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Thomas Kinkade  

The Painter America Loved

One in every 20 homes in the U.S. contain a Thomas Kinkade painting, print, or tchotchke stamped with his work. He is the most collected artist in America, but on January 6, 1958, when he was born, he was just another small-town kid, living on an unpaved road in Placerville, California; an isolated, rural community in the Sierra foothills.  

William Thomas Kinkade III preferred to go by a shortened version of his middle name, Thom. When his parents divorced, Thom was only 5 years old. “I was the only kid from a divorced home in that whole community I knew of,” he said. “It’s a very common thing now, but at that time it was a cause of embarrassment and shame.” After his father left the family, Kinkade and his siblings were raised in relative poverty, by their single mother. He longed for a home that had the lights on, the fireplace lit, and possessed a “warm, homey feel”.

Even then, Thom knew he wanted to be an artist. “I was always the kid who could draw,” he says. “I had this talent, and it was the one thing that gave me some kind of dignity amidst my impoverished personal environment.” His mother, Mary Ann, fondly remembered his second-grade teacher predicting that Thom would find success as an artist one day.

“I think Norman Rockwell was my earliest hero,” Kinkade shared in a 2003 interview. “I remember my mom had a big collection of copies of the [Saturday Evening Post] magazines, and that was really my introduction to him (Rockwell) and other great illustrators.”


When Thom was 12 years old, Glenn Wessels, an accomplished artist, retired from his teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley, and moved in next door to the Kinkade family. Thom’s painting education began in Wessels’s barn when Thom asked if he could apprentice with the older artist. Thom then spent the next 6 years learning from Wessel. When Thom graduated high school in 1976, Glenn encouraged him to attend the University of California, Berkeley. While there on scholarship, Thom immersed himself in the “diversity of ideas”. He imagined himself becoming a sophisticated art scholar; the opposite happened. Thom recalls, “My college professor pontificated about the artist being an icon, an island, who had to be detached from the culture. He would say, ‘Your art is all about you. It doesn’t matter if they understand it. It doesn’t matter if they have any interest in it. It’s all about you.’ That just grated on my sensibilities.”  Eventually Thom rejected the “pseudo-sophistication” he had learned at college and decided that his art should appeal to everybody, not just art critics.


Kinkade then transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, but dropped out to paint backgrounds for the 1983 fantasy animated film Fire and Ice with his good friend and fellow artist, James Gurney (who made ends meet by sketching portraits of strangers, and would go on to author and illustrate the 1998 cult children’s book Dinotopia). Eventually, the two determined young men landed in New York City with an idea for a book; by 1982, they’d published The Artist’s Guide to Sketching. It was the best-selling book for the publisher that year.


In 1982 Thom returned to California and became a born-again Christian and married Nanette Wiley. As he began his painting career, he decided that his painting should reflect his foundational values.  “I try to create images of inspiration, hope, a simpler way of life,” he said. "It's not the world we live in, it's the world we wished we live in. People wish they could find that stream, that cabin in the woods."


He and Nanette pooled their money and began selling prints in front of their local grocery store for $55 each. From there, his success snowballed, and by the late 1990’s Kinkade began franchising galleries in malls and shopping centers across the country. Instead of cold white walls dotted with strange, abstract art, Thom’s galleries had plush, comfortable chairs, thick carpets, and roaring fireplaces. His paintings and prints ranged in price from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. These prices were considered very reasonable compared to other “high art” galleries that began at $1000 and continued up from there.


Bridges, gates and grassy inclines leading upward were symbols of Thom’s religious faith and were his favorite subjects to paint. Some of his paintings depict verses of the Bible, such as his “A Light in the Storm”, inspired by John 8:12: “I am the light of the world.” He also enjoyed incorporating other whimsical “extras” into each painting; Those who look closely may be able to find the letter N for Thom’s wife, Nannette, which he worked into all his paintings at the time. Another whimsical interloper that made their way into Kinkade paintings is America’s most beloved illustrator, Norman Rockwell. In “Hometown Morning,” you can just make out the famous illustrator’s big round glasses in the windshield of an old car. In “A Holiday Gathering”, Rockwell is seen in the corner hurrying up a walk toward a brightly glowing house. American’s were entranced and delighted by Thom’s work and purchased millions of paintings, prints, cards, and other more expensive items such as lazy boy loungers, bath robes and countless other items imprinted with his now iconic images. American’s simply couldn’t get enough of Kinkade in the 1990’s. 


Art critics however dismissed Kinkade’s art by describing it as, “sacrid”, “twee” and “irrelevant”. Thom characterized these comments as elitist and defended his artistic relevancy by saying, “Here’s the point…My art is relevant because it’s relevant to 10 million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. I’m relevant to real people.”

Although the art critic culture had little to say when Thomas Kinkade died on April 6, 2012, his passing was mourned by millions of everyday real people, who deeply appreciated the warm, nostalgic, and idyllic messages of hope his paintings provide in an otherwise stressful world.


Online Resources:

* In the link below your young artist will receive a FREE art lesson from the Painter of Light himself, Thomas Kinkade! You will learn how to draw fruit, a lighthouse AND a sail boat!

* Take a virtual tour of Thomas Kinkade’s art studio at “Ivy Gate Cottage” where all his masterpieces were made. In addition to a tour, Thom himself will guide you through the finishing process on one of his paintings and give lessons on light and shadow for your own art work!

 * The Hardin County Public Library has over 19 books written or illustrated by Thomas Kinkade. In addition to books, you can also check out the semi-biographical DVD called “Christmas Cottage” in which Kinkade finds his mother is ready to lose the family cottage to foreclosure. He is inspired to paint a mural of his hometown, which launches his career and helps the town rediscover their Christmas spirit.