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Wayne Thiebaud Photo

Wayne Thiebaud

American Painter

Born: November 15, 1920 - Mesa, Arizona, United States
Died: December 25, 2021 - Sacramento, California
Movements and Styles:
Pop Art
"I don't make a lot of distinctions between things like landscape and figure painting, because to me the problems are inherently the same - lighting, color, structure and so on - certainly traditional and ordinary problems."
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Wayne Thiebaud Signature
"The nerve of failure I think is paramount. Learning by mistakes, modifying, reconstituting, reorganizing."
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Wayne Thiebaud Signature
"I don't like the term 'artist.' It's a term which I'm uncomfortable with, but I love the idea of being a cartoonist, a draftsman, a designer, a painter...."
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Wayne Thiebaud Signature
"[P]ainting itself is a kind of miracle, because what you're doing is reducing a three-dimensional world of living, active organized chaos into this little, flat, unmoving, quiet, flat thing, which has to, in some ways, be able to speak to you."
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Wayne Thiebaud Signature
"I think art is probably our saving grace. It can almost ignore our animal premise and spirits. It's worth investing in as many deeply involved people as we can muster because I think that’s where our hopes lie: in giving us a life of pleasure, challenge, comfort, joyousness—all of the things that make us human and able to relate kindly to each other."
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Wayne Thiebaud Signature
"His canvases are some of the most important paintings ever made in California, and they possess an enduring interest, combining nostalgia and optimism, loneliness and isolation"
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Curator Scott Shields

Summary of Wayne Thiebaud

While rooted in the everyday, West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud's compositions spring from his imagination and have a poetic, sometimes melancholic, quality about them. Thiebaud bucked artistic trends to create his own vision of American culture. Trained as a commercial artist and uninterested in the histrionics surrounding Abstract Expressionism, Thiebaud concentrated his attention on ordinary objects, thus garnering comparisons to Pop Art of the 1960s, yet Thiebaud brushed away such comparisons, saying he was "just an old-fashioned painter."

A popular teacher, Thiebaud was a generous mentor, and artists such as Mel Ramos, Fritz Scholder, and Faith Bromberg have spoken his praises. Further, Thiebaud's embrace of Americana - as seen through his bakery cases and landscapes - has endeared him to a wider audience that see something of themselves in his paintings.


  • Thiebaud began his artistic path studying commercial art and illustration before turning to fine arts study, and this early training continues to inform his work. The linear, even illustrative, quality of his paintings suggest advertisements and commercial photographs. Thiebaud has always felt that the line between commercial and fine art is too rigidly drawn, and his work constantly transgresses that border.
  • While often associated with Pop Art because of a shared subject matter, Thiebaud is more often than not absorbed in traditional problems of painting - how to create depth without sacrificing the two-dimensionality of painting and how objects relate to one another. Through seemingly simple still lifes, Thiebaud evokes stories of plenty and loss, prompting an emotional response from the viewer that is absent in Pop Art.
  • Thiebaud has often spoken of the "Americanness" of his paintings. His depictions of cakes, pastries, everyday objects, and landscapes convey an earnestness and curiosity that can be traced back to the likes of Edward Hopper and earlier American art. While some have spoken of a melancholic, even sinister, mood in some of his paintings, they lack a biting critique, or rebuke, of American consumer culture and instead offer a meditation on it.

Biography of Wayne Thiebaud

Wayne Thiebaud Photo

Painting well into his nineties, Thiebaud has made a name for himself as the hardest working artist in America. Continuing to draw or paint every day, he says he can work almost anyplace: "I’ve worked in basements, garages, even kitchens."

Important Art by Wayne Thiebaud

Progression of Art


An orderly array of cakes sit atop cake stands as if in a baker's display case. The overlapping cakes and their shadows create a tight, gridded composition that feels static, and yet the thin cake stands hardly seem capable of holding up the sumptuously decorated cakes, threatening the possibility of toppled pastries. Thiebaud compresses, or flattens, the space by using a simple, monochrome background, barely distinguishing between the wall and the surface on which the cakes sit, as well as employing a skewed perspective. This space combined with a limited palette of subdued pastel shades, with a few red, pink, and yellow accents, creates a unified composition. While most of the cakes are differently decorated, save the two in the center, the overall effect is of similarity and repetition.

The use of solid outlines and shadows on a stark background is typical of Thiebaud's work in the 1960s, which has much in common with advertising images, and its subject matter - common consumer items - aligns it with much of Pop Art, but its thickly applied paint sets it apart from much of the movement. Curator Megan Fizell writes, "The frosting upon Wayne Thiebaud's 1963 painting, Cakes, is so thickly applied that I am often tempted to reach out, run my finger along one of the perfect cake-tops to taste the sugary dessert." As such, the painting exemplifies "object transference" (a term Thiebaud used to describe his own work), meaning that the paint literally mimics the element it depicts - in this case frosting. To further compound this tendency, American artist Sharon Core recreated the painting as a still life and then photographed it. To achieve the look of the heavy brushstrokes, she replicated the effect in frosting - thus completing the cycle of imitation between the subject and its representation.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC


Green Dress

Thiebaud's daughter, Twinka, wearing a simple green dress, sits on a stool, holding a piece of paper, perhaps a work of art. She casts a slight shadow on the cream-colored floor and wall, and she looks out toward the viewer. Thiebaud uses a repeating color palette to create a harmonious composition; the emerald of the dress is used in the sitter's cheekbone, the orange of the stool reappears in the hem of the outfit and the paper she holds and is similar to the color of her hair.

