The Artist We Love to Hate

14 Sep 2009

Although most of the recent news about Thomas Kinkade concerned his passing away and legacy, while he was alive he was consistently in the news over disagreements between his company, former employees, franchised gallery owners, and the FBI (detailed in articles have been written in the San Francisco Chronicle and in the Los Angeles Times). But it wasn’t long ago that he was the best-known contemporary artist in America. For a number of years he made a sizable fortune publishing limited-edition reproductions of his nostalgic paintings of cottages nestled in woodland settings, which were signed with biblical references and marketed through a network of galleries using the trappings of wholesome family values. Artists hated him while the general public made him rich and famous.

Painting by Thomas Kinkade.
Painting by Thomas Kinkade.
I first met Kinkade more than 25 years ago when he and James Gurney stopped by my office just before heading off to Europe with an agreement to have their resulting travel sketches published in a 1982 book, The Artist’s Guide to Sketching (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York). I met up with him again in 2001 when I agreed to published an article on his artwork, include several of his essays in American Artist, and write the text of a Watson-Guptill book on his plein air paintings, The Artist in Nature: Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air Tradition (Watson-Guptill Publications, New York, New York). I was roundly criticized for endorsing what many considered to be mass-produced greeting-card art, but there was something fascinating about the larger-than-life man who achieved an extraordinary level of financial success. I wanted to understand how he accomplished that success and determine if there was something about his marketing techniques that could be applied to the sale of more sophisticated art. Moreover, Kinkade talked earnestly about contributing to a foundation that would benefit representational artists.

In the end I had to admit there was little that Kinkade could teach artists who were creating unique and personal drawings and paintings. I should have recognized that his marketing depended on making duplicate images and wrapping them in the trappings of fine art and religion. The only worthwhile lesson I learned from Kinkade was that collectors do respond to paintings that tell stories using understandable images, pleasant colors, and tight details. I could have learned the same lesson from artists who told biblical stories during the Middle Ages, but Kinkade brought visual storytelling into the 21st century.

Kinkade still has an active website, publishing business, and network of retail galleries, and his work continues to be licensed for events and products. Is there anything worthwhile to learn from him—either as a good example or a bad one? I’ll depend on you to answer that question.

--Steve


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Comments

Keatingart wrote
on 14 Sep 2009 10:21 AM

I hate him too, but the dude figured out that the painting is a product, not an end all measure of an artist's talent. Artists can stand to learn that the measure of an artist's worth is not the individual painting but his lifelong journey pursuing the germinal idea of his individual vision. The paintings are by products of that pursuit that can be liquidated to fund the artist's lifelong quest.

Robin11 wrote
on 14 Sep 2009 10:46 AM

Interesting that you see personally, one on one, what many of us "felt" from afar.  

Often that's not the case, either we think a celebrity is terribly interesting or a complete nincompoop and those who know them personally tell a different story.  

The Christian element is what always upset me, especially when my step mom showed me a repro she bought off the t.v. and insisted it was an original that would increase in value....this Christian man said so!

j.b2 wrote
on 14 Sep 2009 7:43 PM

To me his painting were/are sickening sweet.

A lot of friends (non-artist) would ask me what I thought of him & that was the answer I always gave..

And to my surprise almost all of them agreed. A few could only think about the CASH he was raking in...

sfox2 wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 7:58 AM

What's really sad is that Kinkade has the chops to be a "real" painter. He studied at Art Center in Pasadena. I"ve seen a couple of non-cutsy originals and the guy can paint.

I guess artists need to understand what their goals are as artists.

A need for self-expression and the freedom to follow one's passion with the hope that a market for one's work will develop over time will lead down one path. Cue Robert Frost.

Having a high income as a priority will probably require a different path, one that involves an approach more like producing a consistant "porduct", than following the  muse wherever she takes you. I have observed that many, if not most, of the artists who chose this route short-circuit their artistic development because they end up having to substitute quantity for quality and their choices of what to paint are severely limited by what their market will buy. Success in the mass market seems to "dumb down" a lot of art.

