Wendy Lesser: I wanted to start by asking how long you’ve lived in California. Were you born here?
Wayne Thiebaud: No. Born in Mesa, Arizona, but came—I shouldn’t say came, I was brought—when I was six months old to Long Beach and grew up there. I was there pretty much until I went in the Army Air Force and then came to Northern California. So I’ve been mostly in California outside of the army service. Two times I lived in New York, for about a year each time, 1946 and 1956.
Wendy Lesser: And nothing made you want to stay there longer than that?
Wayne Thiebaud: I missed the space.
Wendy Lesser: And you’ve lived in Sacramento for quite a while now. How did you choose Sacramento and how have you remained there?
Wayne Thiebaud: That’s where I was stationed in the Army Air Force, at Mather Field. It was a city which, growing up in the beaches of Long Beach and so on, suddenly Northern California and particularly Sacramento seemed like a Northeastern city. It had trees—
Wendy Lesser: —An old town.
Wayne Thiebaud: An old town. I was astounded: the trees actually changed color.
Wendy Lesser: I think you told me that you’re still teaching at Davis, even though they’re no longer paying you to teach, is that correct?
Wayne Thiebaud: Well, since I’m working for nothing, they can’t fire me. I don’t have to go to faculty meetings. But the university was always very good to us. We had a wonderful group of people who taught there and it was a place which still is very close to me. Teaching has always been very central to what I’m interested in.
Wendy Lesser: Did you have very good teachers yourself? Is that something you remember about your own training?
Wayne Thiebaud: Wendy, I was the most loathsome student. My poor mother would always get notes saying, “Wayne doesn’t seem to be that dumb, he just doesn’t seem to be able to do anything.”
Wendy Lesser: You hadn’t found your métier.
Wayne Thiebaud: Once I got out of the institutional life of education, I thought, I’ll never go back to this kind of thing again. But after the service and coming back to college, I found and saw some teachers, which I think made a big difference in terms of what I wanted to be. I wanted to be like a certain English teacher. How does someone ever get to be like that? And that made a difference. I have had some wonderful teachers.
Wendy Lesser: This is a different kind of teacher, but have you had teachers among the long history of dead artists? Are there particular people who you think have influenced the way you work?
Wayne Thiebaud: Oh, very much. I’m a dedicated museum-goer. I love art history. But I didn’t go to art school. I came through being a sign painter, fashion illustrator, lettering man. But the marvelous thing for me was that I had a lot of very kind, wonderful people in the commercial art world who took time out to show me things. For that I’m tremendously grateful, and I have a lot of admiration for those people altogether.
I should say, I guess, since you talked about artists, that I don’t consider myself that, but a painter. I think, at least from my standpoint, painting is more important than art for me.
Wendy Lesser: How would you define the difference?
Wayne Thiebaud: I’d say that painting, by contrast with art, is the following: I don’t know if we know what art is. I think that’s a good thing because art is always changing, evolving. That’s going to go on and should go on and it should always be something where we don’t quite recognize, specifically and resolutely, to wind it into a comfortable condition.
Painting is exactly the opposite. It’s just a little thing. Flat, quiet, doesn’t move, and you have to go to it. It won’t come to you. Even though we keep thinking, maybe if we build things out from it or put radios in it or stick flags on it, put some voices in it, something to keep it from being so damn dead looking, painting—people are right when they say that, of course—painting is dead. Why in the world are you still doing it?
Wendy Lesser: The flatness seems to be something that particularly attracts you to it. I was lucky enough to be in New York last weekend and saw that he [gestures to Thiebaud] had a show there, which he, needless to say, had not told me about, but there it was at his old gallery, Allan Stone. And I learned when I bought the catalog to the show that he had been showing at this gallery since 1962. And the way that Allan Stone had found him—you can tell me if this is true. This is what Allan Stone says in the introduction to the catalog: that Wayne Thiebaud in 1962 was dragging his way up Madison Avenue, showing his work to every gallery along the way, and being rejected by all of them. Finally, he ends up on East 93rd or East 90th or wherever it is, the last gallery northward. He finds Allan Stone and he shows his work and Allan Stone takes his work and they have a relationship ever since. Is this true?
Wayne Thiebaud: It’s true. Allan weighs a lot. He loves to eat, loves ice cream, loves it. It’s true. He really did say to me, “I see these things, but you’ll have to give me time to get up my courage to show them.” He really is of that sort of temperament. He doesn’t really like the art world. He’s very, very curious about what he thinks that is. Some people think he’s more of a collector than a dealer.
Wendy Lesser: Is this congenial temperament for you? Somebody that doesn’t like to sell art?
Wayne Thiebaud: Yes. Well, he plays tennis, also.
He started out wanting to be a painter himself. His family thought he should do something…good. So he went and did the whole thing and became a lawyer, started doing his own collection then and finally left to become an art dealer pretty late in his life.
