Contemporary Art

Wayne Thiebaud on the California Landscape and His Favorite Dessert

By Stephanie Sporn

A t 97, Wayne Thiebaud is thriving. His current show, Wayne Thiebaud, Draftsman, at The Morgan Library & Museum, has been fervently praised for exposing the American artist’s lesser-known works on paper. Recognizing Thiebaud’s contribution to art history, as well as his activist sensibility, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is awarding the California native with the first Art & Environment Award, to be presented at their 20th Anniversary Celebration Auction on 15 September in Sonoma. “I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to love and paint our California landscape, but its future depends on taking care of our environment.” Thiebaud told Sotheby’s. Thiebaud’s Mountain Split will also be the LDF auction’s star lot. “It’s a deep pleasure to give a painting so that we can help keep the environment safe and operating,” said Thiebaud. Ahead, the artist discusses the enduring appeal of California’s natural scenery and ends on a sweet note, sharing the recipe to his heart.

Wayne Thiebaud, Mountain Split, 2011–2017. Starting bid $3,000,000. This lot was generously facilitated by Acquavella Galleries, who recently spotlighted the artist’s luminous landscapes in a spring 2018 exhibition. © 2018 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, NY.  

How has the California landscape shaped your life and career?
The celebration of landscape has been a long tradition for painters of many masterpieces. I’ve been fortunate enough to live most of my life in California and am also fortunate that California has such a varied, unlimited landscape, in terms of oceans, lakes, rivers, deserts and mountains.

What does being the first LDF Art & Environment Award recipient mean to you?
I grew up in Long Beach and spent most of my life in Southern California. I then worked and became a teacher and had the privilege of imparting my students with the wonderful challenge of being painters. So receiving this kind of recognition is a great joy and hopefully a celebration of how we should continue to do our duty in keeping the environment nourished.

Whether it’s cakes or California, you have such an uncanny style and palette. Where does your distinct color scheme come from?
There isn’t necessarily a Thiebaud color scheme. It’s based on a long tradition of color uses in painting and comes somewhat from the Fauve tradition. It also very much stems from the Matisse color studies and the idea of incorporating as much of the rainbow range as possible into your art. You’re using color in order to create and render light.

"Fortunately early on, I made up my mind that I would paint anything I wanted at anytime."

Regarding the linear perspective of your landscapes, such as Mountain Split, how consciously do you incorporate geometry into your practice? Would you say you have a mathematical, pragmatic side?
Yes, and that’s essentially a basic principle of painting compositions. Mathematics has always been at the roots of good compositional painting.

What would you say you most enjoy depicting: landscapes, food, everyday objects, people?
Fortunately early on, I made up my mind that I would paint anything I wanted at anytime. I’ve been able to try almost anything, and that’s what I continue to do today. Only at the time that I’m taking on the subject matter would I say I have a favorite. Lately it’s been landscapes, which I’ve been concentrating on the last ten years or so.

Wayne Thiebaud, Meringue Mix, 1999. Private Collection / Bridgeman Images. © 2018 Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS) New York, NY.

Channeling your iconic images of confections, do you have a favorite dessert to paint?
I met my wife, and I was charmed by her lemon meringue pie. That became my favorite dessert, both to paint and to eat.

What is something you think most people would be surprised to know about you?
They’d probably be shocked to know that I’m still playing tennis.

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