Goodbye, Thomas

This series of requiem posts is usually about some artist whose work I learned a lot from and I looked up to as I was developing. This one is a bit different.

Thomas Kinkade™, aka "The Painter of Light™," passed away last Friday.

I've mentioned it before in some capacity, but Thomas Kinkade helped put me through art school. After graduating high school, I took my first summer job working at Suncoast Motion Picture Company (Now FYE). I was furiously saving up money before I began my first semester at art college, and enjoying it well enough. As the semester started, my wife (then girlfriend) was herself in college and told me about a job she saw on the jobs bulletin board at her college's art department. It was in San Jose (my hometown, where I was living), and would be working for some guy named Thomas Kinkade. I had no idea who that was--no one did, quite yet, outside of a small but quickly growing print collector's community.

Kinkade when I started working there

Kinkade when I started working there

I went to the small warehouse of Lightpost Publishing (later Media Arts Group Inc., then other entities) and interviewed as a bright-eyed art student who thought it was better for his day job to be art related, much as I enjoyed retail. Kinkade's work at the time seemed country, down-home, but at the time had a more desaturated palette (much more use of shade and tone than later--ie., he mixed more black and gray into his colors), and was far less garish and kitschy than it became. It was evident that he was a talented painter, and I appreciated some of the pieces he'd done in that era (this was late 1991), even his early cottages. I have nothing against cottages on their own, per se, I did live in the Cotswolds in England for a short time, myself! The ones he painted then were much more like something you might actually see...including the gray of England.

Much later Kinkade

Much later Kinkade

My job was to be an "artisan highlighter," as the term became known. We worked in a side room in the office area of the warehouse, and each morning we'd pre-mix batches of oil paint to correspond to bits of window light, highlit areas of foliage and grass on a given canvas print, then would set about judiciously dabbing paint onto the canvas print such that the piece took on a "print+" aspect, with some actual hand-touches on it. Then it was marked up a lot and sold as part of the signed limited editions. Whatever, I was paid better than Suncoast and spent a LOT of time looking at Thomas Kinkade art, learning a little about that industry, and watching what became a meteoric rise in popularity over the next few years. I should note that at least during my association with Lightpost and Media Arts Group Inc., which it became while I was there and it went public, this was never sold as other than what it was--assistants touching up the canvas prints which were signed by Thom.

I wish I could remember, but for quality control purposes we were assigned a number we had to mark the back of the stretcher bar with for each piece we worked on. I'm not sure but I think my number was maybe 7. If I could know for sure, it'd be fun to think some of you might have family members or friends with one of these old canvas prints that I'd worked on, hanging in their home.

Because they knew I was an aspiring painter and illustrator (not all were, some were design students, others just various individuals who could do the work), a few months later I and a couple other fellows were tapped to go out to Thomas' home, then in Placerville. We'd load up a van full of stacks of new print editions--thousands at a time--and drive out to Placerville. We'd haul them down to a room, set a stack before him, and I'd sit there pulling each print from under his hand as he very quickly signed through these stacks over the course of most of a day.

I remember the first time I met him. We pulled up in the late morning and knocked, and waited for an answer. None came. We stood around for a few minutes (before the days of normal cellphone use), and then turned to see Thom bounding up the road at the end of a morning jog. He was in fairly good shape--he'd have to be, since jogging in Placerville anywhere near his home meant jogging hills. I note this because it was striking--he was vigorous and in-shape, and it was a stark contrast to how he became over time, when apparently he stopped exercising and put on a considerable amount of weight.

"Yosemite Valley," Kinkade before he was Kinkade, also, one of my favorite places on Earth.

"Yosemite Valley," Kinkade before he was Kinkade, also, one of my favorite places on Earth.

Thom was nice to me. I enjoyed visiting his home, entire walls hung with thick-framed original art of his own or others--plein air pieces, work done before his major publishing days (some of it really well done), student work. I recall a student-era copy of Norman Rockwell's "Let's Give Him Enough and On Time" hanging on one wall, if I'm not mistaken. We talked art. We talked about his time at Berkeley and Art Center, and he regaled me with stories about his friendship back then with James Gurney, their time traveling and working on Fire and Ice. Gurney had just released Dinotopia and I definitely loved his work--we exchanged many favorable thoughts about it. One time we watched a documentary on Rockwell while laboriously signing. He liked iced coffee. This was the Thom I knew in my couple of years with Lightpost., as Thom became a celebrity and later became perhaps the most hated figure in contemporary art (while simultaneously being the most loved in American art, by some measures).

I enjoyed seeing his studio, down the hill from his home, a converted barn. The landscape from the back of his home was gorgeous, cows mooing sporadically throughout the day. His studio was well-lit and spacious. He had a large side area where he would prep his canvases (usually canvas glued to masonite, as I recall). He was only the second working artist whose studio and life I had been able to peek into.

I got to see the original of this one, small, maybe 6x8" or 8x10". I still like it

I got to see the original of this one, small, maybe 6x8" or 8x10". I still like it

We did these signings maybe 4-5 times during my time at Lightpost. I showed him my work a couple of times, during the occasional visit he'd make to the San Jose office, and he was encouraging.