Wendy Lesser: Does he have other painters besides you? Or are you his one and only ice cream painter?
Wayne Thiebaud: No, he has mostly younger people which is, I think, a good idea. He’s very dedicated to the idea that he should encourage them. He’s been approached by a lot of very well-known artists, but he thinks that’s not so interesting to him as trying to develop young artists or giving young artists a chance. I think it’s a very good idea.
Wendy Lesser: Yes. The show, in any case—I got sidetracked from my question about flatness. The show covers 30 years or more of your work, including some very recent things, like one called “Tennis Hat,” which is actually you, but there’s a tennis hat on your head; and a number of landscapes.
I noticed in particular about the landscapes—and I’ve noticed this about the urban landscapes before, but this was true of these Central Valley landscapes—that they are very vertical. They have this sense of everything being in the foreground, or almost at the same level, more so than my eye sees things at least. And I was wondering whether that flatness, what seems to me flatness, or purposeful two-dimensionality, is something that you do to make a connection with the flatness of the canvas or whether it’s actually the way things look to you when you look out? How does that happen?
Wayne Thiebaud: I think a little of both. For me, one of the primary aspects of painting is its flatness. There’s a marvelous story where someone points out to Degas a landscape which is sort of unending. And he says, “Look how deep that space is, and how wonderful how much distance you can see from this,” and he says, “That would make a really good picture. Why don’t you paint that?” And Degas says “I will, because it would make a very nice flat picture.”
That sounds strange, except that if the picture doesn’t alternately feel both flat and with some distance, if you can’t somehow negotiate those extremes, you’re not taking advantage of one of the great inventions of the human being to have created: that notion of seeing things which are not there, making them come to some kind of resolution, which suggests space, but still you recognize at the same moment that it’s not real space.
Painting as a function of our pleasure and of our interest reminds us of the fact that that contradiction is very much like life itself. Painting, in some ways, tries to reconcile those two variables.
Wendy Lesser: The thing I was looking for in the show, because a year or two ago, when I asked you to write something for Threepenny Review—and we’ll get onto his literary side later—you weren’t able to write something at the time, but you said if you were going to write something about realism, it would be about Giorgio Morandi who you greatly admire. I’ve had my eye out for Morandi ever since, and there was a little show of his in New York last fall that I saw. Those, like yours, are paintings that you actually have to see in person to get the full feel of them.
It seemed to me that there were two things that I noticed that you might’ve gotten from him, but maybe you made them up or got them from somewhere else. One was the little black line that surrounds some simple objects in daily life. In your case, they might be pies or books or something, and in his case it was usually a cup or a vase, but there’s a black line delimiting the edge of things in his, too. And then the shadow, which he had very slightly, and you’ve made into almost another object in the paintings. The shadow is a very solid thing in your work. Do they come from him or do they come from somewhere else?
Wayne Thiebaud: Wendy, I’ve stolen from every painter you could imagine. Even talking about Morandi, I remember I admired him so much I put a reproduction of his up on the easel adjoining my own. This is such a good thing for painters to do, to gain some kind of intimate access to the work.
So I’m trying to copy, almost, this Morandi in terms of its feel. There’s a jug and there’s a bowl and there’s this tall form, which is a kind of some sort of strange Bologna form. So I’m going to take—what objects can I use? So I took four cheese sandwiches. But the point is to try and find what it is he does. One of the things he does which is so fascinating is his sense of compression in paint. You’ll notice that most of his things are centered. But if you look carefully there’s not enough room for those objects to exist, there’s vice-like pressure on them. So that builds that tension, a marvelous kind of a feel, involving you physically in the work. That physical empathy transfer is one of the most important aspects of enjoying painting. If you’re not looking at a Cezanne landscape doing this [physical gesture]…
Because you’re taking a physical flight through this space of these marvelous sensations he talks about: a pushing back for this edge of the tree, and here, then these sort of architectonic lines which run through it. That physical aspect of painting is again, a very, very important thing. Now, if you—is this boring or what?
Wendy Lesser: No, they’re rapt, I can feel it.
Wayne Thiebaud: Don’t ask painters to talk to you, they’ll talk for an hour and a half about brushstroke.
If we get away from the idea that painting is a kind of idea thing, then what is it? It’s a very physical thing, in my opinion. Since so many people are interested now in ideas and all of that, that probably the painting department would profit if it were moved to the physical education department and actually looked at ballerinas and at athletes, because if you’re really looking at painting, if you’re taking the time to look at it, you can feel these issuances of the person who painted it. And that’s the wonder of that. It’s like sports, when you roll that ball down during bowling and you let go of it. But you never let go of it. You’re always going [physical gesture].
