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Thomas Kinkade — The Artist We Love to Hate
Although Thomas Kinkade passed away several years ago in 2012 he is still a polarizing figure in the world of art. His business approach inspires envy and disdain, depending on who you talk to. During his life Kinkade was consistently in the news. There were legal disagreements between his company, former employees, franchised gallery owners, and the FBI. But at the same time he was dealing with such scandals (and perhaps because of them), he was simultaneously and bar none, the best-known contemporary artist in America.
Thomas Kinkade created a sizable fortune with the business he created. Thomas Kinkade Studios is still run in his name. He started by 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.
His work appeared on greeting cards, wrapping paper, puzzles, mugs and other household sundries. You could purchase his prints and hang them in your home. Many artists hated him as he banked millions with the general public making him rich and famous.
Meeting Thomas Kinkade
I first met Thomas Kinkade more than 35 years ago when he and James Gurney stopped by my office just before heading off to Europe. They were to have their resulting travel sketches published in a 1982 book, The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, published by Watson-Guptill.
I met up with Kinkade 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 book on his plein air paintings, The Artist in Nature: Thomas Kinkade and the Plein Air Tradition (also published by Watson-Guptill.
Could His Success Be Repeated By Others?
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 through painting. I wanted to understand how he accomplished that success and determine for myself 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 that appealed to me deeply.
Lessons Learned from Thomas Kinkade
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. They are moved by 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 Thomas Kinkade brought visual storytelling into the 21st century. You have to give him that. He is the artist who showed how representation could still be king.
The Brand Lives On
Thomas Kinkade’s brand is still thriving. The “studio” has more than 24,000 Instagram followers. It secured a deal with Disney to create an extensive suite of limited edition prints and posters of Disney movie characters. The Thomas Kinkade website is active, and so is its publishing business and licensing arm. The artist’s work continues to be licensed for events and products worldwide. You can likely say that Thomas Kinkade, even years after his death, is here to stay.
Is there anything worthwhile to learn from him—either as a good example or a bad one? I’ll depend on you to have the last word to that question.
Kinkade painted over-the-top scenery and that’s no crime. But put your own spin on woodland streams and appealing forest scenes with Country Scenes in Acrylics. 8 easy-to-follow, start-to-finish painting projects show you the way — enjoy!
Steve Doherty is a writer and artist, and was the editor-in-chief of American Artist magazine for more than 25 years. This article was originally published in 2009.