Either way, an artist who hopes to make a living needs to have a plan that sets out goals and the means to those goals.

on 15 Sep 2009 11:31 AM

H.L. Mencken was correct when he wrote,

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."

peterworsley wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 12:16 PM

Kinkade's problem was promising a high resale value to customer's who purchased his prints, knowing that there was no secondary market. People purchased his prints as an investment, but were not able to resell them. This promotion was a scam and he was taken to court and fined.

As marketeers of art he and his team were very good. But they went too far by promising things they could not fulfill.

on 15 Sep 2009 12:30 PM

I'm ashamed to say that I liked his art when I saw it for the first time but I wasn't an artist back then. Now, I dislike Kinkade's art. I think with years of education and hard work I came to realize what it means to create art and what great artwork is supposed to have. I must admit that K. is great in finding a soft spot (or selling point) in people's hearts. He paints something familiar to public. There is a rare occassion when I see a person who understands and appreciates art. Most people don't. K. found the market for those people who neither get real art nor have the money to pay for it. So, he marketed his work to the middle class with limited financial abilities. He took the market by the quantity,not quality. I don't think he is a competition to me and my work but I have the lesson to learn from his marketing skill!

JT Harding wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 1:08 PM

I'm glad that he at least gave back. What was the foundation he said he'd contribute to? And, did he ever contribute any actual money?

www.jtharding.com

on 15 Sep 2009 1:51 PM

I remember seeing Thomas Kinkade selling his limited edition or open edition prints on QVC back in 1990.  I thought back then he was a phony by saying "God Bless You" to every caller who said they owned his works and loved them.  He uses the bible and Christianity to sell, he uses cheesy subjects to sell and he uses innocent people to tell lies to that his work will gain value.  Yes, I can't stand the guy.  Go live out in the middle of a poverty stricken country for 2 years and deny all materialism T. Kinkade, then paint.  Maybe then you will have a little more credibilty.

docpage wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 2:45 PM

I LOVE Thomas Kinkade, and I have found that almost in every circumstance that artists hate him, it is because they are jealous (either consciously or unconsciously) of his success (notice I did not say of his ability to paint or create art-whatever that means).   I do not understand, nor will I ever (Thank GOD!) this myth of there being nobility and honor in the struggling starving artist.  The idea that great art = poverty is outdated, not true and never was true.   Van Gogh would have given his EAR to be where T.K. is.  

docpage wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 2:47 PM

Oh: P.S. to Gordon France's comment: I thought it was P.T. Barnum that said that!

Jan Schafir wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 3:19 PM

I always tell my students that it would be successful artists  if we could make a painting that satisfies  our own artistic creativity, is accepted in a juried show and sells.  Kidkade certainly figured out the "selling" component.

on 15 Sep 2009 3:50 PM

I don't "hate" Thomas Kincade but, I'm not a fan of his work either.  For me, the artist, art is about the process of doing while me, the observer, it's purely entertainment.  I feel art should convey an emotion, negative or positive.  If you really really like it, it works.  If you really really hate it, it still works.  If you walk by it with no transmitted emotion, maybe that's the one that is lacking, at least for you.  For the artist, you can lead the "artist life" and the "artist career".  Leading the artist career will sometimes end with compromise.  The artist life, although a truer path, will probably less rewarding financially.  If Kincades work sickens you, then it probably works, ugh.

on 15 Sep 2009 5:32 PM

Docpage, just ignore P.T. Barnums adage, "There's a sucker born every minute"(Thank GOD!). Please continue buying junk and keep those dollars circulating, the economic recovery needs you.

on 15 Sep 2009 6:19 PM

I am surprised that we are using terms such as “hate” to describe a fellow artist. You may not agree with his subject matter or the sentiments behind them, or you may just be jealous of a man whose original pieces of artwork turned into something more commercial and widespread, but the truth is his paintings inspire hundreds of people and help them to see beauty and light in everyday moments. If you’re going to hate or disparage an artist’s efforts, save your critical comments for those who are influencing culture with images that are crude, degrading, and debase.

Starrpoint wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 7:42 PM

Whether you like his vision, his paintings or not, you have to ask yourself, what role ethic plays for the modern artist.