Later he moved down to the Bay Area, presumably to be closer to the business aspect of things. I visited at his studio in Los Gatos, on the second floor of the La Cañada Building across from the Town Plaza Park. Much less bucolic, but I'd still kill for such a studio space. He made fun of my beat up car and I looked over recent plein air paintings he'd done in Europe. A totally different beast than his marketed works.

His original paintings, at least in that era, were really something. Even the more Candyland-colored ones, if you could get past the imagery, had a wonderful surface quality and his grasp of color was really great. It was also surreal for me to realize the prices the originals were selling for at the time.

I left the company at the end of 1993; my wife had taken a job working in the corporate offices and remained another couple of years. The last time I saw Thom was probably summer '94, as I was beginning my own career. There was a company party at his home near Los Gatos. Saw some drawings he'd done (didn't see much pencil work from him), at least one of which was a nice rendering of a moose.

He was a big personality, had a lot of gusto, and by any measurement had a whirlwind of a life. His wife Nanette was kind, his young daughters were cute and by now must be lovely young ladies. My condolences to them, though I was of course just another person from the office to them, likely, utterly unmemorable. I'm sure to Thom himself I was ultimately unmemorable--there were so many people involved in his life and business at that time. That's fine--I'm not trying to portray things as if we were great buddies or anything.

In the years since, "Thomas Kinkade" has become a byword among artists. A few of my illustrator friends find no end of humor when they learn about this story. Some of them have had very, very, negative things to say about him. I'm not an apologist for his work, or the man. I understand and in some respects agree. As with most things, I am able to appreciate the appreciable, and can forget the rest. As well, much of the ire built up against him has to do with things that occurred well after I left, so I frankly can't comment either way. My time in that world was short and limited. But regardless, it's been interesting to note that Kinkade has become an indelible part of my own artistic biography. And though it will always carry a little stigma with it, I'm ultimately glad to have had the association.

Goodbye, Ralph

Usually in this series of memorial posts, I talk about illustrators who influenced my work over the years. This past week, however, an illustrator passed away whose work was not one I actively looked to, and yet was fundamentally one of the most influential bodies of work I've ever encountered.

Ralph McQuarrie was a name I didn't learn until I was probably about 12-13, and yet his art had been molding my own mind since about the age of 4. Being the primary concept artist behind the Star Wars films, you might say that he'd been training my mind all through my childhood and, indeed, is probably the artist to whom I most owe my current career path.

From time to time, I'm asked to provide a short biography for an event or article or whatever. A standard sentence which appears in these reads something like, "Randy credits seeing Star Wars in the theaters at the age of 4 with his eventual desire to enter the field of fantasy and science-fiction." Sometimes I add that this memory may be my earliest memory, period. Doing some research, I think this may have been the 1979 theatrical re-release. I don't remember much, but I do remember that I think I'd begun falling asleep in my seat when the opening scene began. The sight of the immense Imperial Star Destroyer passing overhead, impossibly huge, melted my still-forming brain. When it re-formed, it was thoroughly cast in the mold of fantasy and sci-fi illustrator. There was sort of no going back.

An evolving pair of droids, not the ones you're looking for.

An evolving pair of droids, not the ones you're looking for.

However, at the time, during the initial release of the original trilogy, I had very little access to any of McQuarrie's art. All I was seeing were the filmic representations of his designs (although, as at top, often they were very faithful to them). Nevertheless, my exposure to Star Wars comics, toys, cartoons, video games, and every other licensed product (cereal!) only served to cement the fantastic imagery deep inside me.

As I said, somewhere in there I did become aware of Ralph, probably through scouring magazines with behind-the-scenes articles or the like. But I didn't really know of or see other art of his for some time, though I now know he did visual design for a number of beloved films of that era.

It wasn't until a reprint of the short story collection "Robot Dreams" appeared (left) that I actually got to see some finished art by McQuarrie. Being a young college student planning my own career, I had a great appreciation for this image and subsequently bought the book and read it, being also a fan of Asimov.

"Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton

"Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton

In that image I was able to see the work of an accomplished artist, not hindered by the rapid concepting nature of film work. I didn't yet know at the time that the painting was a direct homage to Leighton's excellent, "Flaming June." I took a year of art history around that time and never once was Leighton even mentioned...which is a topic for another day....

In any case, what has been unsurprising to me has been learning how many illustrator friends of mine, working in this industry, would say almost the same as I just did. An entire generation of kids was steered towards a particular career because of those movies. Was it because of the story of Star Wars, in particular? No, I don't think so. We enjoyed the stories, no doubt. Was it the characters? To an extent, yes it was--but if Darth Vader had just been a Very Bad Man, if the enemy soldiers had just worn military outfits, if the Sandpeople were just your average desert-dwellers, well then it would not have been the characters who were influential. No, what it was was Ralph McQuarrie (and the team of craftsmen and artists who brought those images to life). It was those particular visions which moved us, which made everything amazing. George Lucas gets the credit for Star Wars, deservedly, but honestly I think McQuarrie deserves a spot just as famous.

Such a strange phenomenon. Has there been any film since then that has had that kind of impact on young artists? I don't think so, but time will tell. Will there be a raft of illustrators who were inspired by the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which they saw when they were 4? I guess we'll find out in a few years. All I know is that some 30+ years later, I have a newer Star Wars-related painting (still under wraps), hanging behind me. Its designs were created by Ralph McQuarrie.