Painting is really not different than that. When you’re doing life drawing or you’re painting, if you don’t see the students at their easels doing that…That’s why they should stand when they paint or draw, because those are the characteristics which makes it possible to develop things in life drawing. Like grace, for instance, or the pressure or the tension, so that when they equip themselves carefully on this kind of way, they’re able then to go and see a Käthe Kollwitz mother hugging her child and feel the physical involvement with that mother as she holds the child, or when van Gogh grabs a rake. These forms of physicality are what, for me, are very central to painting. The painting will only come alive—because it is after all inert, dead, just sitting there—you have to, like Lazarus, bring it up. You have to bring it to life through your body. That’s what’s so wondrous about the pleasure of painting.
Wendy Lesser: I love hearing you say that because the way I always look at Degas’ “Bathers” is exactly that, imagining what it feels like to be in that position. He almost shows people in a position that they could not see themselves in. So it does give you a kinesthetic sensation to be looking at it.
When you mentioned letting go…I was actually going to ask about letting go, because painting and sculpture, that kind of visual art is the only kind of art that the artist has to completely let go of after he’s made it. The novelist can keep a copy of the book at the same time as he has a hundred thousand out there, and the filmmaker the same, and most other art forms, that’s true. But you make something and then you have to give it away—or sell it, rather—but I mean, is it ever painful to let go of the work that you’ve spent so long on?
Wayne Thiebaud: No, God. Well, you know about that. You’re really interested in the next thing, and you’re really flattered and amazed that people will take them. It’s a real gift, yeah. Painting really is, for me, a kind of miracle. The doing of it and the seeing of it. I’m not talking about my own work, that’s nothing to do with the miraculous. But Vermeer’s, and 30,000 years of the tradition of painting has so given us a kind of anthology of human consciousness and one of the great repositories of what we are, what we have been at least, and what today we promise maybe we can do. What other sensibilities can we find? What can we discover by this very age-old and very miraculous invention of the human being?
Wendy Lesser: To shift from the miraculous into the earthy: were you interested in food and eating before you started painting edible objects, or is that just something that seemed like a good thing to paint?
Wayne Thiebaud: Well, certainly I love food and am interested in it.
Wendy Lesser: Do you cook?
Wayne Thiebaud: I do, I’m the second string cook. My wife’s a very fine cook. But I lived, growing up, working in food preparation and it was very accidental that I began to paint those things, I think. I had just come back from New York in 1956 and I kept hearing very different things from people like de Kooning and Kline and others who talked very differently from what the critics have written about them. Mostly what they talked about was how painting above all else should have some sort of genuineness about it that… [trails off]
Well, de Kooning told the story about Elaine de Kooning coming to his class when he was teaching at the Leonardo da Vinci Art School in New York. She knew about de Kooning then—he was not internationally known, but he was very much respected by his fellow painters. She knew how he painted, and admired his lively work. So she thought to herself, I’ve got to do something to impress him. So she painted a crucifixion picture with a sobbing Mary and Christ. And he came around her the first day and looked at her and said, “What in God’s name do you know about this? What are you painting?” She says, “Well, I’m trying to do something serious.” He says, “Here’s serious for you,” and he put a block down on the table and said, “Paint that block. That’s serious.”
When I came back, the result was that I’d been trying to do every kind of painting I could think of, trying to make the damn things look like art. That’s always a mistake. You can make all the signs of art, you know, the fancy signature, the embossed thing, the drips, erasures, brushstrokes, and so on. But you can’t…I mean… One of the things that annoys me most is when I say: “Where are you off to?” [and a student says] “I’m going to go do my art.” No, no, not so fast. That’s going to take you a little longer. And other people are going to have to decide whether it’s art or not.
But it’s a curious kind of thing, and we get used to this idea. I tell my students as often as I can: be careful you don’t become the kind of art world employee where you’re, without knowing it almost, taken in by what you think you should be doing, as opposed to what you may really be capable of doing or what you really want to do.
Wendy Lesser: There’s something of that in de Kooning’s career. I mean, I think he was a marvelous painter throughout. At times. But I just read that biography of him, and it’s definitely—the shape of his life goes like that [gestures]. It’s all up, and hope, and possibility until he’s enormously discovered. And then almost at the exact moment that he becomes a huge success, life starts going downhill. Does that seem like what it really was, or is that just the shape the biography took when it was written down?
Wayne Thiebaud: I think it’s the shape of something like success. Maybe. I don’t know. I think someone has to be very pre-possessed with some kind of genuine life that can somehow deal with that.
Was it, I’m trying to think, the South American writer who writes about the fact that ‘that other man is really not me.’
Wendy Lesser: So many of them seem to have done that. It’s an obsession with South American writing. Borges did that, Cortázar does that. They all practically—
Wayne Thiebaud: —talk about once they’re known and they see what happens to that, in some ways, their self—whatever that is—they feel is taken away from them in a way.
Wendy Lesser: Have you found fame to have any effect on your life in that way?
Wayne Thiebaud: My wife won’t let me.
Wendy Lesser: To go back to something you said earlier, you said you were brought up in food preparation. Does that mean your family was involved in that as a business?
