Composing Contemporary Life

How does Wayne Thiebaud create his paintings?

When Wayne Thiebaud makes a painting, he begins by thinking about the composition. He knows there are countless ways to capture a scene by playing with elements of art including texture, light, and perspective.

Thiebaud paints still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, each a traditional genre, or category of art. Working within these established genres gives the artist freedom to experiment with fresh, new ways of constructing his compositions.

When Wayne Thiebaud plans an artwork, he starts with the composition. The artist paints still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Each of these is a traditional genre, or category of art. Thiebaud follows some of the rules of these genres. But he also experiments with new ways of using perspective, light, and texture.

Wayne Thiebaud, Confections, 1962. Oil on canvas, 16x20in. (40.64x50.8cm). Gift of Byron R. Meyer, San Francisco, CA. Accession # 2014.343. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Thiebaud show the texture of the ice cream?

Texture in Space

A still life is an arrangement of inanimate objects. Many traditional still lifes feature flowers or fruit, but Thiebaud chooses objects that provide a snapshot of modern life. His 1962 painting Confections, above, shows enticing ice cream sundaes. The artist’s careful rendering of the desserts and the surrounding space elevates the image to the level of fine art.

Four servings of ice cream appear on a counter with a white wall behind them. Although the desserts sit in a line, Thiebaud explores space by placing the low bowl on the right in the foreground and the other three slightly behind it in the middle ground. The wall intersects with the counter in the background. This calculated arrangement creates depth in the scene. Thiebaud also uses a technique called impasto, which means he applies generous layers of paint to the canvas, capturing the texture of ice cream.

In traditional still lifes, artists often show flowers or fruit. But Thiebaud chooses more modern subjects that you probably recognize from everyday life. His 1962 painting Confections, above, shows ice cream sundaes. His careful attention to space and the arrangement of objects makes the image fine art.

Thiebaud paints four ice creams on a counter with a white wall behind them. He places the bowl on the right in the foreground. The three tall desserts are in a line slightly behind it. The wall meets the counter in the background. Thiebaud uses a technique called impasto, meaning he applies thick layers of paint to the canvas. This captures the ice cream’s whipped texture. 

Wayne Thiebaud, Student, 1968. Oil on linen, 60 1/8x48 1/8in. (152.72x122.24cm). San Francisco, CA. The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Thiebaud explore light in this work?

Realistic Light

Look carefully at the objects around you. Notice how the edge of one object overlaps another. Are the edges of the object in the foreground sharp, or do they become hazy when you look directly at them? In his 1968 portrait Student, above, Thiebaud explores the way light bounces off the surfaces of objects. A single bright light shines from just outside the picture plane, illuminating a girl sitting at a desk. Although the viewer can’t see the light itself, the slanting shadow under the chair demonstrates where the light source is located—off to the right. Thiebaud adds a warm halo-like outline around the figure, the clock, the chair, and each shadow. He aims to re-create the way the human eye sees objects overlapping one another.

Look carefully at the objects around you. Find a place where the edge of one object overlaps another. Are the edges of the object in the foreground sharp? Or are they fuzzy? Thiebaud is interested in the way light bounces off objects. He explores light in his 1968 portrait Student, above. A girl sits at a desk. A bright light shines from just outside the scene. The slanting shadow under the chair reveals the light is coming from the right. Thiebaud adds a warm outline around the girl, the clock, the chair, and each shadow. He shows the way the human eye sees light and how objects overlap.

Wayne Thiebaud, River Lake, 2008. Oil on canvas, 60x60in. (152.4x152.4cm). ©Wayne Thiebaud/Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

How does Thiebaud make the perspective in this scene unusual?

Many Points of View

Later in his career, Thiebaud began experimenting with playful versions of traditional genres. In his 2008 River Lake, above, Thiebaud explores perspective, or point of view, in a landscape. Leading lines at the bottom of the composition pull the viewer’s eye into the distance where trees stand upright. Thiebaud does not include a horizon line—the horizontal line where the earth meets the sky—so the water and sky blend together. At the same time, the parallel lines in the dark brown field in the middle ground seem to lift upward, as if seen from above. These two conflicting perspectives appear within the same image, confusing the space.

Thiebaud describes his landscape paintings like this one saying, “People see them a little too quickly as aerial views, but they’re different in the sense that there are many different viewpoints simultaneously.”

How does Thiebaud play with space, texture, light, and perspective in each of the paintings shown here? How do his compositional choices transform traditional genre paintings into contemporary compositions?

Later in his career, Thiebaud experimented with landscapes. To make his 2008 River Lake, above, he uses multiple perspectives. Leading lines pull the viewer’s eye further into an image. Thiebaud paints leading lines at the bottom of the artwork to guide the viewer’s attention toward the trees. He does not include a horizon line (where the ground meets the sky). This causes the water and the sky to blend together. The parallel lines in the brown field tilt upwards, as if you’re seeing the field from above. Thiebaud uses confusing perspectives on purpose, asking viewers to look closer.

How does Thiebaud play with space, texture, light, and perspective? How does he re-create traditional genres?

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