What always troubled me more than the sameness of his paintings (frankly, if I had to paint the same thing over and over and over, I'd go into real estate) was the passing off doctored prints as original.

Not that he had a factory, that would be find if he was upfront about it,  but that he (his business id) never was straight forward about just what was being sold.

I don't have a problem with high quality prints. just be up front about it.

docpage wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 7:56 PM

Gordon France, Will DO!!!   (on both suggestions), and just remember, "Junk" is in the eye of the beholder!

on 15 Sep 2009 7:56 PM

I certainly don't hate Kincade either.  Honestly speaking, I have to ask myself if I were offered the opportunity that he was, I probably would have accepted.  Afterall my ultimate dream is to be well known, but I must add, well respected as a great artist.  His name is definitely known by many and I am sure also respected.  But in the case of Kincade and a few other artists also, I must ask, are they masters of great art or are they great masters of marketing?

DanielH wrote
on 15 Sep 2009 8:47 PM

Just off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen contemporary painters, most of whom have been covered by American Artist, that are well known, well respected, and well funded by their art who have never delved into such dark caves of marketing as Kinkade has.

Also, I think there needs to be a line drawn somewhere between what we're considering fine art vs. decorative art. Kinkade's art appeals to the general public because it doesn't require you to think. It represents an idealized view of reality that none of us can really identify with. I can buy the idea that some people are inspired by it, but a lot of people are also inspired by the poster of the cat hanging on the rope that says "Hang In There"... Does that make it fine art?

However I feel about his work personally, I have never considered myself to be his colleague or contemporary in any way. He has chosen a different path, and I think we will all do well to wish him the best, turn, and keep walking in our own direction. This world is big enough for all of us...

MikelW wrote
on 16 Sep 2009 7:06 AM

I often thought that art should speak for itself. When the artist speaks louder than the work, trouble is sure to follow. Good art does not need to be marketed on a mousepad or a toilet seat cover. If an artist needs to tell everyone how great they are, how important their work is, then the work is suspect in my opinion. Popularity does not make art great anymore than a collector paying 12 million for a cow immersed in formaldehyde makes it great. (high art indeed)

To me, being accepted and admired by my peers and discerning collectors is my goal. Collecting my work because they love it for it's uniqueness, to hang it on their walls to admire and not because buying it will get them bragging rights or their name in the paper. Personally, having my work hanging next to Corot, Sargent and Wood something I am proud of, something I never dared to dream of. Yet, I am still humbled by the huge shadow cast by their work and strive to achieve that level of talent.

It is sad that Thomas Kinkade has squandered the talent he once had. It is drowned out by the glitz and kitsch of mass marketing, mass reproduction and self importance. The apex of his self aggrandizing is a toss up. Is it when he trademarked the term "Painter of Light"? Or is it when he used his "DNA pen" to sign work that was a giclee reproduction with "highlights" of paint applied by artisans in a factory? Or is it when his syrupy images were emblazoned across toaster cozies, coffee mugs, headboards and rugs?

There are often extremes in the art world. It is the extremes that get the most attention..

(the squeaky wheel gets the grease... reality check: it squeaks because it is faulty) There are legions of art critics that love to lump realism and representational art in with Thomas Kinkade. It is meant as an insult. It only reaffirms my suspicion that the vast majority of those art critics that run in the world of self-important "high art" are just as clueless as a person that buys a Thomas Kinkade bed spread as an art piece. When you need an explanation of why it is great art, trust me, it isn't great art.

It comes down to this. Which is real art to you?

This?

www.guestlife.com/.../gg-kinkade-1.jpg

Or this?

www.thomaskinkadegallery.com/painting.php

judyl40 wrote
on 16 Sep 2009 11:11 AM

What Mike said. (I especially like your take on the squeaky wheel !)

I can't help but think of the likes of Bernie Madoff & snake oil salesmen when I think of Kincade.