Wayne Thiebaud: No, I just worked in cafes in Long Beach. There was a marvelous area in Long Beach called The Pike, which had a group of carnival shows. I sold papers along the beach in that area. And then one time I got a job working for this fellow, it was a place called Mile High and Red Hots. Mile high was an ice cream cone, and red hots were hotdogs.
Wendy Lesser: I hope all you biographers are taking notes out there.
Wayne Thiebaud: It was the first time I ran into dishonesty, ’cause this fellow let me—finally, after washing dishes and doing the other things—one day, he said, “I’m going to let you make hamburgers.” He says, “You can cook the hamburgers today for me.” I was very happy, very excited. He gave me a pound of hamburger and put it in a bowl, gave me an onion, put the onion in, salt and pepper, and gave me a box of pancake mix. And he said, “Now mix that into the hamburger. That will extend it more.” I never got over that.
Wendy Lesser: No, that’s terrible.
Wayne Thiebaud: I think I said something to him, “Well, will people know about this?” He said, “They won’t know the difference because the onions will smell so good.”
Wendy Lesser: What did your parents do? I think you mentioned to me what your grandfather did, so you could get into that.
Wayne Thiebaud: My father was an inventor and a mechanic. One of his jobs was putting together Model T automobiles from packing crates that were shipped out the west coast. He could put together one and a half Model T’s in a day, but he was, wonderfully, always taking me for rides, telling me about these invention schemes. He did patents and things, and he did some quite wonderful developments. My mother was a wonderful cook and very, very nourishing. I grew up as a Mormon boy. My father became a lay Bishop in the Mormon church. I was a Bishop’s son. What all that means? To be a good boy. I still hear it in my ear. But it was a wonderful family, I was spoiled rotten. I probably could have done anything and it would have been fine.
Wendy Lesser: Do you feel you rebelled against Mormonism?
Wayne Thiebaud: Yes, about the age of 16 and so on, I did quite a bit of reading and was exposed to a wider series of discussions. I used to visit a place in Long Beach, a ragtag group of people who met and it was called “the spit and argue club.” They met in a public park, and there were a lot of people who would get up spontaneously and argue back and forth. I was fascinated by that and used to spend quite a bit of time. Everything that they talked about would invite me to read, and there was a big public library in the park, and I spent a lot of time doing that.
My father was very good about it when I went to him and I said, “I don’t think I can really believe in this religion.” He was generous and kindly about it. So I really haven’t been participating since then.
Wendy Lesser: Did you raise your own children in any religion?
Wayne Thiebaud: No. They’re useless, which I think is a way to be.
Wendy Lesser: I know that one of your sons at least represents you in a gallery. In that form of uselessness he seems quite useful. Does that cause any family tension that he is your public face in the commercial art world?
Wayne Thiebaud: Well, actually Allan Stone has been my only dealer, but since my son worked in Christie’s auction house in New York for a year, he came back and had a wonderful association with Charles Campbell. Very great friend. They worked together for 10 years and then he started his own gallery and Allan Stone worked with him. Actually, Allan’s still a major dealer. So it’s been a wonderful kind of opportunity. When you mentioned Morandi, it was a shame you didn’t see my son’s show of Morandis. He had a show here and a lot of people came, nobody bought anything.
Wendy Lesser: Were they affordable, these Marandis? There are so few of them, aren’t there?
Wayne Thiebaud: It was only a million dollars. Today, a million dollars?
Wendy Lesser: Nothing. Actually, that is one of the very, very strange things about the art world. Aside from the fact that you have to divest yourself of the thing that you’ve made, that again, unlike other forms—a choreographer has to be losing money. I mean, there are no choreographers that are profiting from their work. They have to get foundation grants and so forth. A lot of poets are scraping by in a state near hungry, even if they’re successfully published, but artists that make it at all, make it into a lot of money. Not necessarily for them, but for dealers and collectors and so forth. Does that cast a strange glow on the art world to have money be so much a part of it?
Wayne Thiebaud: I think it’s done disastrous things to the art world. Most people agree it’s been a very curious and strange phenomenon when money came into it. I should say that most painters really don’t profit very much. They find ways to support their habit, so to speak: become contractors, taxi drivers, in the same way that poets and others [do]. It’s a difficult thing, being a teacher, to say to a student, “The art world’s a very strange place. I know you’re going to see a lot of wonderful discussions about how people have made lots of money and so on, but actually that kind of thing is less important than your work as work, as research, something you really love to do.” Of course they’ll say to me, “Well, that’s all right for you, big boy, you’ve already had [UI]. I want fame.”
But I think it is true. The painters I know and admire, many of them—young painters, old painters—have worked all their life and done marvelous works and get very little attention, if any. But they have done something very important, I think. They’ve not so much worried about making a living as the fact that art [or] painting has made a life for them.
That, for me, is what you look for, to find something you really want to do. Like the old Spanish proverb—if it isn’t a Spanish proverb, it should be—”Take what you want, says God, but pay for it.”
