positive and negative, in itself says something.

  23. Sandy Hodges

    Charley,

    Thank you so much for your article. I am not an artist, but was searching for artists with similar style to Kinkade, yet affordable to consumers like myself. As you rightly point out, there are many artists who capture what I am looking for, at more affordable prices. Thank you for the answer.

    After reading your article, I reflected on, what it is about Kinkade art that captivates me. It is the vibrant colors, and the use of light. Most importantly, the feature I am looking for the MOST is escape from today and the “fairytale style” you describe.

    Who wouldn’t want to escape? Today, our vote seems meaningless, and our sound two party political system of government is corrupted by big business, special interests, and politicians (on both sides of the aisle) willing to put aside ethics for office. Today, most Americans are concerned that our country is either at risk of bankruptcy, invasion, or both, and have no idea what to do about it.

    Charley, your article points out that what Kinkade “sold us” was an escape – an escape from what things are – to what things could be. I want to enter my apartment at the end of the day, and feel some sense of control, and more importantly, feel “all is well with the world”. Kinkade was popular to many people, rich or poor, because he capitalized on our common fear, whether the work was “fine art” or not.

    I remember one important fact from a bonehead art class in college. Art is a reflection of what is happening to the population of the day, thus art is history.
    Unfortunately Kinkade’s “art of selling” may well land him into the history books of the future.

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