Thiebaud's second wife, Betty Jean, described Thiebaud's approach to portraiture, saying, "The muteness of figures reduces them to objectness. They occupy the space like a toy or tree, in a frozen moment of time." Here, as in his cake paintings, the subject is shown against a muted background, emphasized with a shadow - a technique commonly used in commercial illustration - with the effect of both focusing the viewer's attention and isolating the subject from any context. When coupled with the sitter's inscrutable - almost blank - expression, this lack of context results in a sense of detachment, which, while not unusual in Thiebaud's work (or indeed his portraiture), is more surprising given his personal connection to the sitter. In this sense, the sitter is as unreachable as Thiebaud's cakes, despite the detail with which she is painted.

Thiebaud began this painting in 1966, returning to complete it 51 years later. To some, this revisiting suggests longing and nostalgia, but at the same time returning to one's work after a break is a practice Thiebaud routinely recommended to his students, saying, "It's difficult to see the work with any clarity until years later."

Oil on canvas - Collection of the artist


Two Paint Cans

Here, two paint cans, one open with paint dribbled down the side, the other sealed and clean, sit side by side. This humble still life reads as a classic study of color and volume; art historian Mara Holt Skov explains that Thiebaud "sees each new painting as an opportunity for him to confront anew the classic problems of painting - the making of an illusion of 3-D space on a 2-D plane using fluid materials, specific tools and an unfailing supply of physical, intellectual and emotional effort." The familiar, spare, cream-colored background highlights the complexity of the reflective, paint-covered surfaces of the cans.

With Two Paint Cans Thiebaud elevates the ordinary into something more profound. He said, "The wonderful thing about common objects, of almost any kind, is exactly what the poets talk about. They are talking about a transcendent potential, that they can be more than they are. For instance, let's say a bunch of kitchen objects like [18th century French painter] Chardin: copper pipes, clay pots, a loaf of bread. Your job as a painter is to make them different enough and special enough that when you go back to look at the kitchen's actual objects, they seem wanting." On another note, though, one senses that Thiebaud is also making subtle references to painters who came before. The paint splattered surface under the cans is reminiscent of paintings by Jackson Pollock or Cy Twombly, and one wonders if the subject matter - two cans - might be a sly nod to Jasper Johns' famous Painted Bronze (Ale Cans) (1960).

The title of the work states specifically the number of objects portrayed, a common practice for Thiebaud and one that led Susan Goldman Rubin to put together the children's book Counting with Wayne Thiebaud (2007).

Oil on paper mounted on board - Thiebaud Family Collection


Bakery Case

Pastries and cakes sparsely populate a simple bakery case. The sleekness of the case and the simplicity of the sweets inside contrast sharply with the ornately decorated wedding cake that sits atop the case. As with many of his paintings, the paint application is quite thick, emphasizing the tactility of the objects depicted. While similar in subject matter to his 1963 Cakes, the addition of the bakery case both produces more depth in the composition and places almost all of the pastries just out of the viewer's reach.

One possible reading, inspired by Thiebaud's experience of growing up during the Great Depression, is that the bakery case instantiates the unattainable. The depiction of food and consumer goods behind shop windows or cases is common in his work, perhaps challenging popular advertising that suggests goods are easily within reach and attainable. Furthermore, the empty space in the case juxtaposes the ideas of abundance and scarcity. The theater of the bakery case also inspired Thiebaud; he recalled, "I would really think of the bakery counters, of the way the counter was lit, where the pies were placed, but I wanted just a piece of the experience. From when I worked in restaurants.... [It was] always poetic to me." In this accounting, the pastries become characters, lit on a stage, and are more than they appear.

Oil on canvas - Thiebaud Family Collection


Fall Fields

In its vibrant colors and steep perspective, Fall Fields is typical of Thiebaud's landscape paintings. A road trip across the United States inspired Thiebaud, but while based on observation, Thiebaud exaggerated particular shapes, patterns, and colors - flattening and distorting the landscape almost to the point of abstraction, giving the painting an imaginative quality that renders it both terrestrial and dreamlike. As the critic John Yau writes, "Thiebaud conflated the forms and colors of the observable world with those of the imagined world so that they were virtually indistinguishable from each other."

The particular perspective of this work is reminiscent of illustration and of film, perhaps recalling Thiebaud's earlier training. Some critics have compared it to Hockney's Going up Garrowby Hill (2000) which shares its skewed perspective and vibrant palette; however, while Garrowby Hill depicts Yorkshire in England, Thiebaud insists on the importance of "Americanness" in his work. Art critic Laura Cumming explains, "Thiebaud's joy in America extends out through the landscape, no matter how industrial. Gold and pink striped fields somehow keep their terrestrial reality, despite the celestial colors, because he puts so much exactitude into the drawing that underpins every work." Others have offered a more sinister interpretation - suggesting that the painting represents the teetering and imminent toppling of the American Dream.

Oil and acrylic on canvas - Collection of the artist

Similar Art

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Wayne Thiebaud
Influenced by Artist
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    Fred Dalkey
Friends & Personal Connections
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    Fritz Scholder
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    Faith Bromberg
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    Garry Hutton
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    Mel Ramos
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    Sharon Core
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Wayne Thiebaud Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Dawn Kanter
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 30 Apr 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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