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.
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
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
and write the text of a Watson-Guptill book on his plein air
paintings, The Artist in Nature: Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air
(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.