Chip Warren wrote
on 16 Sep 2009 12:29 PM

The idea that if you have a print,  you own a Kinkade that same as when you my a poster in Spencers gifts , you own a photograph of something.  It could be a girl from Hooters or Spiderman.  Now thats an investmant.  All and all,  we would all love to be where he is but without all the baggage.  

wforward wrote
on 17 Sep 2009 10:53 AM

Thanks for your honest reflection on your association with Thomas Kinkade. His real skills are clearly the ones he's developed for marketing and self-promotion, though his zeal seems to have led him into a swamp of ethical confusion. Whether he's made the most of his modest artistic skills or not is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but what a shame that his energy and drive couldn't have been concentrated on work that reflected the integrity and depth of character he must possess but seems to have neglected so badly.

Brian Riley wrote
on 17 Sep 2009 12:25 PM

Hi all....just a note. The blog page lists me as the author of this post, and that's not accurate. While I did put this post up on the site, Steve actually penned it, as he has all the other posts in this blog. He was out a Weekend With the Masters and unable to post himself, so I did it for him. I'm usually able to do that without my picture coming up, but I slipped up this time.

OK...back to the discussion.

Thanks

MariaB35 wrote
on 18 Sep 2009 10:58 AM

Hi Allison;

I agree with you whole heartedly.  I hope that in the beginning his intentions were to inspire others with beauty and Christian values.  But it morphed into a commercial enterprise that grew too big and completely took him over.  It's sad that worldly, material things can corrupt us so quickly.  The very beauty and inspiration of Kincades art has been degraded by the unethical commercial uses and marketing techniques used.

This is a great lesson for those who are painting only for profit and not for art's sake.

Muna Shabab wrote
on 18 Sep 2009 7:15 PM

Thank you MariaB, that is really well said.

PamellaJo wrote
on 20 Sep 2009 8:55 AM

I never liked Kinkade's work, but that's just a matter of taste.  My taste can be a little off beat, so you can't go by me anyway.

I don't find a problem with his selling prints, lots of artists sell prints.  I have a problem with him because of the way he did it.  He could have simply sold his prints as just that, prints.  But he had to turn it into something underhanded.  Hey, I sell pen & ink drawings on mugs, but people know they're buying a mug with a copy of art on it.   Let me give you something else to think about, that you may not want to think about.  Now that he has some scandal under his belt, his stuff will probably sell for more.  Maybe not right now, but years from now.  Especially when the book comes out. lol

Debbie Ray wrote
on 23 Sep 2009 11:54 AM

I won't be very popular on this blog.  I don't condone his commercial practices in anyway, shape or form.  His artwork is beautiful and inspiring.  I think most on this website have a better than thou attitude of those who have not had formal training.  I also think that if Kinkade had not integrated his Christian values into his artwork no one would have a problem with him.  Remember art is in the eye of the beholder.

adamsgtorl wrote
on 24 Sep 2009 3:00 PM

I'm a non-artist who likes to putter by trying to draw and paint, so please don't fuss at me too much about my ignorance, but...What is the consensus about Norman Rockwell? Does the legitimate art world consider him to be a serious artist, or would you put him in a similar category to Kinkade artistically (I've never heard about any accusations of fraud about Rockwell)?

judyl40 wrote
on 24 Sep 2009 3:48 PM

Well, Rockwell would be the first to say that he was an illustrator. Nothing wrong with that.

This all gets into tricky territory, but I think much of it has to do with what claims are made about your work. Kincade tries to pass off 4 figure (or more $) reproductions as "original, one of a kind", when they are only reproductions, not originals, with a DNA twist (fingerprints or some such thing in the finish). Nothing to do with artistic quality, but only a marketing gimmick.

His business dealings with his franchised galleries are nothing short of scams, leaving many investors in difficult circumstances. To add insult to injury, all of this is in the guise of being a "Christian" painter... a self proclaimed "Painter of Light" (trademarked & copyrighted).

In the end, it's more to do with integrity than anything to do with his art. For some reason, I'm thinking that we really expect a lot more from artists than from anyone else.

adamsgtorl wrote
on 23 Oct 2009 10:42 AM

FYI:

Darrell Barker (name used with permission), on another forum where I shared the Thomas Kinkade news item from American Artist, shared with us this story:

As a shuttle van driver, he once took a nice Arizona lady to the airport. At some point during their small talk, he asked her what she did for a living. She told him that she worked for Thomas Kinkade. Turns out Darrel actually owns several Kinkades, so he asked what it was that she did for Kinkade, and she said, "I'm one of his painters of light". He learned that as the last part of the process, before they go into the Gallery, other painters enhance the "limited" reprints by painting bright "light" in the windows and sky before they go to be framed.

