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 (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.