Brush with Greatness

Searching the light and shadows for Thomas Kinkade

Reproduction Values

You can find the art of Thomas Kinkade almost anywhere. Finding the Painter of Light himself is a little more difficult.

June 06, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

In the world according to Thomas Kinkade, life is simple, picturesque. Cozy cottages always glow with inviting light, flowers of all varieties always bloom in improbable synchronicity, the sun always breaks through storm clouds, promising hope and happiness and har-mony. Always.

In Kinkadia, as in the incredibly popular paintings he produces, there are no angry slashes of emotion, no moral ambiguities, no overly cluttered lives. Always, though, there is a confounding of fantasy and realism, of light and darkness, a sense of childlike confidence in mankind and nature. And, of course, there are products. A multitude of products. From sofas to screen savers to soap, an abundance of material objects conjure Kinkade's never-never land.

Two hundred signature galleries and thousands of stores carry reproduced paintings, mugs, tapestries, stationery, serving trays. With 80,000 QVC clients, Kinkade is one of the home shopping network's top five collectible lines, up there with Marie Osmond dolls and the cuddly Boyds Bears Collection. Admirers can visit the Thomas Kinkade National Archive in Monterey, Calif., or flag down one of two mobile Kinkade museums that crisscross the country. They can lose themselves in the serene music his work has inspired one pianist to record, watch KinkadeScapes -- video meanderings through his paintings -- or study the soothing philosophy espoused in his numerous books.

For Kinkade, 41, who has taken the middlebrow art market by storm in the last decade, it's just a beginning, says Raymond A. Peterson, CEO of Media Arts Group Inc., the company that markets the California-based artist. Never mind those elites who may dismiss him as a fraud, who don't understand or even belittle his mission: to bless others with his work, to remind them "that there are still good things in this world, that tranquillity and beauty are still available."

The Kinkade "lifestyle brand," Peterson says, has infinite potential. A home store, like Crate & Barrel, is not inconceivable, nor are housing developments, novels, television specials or a movie studio based on Kinkade imagery.

"When you think about Walt Disney, he started with the mouse and just started building on that," says Peterson. If Disney could leverage a rodent into an entertainment empire, why can't Kinkade leverage his fairy-tale cottages into a kingdom?

"Thom's got huge vision," Peterson says. "Thom's vision is scary."

Every Thomas Kinkade catalog, calendar and newspaper ad carries the trademarked phrase "Painter of Light." It's a reference to Kinkade's self-identification with the 19th-century Hudson River School, a group of artists whose dazzling lighting techniques praised God and the American doctrine of manifest destiny. It's also a reminder to would-be buyers of the mass-produced artist's signature effect -- the sunbeams, lamps and windows in the reproductions of his paintings that, thanks to an innovative lithographic process, appear to glow when room lights are dimmed.

But for all his success and acclaim, little light has been shed on the Painter of Light himself. Kinkade lives in zealously guarded privacy. The personal tales he shares with admirers help to sell pictures, but his sunny self-help adages concerning service and family and God reveal little about the man behind them.

Though he's been a force in the world of "mall art" for nearly a decade, I first heard of Thomas Kinkade only last year, when a promotional blitz announced a new Kinkade gallery in Harborplace. How, I wondered as I studied the advertising, could I have missed the millennium's answer to Michelangelo, a man described as "one of the most successful painters of the 20th century?"

On the March day when Kinkade's much-anticipated "Carmel Sunset on Ocean Avenue" ($1,260 for a framed canvas lithograph) is released, I go to Harborplace in search of clues to the Kinkade phenomenon.

The gallery, its walls carpeted in clubby forest green and dimly lighted, is bustling with visitors. The featured lithograph, a large, rain-streaked streetscape of the oceanside California town of Carmel, hangs above a mantelpiece. It has many of Kinkade's characteristic touches: vintage cars, people in clothing of different eras, a plucky pooch, a cameo of the artist himself at his easel. Several "N's" have been hidden in the artwork in tribute to his wife, Nanette. And when the lighting is dimmed, the sun appears to radiate from behind the clouds -- the effect Kinkade's company has termed "luminous lithography."

In Kinkade galleries, reproductions vary in price from $15 for a simple calendar to $300 for a Masonite-backed lithograph to $15,000 and up for "canvas transfer reproductions" signed and personally highlighted by the artist. (On the secondary market, an increasingly rare Kinkade original can bring $500,000 these days. In Kinkadia, there's a price point for everyone, including Microsoft chief Bill Gates, said to own a Kinkade.)

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