Wayne Thiebaud

"You missed probably the best lecture we ever hosted," painter and professor Joseph Ablow's eyes lit up in a way that cut to the quick, confirming what I already knew. I was at a party at the studio of my drawing professor, Morton Sacks, many years after graduating and moving to Seattle.

"He also brought his son and they went around to the graduate studios and talked to the students and bought some of their work."


Wayne Thiebaud was coming to speak to our senior class at Boston University. It was my fifth year of college and I was part time, taking only the core classes I needed to graduate, commuting 30 miles from my parents' home and working a job every other day to help pay the bills.

I was scheduled to work that day at the Farm and Garden Center. Looking back, it's easy to spot one of those moments where you decide what's important and step up and make the meaningful choice.

But at the time, I couldn't see how to call in and cancel my shift. I couldn't see how to balance the 'real world' with my academic one. I went to work.

When the Paul Thiebaud Gallery showed my work at the 2005 San Francisco International Art Exposition, they hung my Acrylic Squarescapes next to some small city paintings of Wayne Thiebaud's.

While my city views are composed of space-flattening squares, his San Francisco views are a cunning blend of literal details and exaggerated line and overlap that builds, to my eye, on the frontal views of his bakery and deli counters. The result is a vertigo-inducing effect that defies the mind and somehow delivers the experience of those impossibly steep streets.

I was honored and thrilled by the connection made, as I understood it, between two bodies of work in which the artist has invented a perspective.

I finally got to hear Wayne Thiebaud speak. It was one of the series of talks organized by Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review, in San Francisco at the Herbst Auditorium. Ms. Lesser interviewed Mr. Thiebaud.

The stage was arranged in a cozy living room setting, and Mr. Thiebaud was at ease in the wing-backed chair. With his lean frame you could easily imagine him popping onto the courts the next day for a game of tennis.

One of the best things he said that night was about the physicality of art. "The art department should be next to the gym!" He meant not only the making of art, which is physical, but that art should deliver a visceral experience of some kind, a sensation, a vibration, a response, however mild or violent.

He was delighted when one man exclaimed, complained almost, that the new city paintings made him sick with vertigo. Terrific!

He was gracious with questions. Someone asked him if he had any favorite colors of paint. After a small pause he answered, "You can make any color with a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries."

It was the most succinct explanation I've heard of the color wheel, and I've based my own teaching of color on it ever since.

He was sharp, generous, illuminating, droll, and humble about his own success. You get the feeling he's far more at home as teacher than art star.

In my opinion, he's one of the greatest living teachers of art, in addition to being a deeply inventive, expressive artist, one who is both playful and serious. He has always done what he wants to do.

"Is it alright if I just want to paint flowers?" asked the young woman in an agony of shyness after a lecture. He told this story to illustrate how the "concept" end of contemporary art sometimes bulldozes the purely visual part.

After the talk, I stood in line to meet him. I shook his hand and smiled and said how much I'd enjoyed it.


In the video above he is interviewed for a television channel

Wayne Thiebaud at home in Sacramento -  New York Times, Sun Oct 3, 2010

Paul Thiebaud journal entry