Wendy Lesser: It could be any nationality proverb.
Part of the way we know each other—I mean, I know who you are because of your painting, but vice versa because you’ve been subscribing to The Threepenny Review almost from the beginning and allowed me to use your artwork in one issue and, I gather, read widely in poetry and fiction and essays and areas that most people don’t associate full-time painters reading. Do you want to talk about your reading a little, the kind of reading that you do?
Wayne Thiebaud: I love reading and try to do a good bit of it. I think it’s a lot of obvious parallels with what we do with the life of the mind and how that intrigues us and questions things. Someone said something very nice, maybe it was you, that poetry was an x-ray of literature.
Wendy Lesser: It wasn’t me. It does sound good.
Wayne Thiebaud: That it looks through and under and around and in places where we don’t. We may feel deeply affected, but not even know why. I think painting at its best does that somewhat, where it looks through and under and around, and in places where we haven’t been, creating little new visual species. You can do something like find a painter and qualify him in terms of all of his influences, all of the associations where he comes from. All of that is finally beside the point with someone like van Gogh, who was influenced in so many ways and talks about his influences. Monticelli, French tapestry, Pissarro, on and on and on and then you say yes, but it’s still van Gogh. And that van Gogh-esque, or Rubenesque or de Kooning-esque, those are worlds which have been created, which we wouldn’t have had without those painters.
Wendy Lesser: Can you think of a poet who you think does similar things in words to what you’re doing with paint? Is there somebody whose work seems to you to have an affinity with yours?
Wayne Thiebaud: I always talk quite a bit about “The Red Wheelbarrow” guy.
Wendy Lesser: Yeah. I was thinking that when you were talking about specificity and practice, how William Carlos Williams did seem to be a similar case.
Wayne Thiebaud: I wish for more, but I don’t know. I love so many poets. I read to my classes. I tell them not to listen to me, but imagine that they’re hearing Dylan Thomas read it instead.
Wendy Lesser: Are you reading Dylan Thomas, or just anything when you say that?
Wayne Thiebaud: Yep. That voice.
Wendy Lesser: If you had to pick, I’m picking this number at random, but let’s say three paintings—if you don’t like the number, you can change it to five or whatever—from all of the history of art that you would get to look at, and you would only get to look at those three paintings, what ones would you pick? Let’s say you’ve had all your other looking that you’ve had up till now. So this is just from here on in.
Wayne Thiebaud: And price is no object?
Wendy Lesser: Price is no object. We’ll give it to you, these three.
Wayne Thiebaud: One would be a Vermeer, almost any, particularly the woman with the brass pitcher. One would maybe be a Velázquez portrait of his helper, a wonderful Black man.
A third one…That’s tougher. Let me make a slight variance and say if I were on a desert island, which artists would I take?
Wendy Lesser: Their artworks, or them as a person?
Wayne Thiebaud: No, no, the artworks. Matter of fact, the person I’m going to name was such a monster and so rude and so demanding and so awful as a social human being that I wouldn’t want him around, particularly if he’s going to criticize my work, but I would take Edgar Degas. And the reason being because he did so many things, from classical painting, academic drawing, all the way to a wonderful late wild pastels. He did etchings, prints, sculpture. So you’d have the whole, in a sense, history of art for you.
Wendy Lesser: I also can see an affinity between his work and yours in the sense of the focus on repetition and dailiness and a certain amount of things done over and over and with slight variance. Certainly in the Bay, there’s that.
[To audience] I think it’s just about time for your turn to ask questions, and I’ll just reserve the right to interject every once in a while if I think of something that follows up on one of the things you say. The house lights will come up slightly and there will be people with traveling microphones. If you have a question you should wave your arm around and get the person with the microphone to come to you, but then you should also wave your arm around when you start to speak so that we know it’s you. That is, your disembodied voice will come out of this speaker here, but it’ll be easier for Wayne to speak to you if he has a face to address.
Audience Member 1: What is it that the New York art world just doesn’t get about California art?
Wendy Lesser: That’s a good question.
Wayne Thiebaud: I asked one some years ago who was coming out to teach at UCLA on a temporary New York visiting artists thing, and said to him, “What do you artists in New York think of…” and I mentioned Diebenkorn, Bischoff, Manuel Neri, Theophilus Brown, I named as many as I could. He was a pipe smoker, so he took a long time to answer: “I guess we just don’t think about them.”
They just feel we’re way out here. And I think other than that, they think we’re spoiled. They think we have too nice a life out here, and if you’re not in New York, you’re not anyplace. So if you want to have your tests, come on back and we’ll see what we can do. But they are, unfortunately, missing a great deal. I think it’s getting better. I think more and more with the kind of changes and museums now expanding, and symphonies and all other cultural events getting more diverse and more scattered in more cities, that hopefully it’ll change.
Wendy Lesser: LA seems actually to be a big art center. Have you had much to do with them? Because you’re connected with Allan Stone I guess you go back east for your dealing.
