Longtime readers of Lines and Colors may be surprised to find me writing about Thomas Kinkade, as I normally only write about artists whose work I personally find appealing, and I wouldn’t be quick to put Kinkade on that list.
I do find him interesting as a phenomenon, however, and his untimely death yesterday at the age of 54 prompted me to mention him in that respect.
Thomas Kinckade was an American painter noted for his extraordinarily popular paintings of deliberately charming cottages, lush gardens, idyllic landscapes and townscape Americana, rendered in wide array of high-chroma colors.
On one hand, Kinkade has been the subject of derision from critics and art lovers as a purveyor of kitschy greeting card and calendar art sentimentality; on the other hand, his work is enormously popular in the U.S., and seems to hold a strong and almost magical appeal for some.
Kinkade is noted for his aggressive merchandising, in which a chain of franchise stores, usually in shopping malls, sell prints of various kinds and levels of expense, as well as a secondary line of merchandise, perhaps making him the “Martha Stewart” of art related merchandising.
I can be critical of Kinkade’s business practices, in which “semi-original” commercial prints are touched up with oil by him or by assistants, signed by him in special ink, tagged with a special seal like a collectable coin from the Franklin Mint and sold for prices beyond what many other artists ask for originals in mall-based galleries that offer financing to purchase them.
There is also the controversial nature of his company’s gallery franchise profit percentages, coupled with the relentless marketing of his work and, most annoyingly to me, his absurd attempt to trademark the phrase “Painter of Light” (which has historically been applied to J.M.W. Turner).
However readers familiar with my taste in art may be surprised that I’m not as harshly critical of Kinkade’s actual painting style as some might expect.
I find the wide popularity of his work, and in particular the intensity of the appeal it has for many, creates a fascinating angle on the question of what is “visually appealing” in a work of art, and how artists have deliberately pursued, or eschewed, that element.
The late 20th century Modernists, of course, rejected anything with visual appeal as base and intellectually shallow — art was, after all, the provence of the intellect, and more importantly, of the intellectual few sophisticated enough to appreciate the subtleties of the theories on which modernist painting was based.
Representational art has a history of wavering between visual appeal and intellectual or emotional content, with enormous variation. There are elements, however, that can be identified as having immediate visual appeal as well as emotional resonance.
But what makes a painting visually appealing, in the combinations of subject matter, color composition, value, paint surface… all of the elements painters bring to bear in their work, and why is there such difference between the perception of those elements by different individuals?
Resisting the temptation to jump on the bandwagon and dismiss Kinkade’s work as treacle, I find it fascinating that he was a painter who evidently pursued the the question of “visual appeal” with dogged singularity.
Though I don’t respond to the particular style of visual appeal Kinkade has pursued in the way his legions of admirers do (and some respond very strongly indeed, spending quite a bit of money to purchase multiple “semi-original” prints), I can see within it many techniques that can be found in other styles and genres of art that are designed to have “Eye Candy” visual appeal.
One is the use of paired complementary colors, frequently associated with the French Impressionists, and notable in contemporary film and gaming concept art (as well as in the subsequent movies and games — as a case in point, look at something like the “robot assembly line” sequence in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones and note the colors and lighting).
You can see the combination of complementary color pairs and strong value contrasts used by painters like John Atkinson Grimshaw and the post-Impressionist “Painters of Paris” like Antoine Blanchard and Edouard-Léon Cortès repeated throughout Kinkade’s work, sometimes overtly, as in the images above, bottom two, done under the pseudonym “Robert Girrard”.
You can also see nods to the 19th century history painters like Lawrence Alma-Tadema in Kinkade’s fanciful arcadian gardens and faux classical structures, as well as a take on Maxfield Parrish’s use of similar visual props.
Similarity to Disney cartoon background painting is evident in Kinkade’s cottages and gardens, and becomes obvious in his own series of official Disney homage paintings (which look perfectly in keeping with the studio’s aesthetic).
Kinkade has extracted that aesthetic, distilled it, and applied it to his cottage scenes in heavy doses, with warm light glowing from multi-paned windows — even in daylight, and smoke wafting from idealized brick chimneys emerging from storybook roofs.
You can also see Kinkade’s adoption of the stylized fantasy shrubbery of Eyvind Earle, as well as his intense color combinations, though even more exaggerated.
I tend of think of Kinkade essentially as a fantasy painter, despite the lack of overt elves and fairies, in that he presents his viewers with an escape into an alternate world where harsh reality doesn’t intrude, and magic has more sway than physics. In the process he also borrows additional techniques from fantasy artists in terms of adding elements of fantasy landscape “eye candy”.
If I look through Kinkade’s images, I have to admit there are passages that I find visually appealing, and might admire more readily in a different context, particularly if utilized in a scene with less “visual charm density” — notably the effects of dappled light and the look of backgrounds faded into textural renderings of mist and haze.
So whatever you think of Kinkade’s work, you may find it worth putting prejudices aside and taking a closer look at individual elements in his paintings in the context of Kinkade as a “Painter of Charm”.
[Addendum: I received notice that the first scholarly analysis of Kinkade's work, Thomas Kinkade: The Artist in the Mall, edited and with writing by Alexis L. Boylan, has been published by Duke University Press. There is an article in the premiere issue of Pacific Standard Magazine.]