Wayne Thiebaud once described his paintings as “brush dances”. What a clever way to think about art and the process of painting. He was known as a “playful” painter, and yes, I’m using past tense here because Thiebaud passed away on Christmas Day.
His artwork was always colorful. He painted ordinary scenes from everyday life. He painted delicious bakery treats, cakes, pies, fruits, and candy. He also painted landscapes in his own inimitable style, the colors always bright, his brush always dancing over the canvas.
Early in his career, he worked as an animator for Walt Disney Studios. It’s said that he loved “comic strips, cartoons, and clowns”.
Speaking of clowns, he made dozens of paintings, drawings, and etchings of them, all part of a somewhat “autobiographical” form of art.
During his boyhood in Long Beach he looked forward to the visits of a traveling Ringling Brothers circus and sometimes helped out behind the scenes in exchange for tickets. The costumes, faces, and antics of the clowns were the beginning of a lifelong fascination for him.
To me, that word lifelong sticks out. Truly, Thiebaud was a man with a keen interest in the world around him, and a strong determination to pursue those things he loved. Especially art. He was a lifelong professor, sharing his love of art. Again, the word lifelong sticks out.
Twenty years ago — at the age of 81 — Thiebaud was interviewed by National Public Radio. Why was art so meaningful to him? This was his answer to that question:
“You are able to enter the world of Van Gogh or enter the world of these painters who offer us alternate worlds,” he said. “They are not God’s world, they are man’s world. And they may be fictions, but they’re also powerful statements about the sort of astounding capacity of the human mind.”
He painted in his 80’s. He continued painting in his 90’s. Even as he passed the century mark last year, he painted. He was 101 at his passing.
He loved art, he loved the process of painting, and he loved life. Most of all, he loved learning. In a statement announcing Thiebaud’s death, his gallery wrote:
“It is with great sadness that we mark the passing of a truly remarkable man, Wayne Thiebaud. An American icon, Wayne led his life with passion and determination, inspired by his love for teaching, tennis, and above all, making art. Even at 101 years old, he still spent most days in the studio, driven by, as he described with his characteristic humility, ‘this almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint’
An almost neurotic fixation of trying to learn to paint. Those are his words, not mine. Those words were spoken by an American icon of art, who at the age of 101 still spent time in his studio, still pursued not merely art itself, but the act of creating it, of learning as much as he could.
Today I’m resolving to dedicate myself more to the art of learning and the learning of art. I will let Thiebaud’s words inspire me, reminding me that we’re never too old to learn, and that the pursuit of those things we love brings happiness.
Food, clowns, gum ball machines, and lots of delicious pastries… little things from life. This is how Thiebaud celebrated the world around him.
In his honor today, I’ll grab a tasty treat, come to my studio, and have fun with playful colors and lots of memories.