Wayne Thiebaud: I know about it, and there are a lot of good painters there.
Wendy Lesser: There seem to be a lot of galleries and dealers there now, too. I mean, it’s another center like New York in a way.
Wayne Thiebaud: I’m not a very good person to ask about the art scene. One of the reasons for that is, I guess maybe it’s a little bit on purpose, working with students. Students often get the idea [that] there’s only one art world, and that world is illustrated in magazines like Artforum and so on, but I try to tell them, and I think it’s true, that there are really a lot of art worlds. People who find things to do. Ways of painting their own kind of people who support them, who believe in them, who love their work. And in many, many different ways. I mean, you could just be a portrait painter of horses. One fellow I know paints big semi-trucks for truckers and does a wonderful kind of painting.
Students also get the idea that you should paint a certain thing. Students forever might come up and say, “What do you think I ought to be painting?” and what they mean by that is, what is going on? What sort of new figurative thing or whatever the style or particular moment is. I just say—well, the same thing I’ve said tonight, so I won’t bore you again—to find something you really want to paint, that you love and so on. I gave this little spiel once in an audience like this and afterwards a quite shy girl came up and waited to ask a question.
She said, “Can I ask a question?” I said, yes. She said, “Did you really mean what you said about that a painter should be able to paint anything at all? Any subject matter, anything that you might be interested in?” I said, yes. She said, “Now you really mean that? Anything?” Well, then I got a little worried.
Wendy Lesser: A serial killer or something.
Wayne Thiebaud: So I said, “Well, what, what is it you want to paint?” And she put her head down and she said, “Flowers.” That’s a true story. She was worried that she should not paint. I mean, how do we get to those kinds of ridiculous ideas?
Audience Member 2: This is a question. If you had to pick six colors, like three cools and three warms of paints, which ones would they be? I know it’s purely selfish, but I’m just very curious. Outside of black and white. And what manufacturer of paints?
Wayne Thiebaud: You’re asking someone who was a big bargain hunter. I was a Depression child. I just buy off the sale table, usually. Your question is a very important one, about colors. I think what you want to do is be sure you have six basic colors. It’s essentially a fulvus palette. That is, a warm and cool of each basic color. A warm red and a cold red, or in other words, a bluish red and an orange-ish red. And the same with the yellow: a kind of lemon yellow, and then a nice warm yellow. And the same with the blue. And if you have those colors, you can then mix any color. That’s what will give you a palette that’ll mean that, by mixing counter mixing, you can develop total spectral range and include that in any way that you want.
The main thing to stay away from in colors are things like—they actually sell—”Grumbacher Flesh.” Don’t buy that.
Audience Member 3: I don’t know how to ask this, but what I want to know is when I look at your paintings, they look perfectly baked, perfectly formed. And when I paint on a blank canvas for me, sometimes the right side looks good and a part looks like a cake that has dropped. And I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the failure of painting when you’re painting, like when serendipity is good and it looks good, you’re lucky, but how many times did you paint to get to those perfect paintings?
Wayne Thiebaud: You’re asking batting average? Very good question. I estimate about one in twelve, if I’m lucky. That’s the wonder of it, that’s the fun of it. What you’re talking about is a very interesting, critical point. That is, when something is wrong in part of the picture, you have essentially a kind of schizophrenia. And the toughest thing overall, as you all know who are painting is to get things to come together in some sort of cohesive unit, because you’re always working with parts and those parts have to finally find a way to coalesce or to come together.
When someone asked Georges Braques, who didn’t speak very much about what it was that made a good composition, what made a good painting, like a question you’ve asked, he sort of went like this [gestures]. And if you look at his paintings, Georges Braques’ paintings are sort of cast in concrete, in a way. They’re so together. Yet that can’t happen either, because life’s not like that. So he includes variously, as Matisse or Diebenkorn does, always some anomaly, some little off-ness because without that the contrasts are not there. If you want something strong, obviously you have to have something weak. I can remember painting this picture I was so excited about, I had magenta, I had orange, purple and periwinkle blue. A wonderful person looked at it and says, “That damn thing gives me sweet indigestion. Where’s the salt? Where’s the meat?”
I don’t know why everybody’s not painting. It’s such a great thing to do. Why don’t we have it in our school system? What are we doing? Educating half a person. Why are we like that?
Wendy Lesser: What do you do with the eleven that don’t work?
Wayne Thiebaud: Just either paint over them, scrape them off. Burn them up. You try to save them because canvas is expensive, and stretcher bars, but it’s difficult particularly if the surface is very textural. Sometimes I’ll sand them off with a sander.
Wendy Lesser: I don’t know enough technically to know if this is possible, but have you ever had a painting that you thought didn’t work and you set aside and 10 years later, you figured out that you could do things? Is it still paintable at that point? Or is it fixed?