Readers may also be interested in this link: articles.latimes.com/.../fi-kinkade5

which includes allegations of some very bizarre behavior.

Greg.

Ellen E wrote
on 6 Nov 2009 5:47 PM

I can't say I like Kinkade's style either (don't know much about his marketing tricks), but the uncomfortable fact is, his paintings apparently capture a desire that a lot of Americans have already got for whatever it is in his scenes that speak to them.  That's what inspires feeling in a lot of people.  I was just at an exhibition where I saw Eugene Carriere's "Motherhood," which uses the same gauzy dreamy colors as a Kinkade and totally  sentimental subject matter, and probably inspires much of the same emotions, yet we see it as "fine art" probably because it wasn't mass-produced.

Maybe it's the fact that Kinkade just kept cranking the stuff out that outrages us.  We probably all get hung up on a favorite sentimental style but then, hopefully as artists, we move on to the next obsession...

dogsouls wrote
on 29 Oct 2012 4:26 AM

i do wish people luck i do love this guy how he marketed how he strives, look people  this guy made personal or not personal work but how he managed his business is beautiful  not only he found lots of money from doing art compared to many artist who are poor in making business decision , he was smart the real reason that i love this guys is his art and his choices we all know that the art market is horribly going down and your not getting anywhere with out copying others work  why don't we lie about our art and get rich  and do real art in our past time i do plan to do real art in my past time  but in business its a different story i want to lie but to the truth why should we sell our real art that's real to us me i never want to sell a  painting that shows my death grand mothers likeness id rather sell a piece that lies about what it is and that's only about  being rich and stuff the decision to do horrible commercial work and beautiful real  art  

stiflingly

tumbilli wrote
on 24 Dec 2013 11:20 PM

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder...don't particularly like his style but good on him!

koogz wrote
on 24 Dec 2013 11:45 PM

First, P.T. Barnum never said "There is a sucker born every minute."  That was attributed to him by David Hannum.  It still applies.

Secondly, TK was very talented, and that cannot be ignored.

Third, I remember those commercials, and the religious "God Bless" tie in stinks to high heaven to me.   I find it repulsive.  I visited one of the galleries back in the day, and remember vividly the schtick used to sell us on the art painted with "light" and even as a young man I thought it was ridiculous.  I feel sorry for the gallery owners that bought into it, then were undercut in pricing other places in the market.

Finally,  I know many artists which I consider greatly more talented yet unknown.  It's not bad he made a name by being financially successful, but rather the way he did it.   Great artists should be lofted high like star athletes, doctors, because it takes years to find the art within oneself.  It is necessary.  It is beautiful.  It represents life.

RuthieLou wrote
on 25 Dec 2013 12:07 AM

Kinkade has a very large following;  I am not a follower, however.  This "sources of light" are too phony,  The idyllic landscapes and cottages too sweet to be believable. they all have the same look, the same feeling, and the same saccharine story.

shenkwan wrote
on 26 Dec 2013 1:09 AM

===Wow! TK, you have certainly roused a myriad of emotions, one wonders why. Wait!! Could it be the "Christian" slant? Surely, the method of art selling is not unique to TK. How do you spell Robert Bateman?

koogz wrote
on 3 Apr 2014 10:19 AM

He made greeting card images, otherwise he was apparently a drunk and a real *** but at least he used people for money...

bellesouth wrote
on 3 Apr 2014 11:05 AM

I don't hate him, and I think it demeans us as artists to hate another artist. His work is not my cup of tea, but it touched a chord in people and no one can argue that. If his ways of doing things and his style goes against your grain, then why hate him? Ignore it. Sometimes I think a lot of artists are just jealous of his success and don't like what they perceive as how he achieved it. But all the acrimonious words in the world aren't going to do anything to change it. Neither is referring to those who purchased it as less than educated.

I'd rather spend my energy doing what I do, painting and creating.