Gone into the Light (My thoughts on Thomas Kinkade)

Thomas Kinkade with his one of his works.
Last week my Wife and I had dinner with some friends of ours whom we used to live close to in Long Beach. While chatting over dinner, I noticed a crimson colored table runner over the dining table with a small label that said “Thomas Kinkade.” As I was about to inquire about the runner, one of our friends started to relay to us a story about it and why it featured no Kinkade images. She worked for a company that had purchased reproduction rights from the Thomas Kinkade Company and had plans to sell multiple products with the familiar Kinkade imagery on them. When the Kinkade company asked what products would be wearing the images, they balked at the idea of the production of door mats and table runners with Kinkade imagery. The Kinkade folks argued that nothing can sit or stand on a Kinkade painting because it was simply disrespectful to the painting and the artist. So all my friend’s company could do was take a color from a Kinkade painting and use that one color as the table runner; it was topped off with a small label that simply said “Thomas Kinkade.” You can imagine our friend’s perspective on this kind of thinking. To her, Kinkade comes off as being elitist and snobbish. I didn’t come to such a quick conclusion about the artist because it was his company that was saying this and not the man himself. I just chalked this up to the latest example of the two camps that butted heads over the works of Kinkade. One camp simply didn’t like him – bordering on disgust. The other camp enjoyed his works and perhaps housed one of his many reproductions. Which camp do you think I was in? Anyways, on that drive home that night I got a text from a friend saying he was sorry to hear about Kinkade. I hadn’t yet heard the story that Thomas Kinkade was dead at 54.

Let me start by saying that my feelings on Thomas Kinkade are simply artist-based. I will not evaluate the personal choices Kinkade made because to judge him based on his personal life would elicit a different perspective than the art he produced. Yes, he was a vocal Christian. Yes, he had problems with alcohol. Yes, he separated from his wife and lived with a girlfriend just 18 months before his death. What do those facts have to do with the paintings or the business? – Nothing. So let’s move on to the facts that have some artistic basis.

Thomas Kinkade is perhaps the most successful commercial artist in history. He massed produced his images as reproductions on canvas and paper. His paintings could be found on mugs, puzzles, and calendars (as I look up at my Kinkade calendar). He created a company and gave franchise rights for gallery owners across the country. People could walk into one of these galleries and purchase a reproduction of his work. He had a lucrative contract with Disney to produce Disney themed paintings that would be sold in the Disney parks and his galleries. Thomas Kinkade had become what most artists might consider an oxymoron – a wealthy artist. It is this oxymoron, I believe, that is the basis for the animosity he faced.

Cinderella Castle by Thomas Kinkade was one of many of his Disney-themed works.

I could easily just sum up my assessment of the haters of Kinkade as being jealous, but I think there’s more to it. Yes, there has to be those struggling and modestly successful artists out there who are simply jealous of his success. That’s to be expected -it’s human nature. However how do you explain the average American who cannot stand Kinkade art? Well there appears to be a few reasons. First, I think it comes down to over-exposure. Too much of anything is never a good thing and seeing too much of the same stuff leaves the eyes desensitized to it. Let’s face it, Kinkade imagery can be found everywhere. I’ve seen a Kinkade product in department stores, home improvement stores, super markets, greeting card stores, and book stores. I myself would often just walk past the products because – well – I only saw the product and not the painting. If I wanted to actually see a good copy of his work then I would visit his website or buy one of his calendars. I wouldn’t buy a kitchen apron simply because he had his name on it. So I can understand some people being tired of all the imagery. Then again, those people can just as easily walk by and appreciate the art without buying the product that’s featuring it. I guess it’s more satisfying to rip apart the work so as to give the appearance that you’re in touch with the modern art movement.

It’s true that you will probably not find a Kinkade in a museum in America. Most museums will tell you it’s because he didn’t introduce anything new to the art scene. He is viewed as rendering over-idealized places that made light the star of the scene. Those museums snooze at the landscape because that is so 19th century. The wealthy patrons of big galleries will say he was simply not interested in anything other than giving the middle class exactly what they wanted. Wow. Imagine that. An artist creating what he felt the public actually WANTED to see. Here we have an example of the ugly side of art. The snobs who think good art is exclusively based on shock and uniqueness. You know I think if I took a crap on a canvas, dumped green paint on it, wrapped it in purple plastic and stuck a pinwheel on it that it would be shocking, unique, and completely stupid and meaningless; in other words: modern art. As much as you modern art snobs would hate to admit it, the classic genres of landscapes, still life, and portraits are still art and will never leave the art scene. Why you ask? Because most middle class Americans want to actually hang those genres in there house. Most Americans have little interest in a painting of a 2-color square or a scribble of a few colors in a non-representational form. People want conversational pieces. Kinkade gave them what they wanted. You modern art lovers just try to sell one of your paintings of a beak-less decapitated duck sitting in green circles to ma and pa America. Just try to do that. If you want to argue his business practices instead then I’m willing to entertain that.