Wayne Thiebaud: I try it all the time, Wendy. God, I hate to say this, but I’m not a big liker of my own work. That isn’t what it’s like. You like what progress you think you’ve made, and even that’s a mythology. Cause you look back and say, God, that painting I did five years [ago] is better than this one. How have I gone backwards? But as long as you can keep doing it, that’s the privilege. That’s the great privilege of being a painter.
Audience Member 4: Hi, I’m down here in the center. My dad was a professional cartoonist for his entire professional career, so I was intrigued that in the blurb that we were handed this evening it said that you were a former cartoonist. I wonder if you could tell some tales about that?
Wayne Thiebaud: Oh, well, a lot of critics think I still am a cartoonist. They don’t know that’s a compliment, as far as I’m concerned. I’m deadly serious. I collect original cartoons. We have a nice collection. I’m particularly fond of early American cartoons, but I love cartoonists. I also feel very strongly that caricature, which is certainly part of cartoons, plays a central role in the whole stylistic evolution of painting.
You can see by the use of caricature how stylistic determines are made. We often think of caricature as big noses and big heads, small bodies. No, there’s caricature also of color, of space, of composition, of all of those characteristics. Of lighting. I mean, Bonnard is a tremendous caricature of light sources, as was El Greco.
So the wonder of that whole graphic world, which I’m very much in admiration [of], deals with those same elements. After all, commercial artists and illustrators are all trained in the same art schools. They may have different emphasis, but it comes from the same base, the same route. For me, cartoonists are very great artists. You never know where art is going to come from anyway. No one thought Daumier would ever be considered a fine artist.
Wendy Lesser: In a way, it’s like the movies for us. That is, the movies that are now well respected around the world are the B movies of the forties and fifties. You know, the ones that the intellectuals weren’t going to see. Those were just the trashy movies that were put out by the studio.
Audience Member 5: I’ve heard that you don’t consider yourself to be a pop artist, or to have work that you considered pop at the time. I’m wondering if you could talk about how you feel about that movement and your relation to it as kind of a, I don’t know, sort of bastard cousin or something.
Wendy Lesser: I’m sure the Bishop would be glad to hear about that.
Wayne Thiebaud: It’s one interesting thing about painters, I think. Critics usually are responsible for naming what you are, whether it’s Impressionism or Cubism or Fauvism. And painters, even Bay Area Figurative painters, if you really ask them, none of them consider themselves card-carrying Bay Area Figurative painters or card-carrying pop artists.
In my own case I was fortunate that they called me anything, and I was so happy to have attention. But in my own evaluation of pop art it’s quite different from the critical, I suppose, fixation about it. Because I come from advertising and respect it very much and love American illustration and all of that, I’m not so sure they have it right about what they’re saying about pop art. I knew most of them and got to know some of them even later. All of them have questions about it.
I also think that it did a disservice to say that because Warhol uses commercial imagery that contextually that makes it art. Those declarations are in question. In my mind, at least, it’s a little bit of an insult to what the tradition of graphic design and illustration are about because those traditions are very grand traditions with admirable devotees, and more and more people are paying more attention to them. Now a lot of those American illustrations, original illustrations, are being sold for more money than a lot of fine art. Not that money is an evaluator of the quality of something, but it does give us pause for these easy categorizations. We’re not quite so sure of what fine art is, as opposed to non fine art.
Most of the world’s art was done for reasons other than art. This is a kind of late idea.
“Mr. Titian, I would like you next Thursday to have a round painting at the end of this hall. I’ve got the theme all ready for you, and I want to be sure you include in that the parquet floor. You got that?” “Yes, sir.” It’s not uncommon at all.
Wendy Lesser: Have you taken many commissions? Not necessarily of that sort, but—
Wayne Thiebaud: —Not since I left Rexall Drugs. Commissions are tough. We were talking earlier about when someone wants you to paint a portrait, that is practically an impossibility. That’s why even John Singer Sargent, who was so good at it, hated it. Detested it. [Imitating] “I don’t want to do any more goddamned portraits.” He went off and did watercolors instead. It’s a tough thing, and he makes that great statement. Someone asked the definition of a good portrait and he said, “It’s a painting with something slightly wrong with the mouth.”
It’s always something, because we know the human figure so well, and particularly if we’re close to the figure, and how would you ever really be satisfied with a portrait of your grandchild or someone you love?
City Arts and Lectures: The next question comes from the balcony.
Audience Member 6: Gazing into one of your cityscapes of San Francisco, the more I look into it, I start to get vertigo because I’m looking down. While you were painting it, did you ever experience any vertigo?
Wayne Thiebaud: As I was saying earlier about the body, I try to feel that, or try to make myself think I’ve felt it, and it sort of comes to the same thing. When you actually sort of move with it or you feel what it would be like to fall, or when you’re painting the little cars that you see on California Street or one of those steep streets, you visually wonder how they can hold their position. They’re like a little necklace of cars and you try to figure out a way. It’s interesting ‘cause if you make them too specific and too grounded and too real, in a sense, they don’t seem to work so well.
