The Art of Wayne's World

His Works Have Sold for Millions and He Rates with Warhol, but Thiebaud Remains Dedicated to Teaching at 84

Back in the early '60s, Wayne Thiebaud was painting scenes of California cornucopia -- cream cakes, pies, candy apples -- in a luscious, Pop Art, eat-me-now style. His thick, saturated brushstrokes and flair made him one of the most important painters of our time.

Professor Emeritus Wayne Thiebaud takes a moment after a recent ART 148 class to talk about his views on art, on teaching art and on how the creative mind must not forget tradition if it is going to make an impact.
Professor Emeritus Wayne Thiebaud takes a moment after a recent ART 148 class to talk about his views on art, on teaching art and on how the creative mind must not forget tradition if it is going to make an impact.

Despite his monumental presence in the art world, Thiebaud is still a bright light on the Davis campus. Though officially retired since 1991, he teaches one class each academic year. As much as anything, it keeps this professor emeritus of art on his creative toes.

"They keep you honest," said Thiebaud about his students. "They ask tough questions and are wonderfully ironic."

This quarter he is teaching ART 148, Theory and Criticism: Painting and Sculpture. Thiebaud has taught at Davis for 34 years and endures the incessant creak of classroom chairs in the Art Building.

After he finished a recent lecture on visual literacy, freshman Taylor Cox said, "I think it's incredible to have him teaching a class on campus. It's one thing to hear about art from a teacher, but it's another thing to hear it from somebody who's been hugely successfully in the world out there."

At 84, Thiebaud's energies -- and humor -- show no sign of flagging. He reads voraciously -- poetry, especially. "There's a close relationship between art and poetry." He likes to paint every day and carries a little sketch notebook to draw in continually. And his busy schedule does not get in the way of a serious tennis passion. "You might say there's a lot of spin in my game," he joked.

His teaching philosophy is more straightforward. Sometimes described as a realist or formalist, Thiebaud is concerned that students are not learning the basics of drawing, painting and art itself. "I'm trying to get my students to focus on these fundamentals," said Thiebaud. "Some might say it's old-fashioned or prosaic," but it is very important to their development as artists.

Whether it means drawing pencils or color and light, Thiebaud reminds his students that the "little questions mean a lot." And it takes time and effort for emerging minds to understand the building blocks of art.

Thiebaud's approach has won him wide recognition. His teaching talents and contributions, together with his artistic achievements, were honored in 1988 with the UC Davis Prize for Teaching and Scholarly Achievement. Thiebaud also has given a large number of his art works to campus galleries.

In his work, one finds the glorious, lush images of the everyday world.

A painter's painter

Thiebaud began as a commercial artist and cartoon illustrator like many other artists of mid-20th Century America, including Andy Warhol. And like Warhol, Thiebaud became tied to Pop Art as he was creating images of popular American products like food, lipsticks and toys. Yet unlike many of his pop peers, Thiebaud was not interested in poking fun at the establishment. He is a painter's painter, a real traditionalist who respects the fundamentals.

When he was in the Army during World War II, Thiebaud attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. He said a "dictator" of an art teacher operated the center, one who believed in the basics. One day the teacher asked if anyone knew how to correctly sharpen a drawing pencil. A student answered that he had just sharpened his drawing pencil in the mechanical sharpener.

The teacher proceeded to break five different pencils in two, asking the student each time to use a knife and light sandpaper to whittle the pencil into a longer, finer point -- the kind, the teacher noted, that is best for drawing. "From that day on," Thiebaud remembered, "that student knew how to sharpen a drawing pencil."

Thiebaud urges his young artists to think deeply about elements such as color, composition, shapes, space and light. When it all works together, it is as if lightening strikes. When someone sits down to paint, he said, the goal is to "make something so ominous, so riveting, so compelling that it'll make your pants fall off. It's not easy. Most of us fail."

Thiebaud said the content of a painting draws from three sources -- our knowledge of the world we share, the world of art tradition and the world within oneself. A balance of these qualities is critical, he says, or "it gets out of whack."

"We're just not that interested in other people as ourselves. Sure, we have heroes and famous figures, but that's something different. If one is too absorbed in themselves -- as an artist, for example -- then it lacks dimension," Thiebaud said.

Take the concept of space. "Space in painting is an illusion," said Thiebaud, describing how it can be used to maximum effect to distort and orientate perceptions. Picasso, he noted, was a master at achieving these illusions on canvas. "When you discover it, it's like discovering the 'zero,' and there's nothing there except what you make it."

Thiebaud typically pokes fun at himself during a lecture. "Is this making any sense or am I boring you?" he asked his students, who quickly answered a collective "no."

Said Thiebaud, "I like to see how students change during a course. If they really stick with it from the beginning, they get something out of the class at the end."

Mass culture hungry

Growing up, Thiebaud was mostly interested in comics, cartoons, sports, ice cream and commercial art. At age 16 he found work drawing for Walt Disney Studios.

After his Army service, he tried to sell his cartoons in New York, but with little success. He pursued work in advertising, and between 1946 and 1949 held various commercial ad jobs in New York and Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, he kept painting, especially objects of mass culture like food, and with a realist style. A confessed chocolate lover, he welcomes boxes of See's candies.

In 1949, Thiebaud took part in his first major museum exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum. In the decades since, he has exhibited major retrospectives in the Pasadena Museum of Art, the Phoenix Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.

In recent years Thiebaud has produced paintings on the hilly cityscapes of San Francisco and the vast farmlands of the Sacramento Valley. He has lived in Sacramento since 1950.

At auction, his paintings command figures upwards of $2 million. Juxtapose this with the fact that when Thiebaud raised his family in Sacramento, he gave art lessons to the neighborhood kids. Imagine that.

With all that he has seen and done, Thiebaud exudes a Renaissance quality. He is not only interested in art, but about the world and how it reflects the artistic process. At the end of a recent class, he read a poem by Wallace Stevens.

In The Snow Man, published in 1921, Stevens dramatizes the action of a mind as it becomes one with the scene it perceives -- much like a painter would in creating art work:

"One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow. …"

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