How many of you have an original Kinkade in your house? You do? Really? Uh, well I hate to break it to you, but you’re either a liar or a fool because Kinkade didn’t sell his originals. He sold his reproductions on canvas or paper. Yep, no originals have seen the light of day that we know of. This highlights the only real problem I had with Kinkade – his business decisions. First I’ll start with the original paintings. They never saw the market because Kinkade only agreed to sell his reproductions. Why would he not sell his originals? Did they have sentimental value? Did he promise them to his family? For whatever reason, from an art collector’s perspective, I could see the frustration behind his decision. A machine generated print doesn’t have the same personal feeling as the original brushwork from the artist’s hands. The other bad business choice he made, in my opinion, is his franchised galleries across the country. It’s one thing to have a dozen or so scattered around the country, but you can find his franchised galleries in dozens of cities across the country, many in malls, like a small Starbucks chain. That’s simply over-exposure and viewers who already can’t touch an original, will simply walk on by after a while because copies just don’t interest people. If you’re not going to sell the originals, then you can’t make up for it by saturating the market with copies. That is almost insulting to collectors. To top it off, the Kinkade Company’s attitude that nothing can sit on top of a Kinkade painting is flat out arrogance. NOTHING is sitting on his paintings. WHY? BECAUSE THEY’RE ALL COPIES!!! Whew…..let me take a breath. Ok…..I’m OK now. Now should we be angry with Kinkade on the stance his company has taken with his images? I’m not so sure. Let me bring back an old familiar name as evidence that the company and the artist are not always exactly the same. Bob Ross died in 1995 and yet his television shows continue to run on PBS across America. His company still sells his DVD’s, books, and art supplies with his name. The pricing of these products is ridiculous. For example, a single season DVD of his shows retail for $45 on his website! YIKES! Ross was a man who made it a mission to get the average person excited about painting. He wanted the average Joe to pick up a brush and just “Let is Happen.” The average Joe is not going to spend that kind of money on a DVD for a show on PBS. His large tube paints (which are student grade) retail for over $17 each! The average Joe doesn’t want to make that kind of initial investment in a hobby for which they know little about. It seems like the company is taking advantage of the naivety of its customers. Is this the work of Bob Ross himself? How can it be? He’s been dead for 17 years! So let’s not be so quick to judge Kinkade based on the actions of his company.

San Francisco Giants - It's Our Time! by Thomas Kinkade is one of my favorite paintings because us Giants fans love to be reminded about our World Series Title in 2010.

With all that said, I was a fan of his paintings. No doubt he was talented and anyone who says he had no talent is either jaded or just plain stupid. CAN YOU PAINT LIKE THAT? – Probably not. I’m willing to hear someone say they didn’t care for his subject matter and that’s fine. Maybe the cottage scene is not your thing. But you have to at least respect the skill he brought to the table. It’s hard to explain what passes for a masterpiece and what just passes, but it really seems difficult to understand how someone who appealed to the masses, doesn’t have a painting in a museum – or perhaps that’s because they couldn’t get a hold of an original? Hmm.

Thomas Kinkade might have rubbed some people the wrong way with his overt Christianity, but that wouldn’t surprise me because there has been an attack on Christianity in this country for years. The latest example is the Tim Tebow circus. The media is bordering on slander and all because a guy prays a lot on the field. Where is the ethics in the field of journalism? I’m sure that wouldn’t happen if he was Muslim for example. Art is a part of the soul. It’s a physical representation of the intangible spirit of the artist. So if he was passionate about his religion then why couldn’t he use that in his art? If your reason for not approving of his art was due to his religious passion, then you need to do a double check on your stance in society because discrimination has no place in our world. If you’re an atheist then I doubt you believe anything I’m saying – you guys just don’t believe in anything to begin with.

When I think back as to how I became so infatuated with painting, I realize that part of that love came from observing the success of some contemporary artists including Bob Ross, Don Maitz, Wyland, and Thomas Kinkade. These people not only entertain us with their art, but they perpetuate the movement of new art in our country. They inspire new artists to overcome their fears of failure and challenge themselves to create the next great masterpiece. America lost a great painter last week. I lost one of my artistic heroes. What’s the best part about being a painter? You leave a little bit of yourself on every canvas you paint. Thomas Kinkade will live on for a very long time in over 10 million homes across America. He was the “Painter of Light.” Now go into the light and paint a new reality my friend. Goodbye.