Realism is funny because if you’re painting something that you want to represent—let’s say the body—you can’t just copy it. You can’t just, you know, note by note, just try to do this [gestures] for days, and you finally find the little highlights and pretty soon there’s a little fly on the temple. What you end up with is a kind of taxidermy. It’s like a very, either surreal or over-real faults thing. So realism depends on attempting to negotiate or to collate several kinds of perceptual reality and make people think it’s one reality.
Even with someone like Thomas Eakins. If you look at his paintings—he was a very beautiful American realist painter, one of the best, I think—you look at that man rowing in the boat, if you know that image, and you think, my God, that looks so much like a photographic rendition. You can see the water, see every ripple. And then as you look away from that and begin to participate in the painting and go to the bank, there’s this wonderful bunch of roots from trees and that’s pretty real, but it’s less real. And you keep working back, you come to a little bridge and that has such exquisite scale because whatever he puts down is just exactly the right amount of detail and the right amount of size, but it’s much more generalized than what’s upfront. And then to a whole group of trees, which is absolutely an impressionists’. He’s looked at that like this [gestures]: totally, partially, and focused so that when you look at the painting, you take it in as a totality. But it has all maybe six or eight different kinds of perceptual experiences codified into one. How did I get on this? I can’t remember.
Wendy Lesser: It was all about vertigo, and it followed directly from it.
Wayne Thiebaud: Oh, yes. I’m so pleased that you feel like you’re going to fall.
Audience Member 7: Wayne, my name is Catherine Berry and I’m a former student of yours, and I would like to declare publicly the gratitude and appreciation I have for your encouragement. I became an art teacher and taught students from grades five through eight. Thank you very much.
Wayne Thiebaud: Wow, bless your heart. That’s wonderful. We need more.
Wendy Lesser: I wanted to ask a question, while they’re finding the next person to ask, that possibly causes you to think or talk in a way that you don’t usually do, because you clearly are such a nice man and positive and warm. I wonder if there’s anything, any kind of painting or any particular artwork that you hate?
Wayne Thiebaud: I’ll tell a little story. Maybe you’ve heard this, two women walking through, I guess it was The Metropolitan, maybe? I was watching them. They came out of an exhibit and they were exclaiming how much they’d enjoyed it. They passed by another doorway, and one was sort of leading the other one. They seemed to be in their seventies. She looked in the room, went in about this far and looked around, “Oh no, no, we’re not going in there!” and hustled her on past this door. Well, I couldn’t wait to see what it was. It was an exhibition of surrealism. That’s one style which I really don’t care for.
Wendy Lesser: Do you care to elaborate or do you think that’s enough? Everybody will understand.
Wayne Thiebaud: One of my favorite painters people say is a surrealist, Giorgio de Chirico. I love his paintings very much, and other people who’ve been called surrealists. But I’m talking about my own limited idea of what surrealism is, which has to do with, uh, sort of, well, I won’t say it.
Audience Member 8: Up here in the balcony over here. It seems to me every time I see an exhibit of yours that you keep getting wilder and more wonderful. I think you’re just doing fabulous stuff. And these paintings that you’re doing of the river scenes in the valley, I was wondering, along the lines of perspective the gentleman was asking about vertigo, do you have hawks in your family? Do you fly in your imagination? What do you do to get the perspective as if one were looking from way up on high, down on these vast fields?
Wayne Thiebaud: Well, at one point the family lived down in that Delta country. They do look much like aerial views, but I don’t go up for that. I get up on a levee, which may be 25 or 30 feet high possibly.
But all of that is then done in the studio, after I make lots of drawings and notes, and put together with very classical kinds of various projective systems, where again, what I’m trying to do is to give a lot of different perspective views, which might be very high, a medium height, the height of a helicopter, as opposed to a crop duster and even on the ground.
The reason for that is that the Delta is full of these marvelous changes all the time. In terms of season, colors, floration, agricultural patterns, along with the river. So it really represents, and since I always work on problems of various kinds, the experience down there gave me this wonderful opportunity to develop problems of that kind. That’s the way those were developed.
Audience Member 9: This is a related question, and that is: many of your paintings appear to have the optical signature that long lenses make. I was wondering if photography plays a part in influencing your vision?
Wayne Thiebaud: No, but telescopic viewing does. For a long time, I kept a spotting scope on the rear window of a house on Potrero Hill and looked out towards Twin Peaks.
And that of course compresses the space in interesting ways. That was very helpful, I think.
Wendy Lesser: We’ve just about run out of time, but I’m glad to have ended on such a practical note. It’s very suitable to our guests tonight, and I’m very, very grateful for the wonderful questions from the audience.
It’s great to have so many people who knew, technically, so much about painting, and about Wayne Thiebaud’s painting, asking their questions. So thank you very much. And thank you.
Wayne Thiebaud: Yes, thank you.