For Wayne Thiebaud, happiness was a solid morning of painting in his Sacramento studio

The Northern California painter, who died Dec. 25 at age 101, did what he loved: making art

By Jeremy Stone

Special to The Examiner

Wayne Thiebaud was not Gary Cooper or Cary Grant — but in 1961, he strode through Manhattan and into my parents’ life as if he were. His arrival from Sacramento at the gallery of my father, Allan Stone, was one of dramatic caution. Wayne had the quiet elegance of a film star who had delivered the goods and would be leaving soon, after a visit to the Frick and Whitney museums.

His interest was to look at art, think about drawing, and work on paintings. He was not much for small talk. He was sure no one would be interested in his work. His lack of hubris and pomposity was always remarkable for an artist of his caliber.

Wayne’s focus and discipline, combined with a love of tennis, contrasted wildly with artists portrayed in movies, television and theater: tormented, unhappy souls with alcoholism and drug issues. His painting had the seductive lusciousness of vanilla frosting, juicy cadmium yellow dresses, fresh cut daffodils. His pastel drawings, thickly worked, had the surface texture of velvet. Nothing was accidental, it came from intentional thought and concentrated effort.

Wayne did participate in the dinner party circuit and gallery and museum openings, always with erudite charm, but he preferred to be in a studio classroom talking about art history, how to begin a painting or develop a drawing. His passion was settling in for a solid morning of painting in his Sacramento studio. Unlike Andy Warhol, he excelled at the process of making his work, not handing it off to a studio assistant to complete.

As a teacher, he was encouraging and patient and clear about the importance of prioritizing, observing and drawing daily. He impressed upon his students the value of learning from the classics: Go to the Metropolitan Museum, study the work of Delacroix and Velásquez, see those dukes in their shiny black leather shoes, bring your sketchbook, copy, steal from the best artists.

“How could I do that?” they might ask. Figure it out, said Wayne. He examined his students’ sketchbooks, to see what was going on, and discussed their drawings. “How many hours a day are you drawing?” he’d quiz a student. Are you drawing from life, working on seeing?

Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Machines,” 1963. (Photo by Randy Dodson/Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

Wayne Thiebaud, “Three Machines,” 1963. (Photo by Randy Dodson/Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

As a freshman at the Cooper Union in New York City, I wound up spending my spring break in California. It was my first visit to the Golden State and until that terrifying plane ride in an open biplane flown by my Uncle Paul, between Linden and Sacramento, I had never seen the Diebenkorn and Thiebaud landscape through my own eyes. This city girl thought my two favorite artists had made up those designs, patterns and colors. It didn’t occur to me that nature was inspiring them.

Uncle Paul delivered me to Wayne and Betty Jean Thiebaud in Sacramento for a few days. After a warm hug and greeting, Wayne announced that we were off to his studio. He was going to paint me. Wayne pulled up in front of a modest one-story house on a tree-lined street, a far cry from the cold, gritty warehouse lofts in the Bowery and old Soho where I spent my childhood visiting artists with my father.

After turning on the lights, he sat me by a window in a room with wood floors and began drawing. He turned on the radio. Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5 filled the room with “A-B-C! It’s easy as 1-2-3!…” Wayne began snapping his fingers, smiling and dancing. “You look too serious. Too sad,” he said. “Let’s lighten things up!”

He took out a horizontal canvas, stretched and primed, put it on a wooden easel and began to paint. I watched him as he bent his knees, leaned to the right, folded his arms in front of his chest, then one hand on his chin. When I took a stretch break, he kept working. I did not see that painting again for 23 years.

I did see Wayne, however, as I wound up moving to California the summer of 1980 and opening a small San Francisco gallery in October 1982. He and Betty Jean came to the first exhibition reception and dinner afterward in the Mission at La Traviata, his favorite Italian restaurant. Wayne quietly handed me a manila envelope, which contained a hand-colored 1964 Gumball Machine print from the “Delights” series. “Love and success to the Jeremy Stone Gallery” was inscribed in script in his tiny, inimitable handwriting on the paper below the image. Over the following nine years of exhibitions, Wayne would unexpectedly walk in to see the show, nod his head and continue on his gallery- and museum-viewing way.

After my son was born in 2000, my doorbell rang in Dolores Heights. It was my father holding a canvas in his hand. He had just visited Wayne in Sacramento. The painting, called “Girl in White,” was smaller, restretched to a vertical. The image was cropped to my shoulders. I was wearing a white T-shirt. The young face with the shag hairdo looked thoughtful, pensive.

After decades of admiring Wayne Thiebaud’s drawing skills and singular use of color, though being confused by his detached and distracted figures, I had an epiphany. At a March 2018 lecture titled “The Delirious Sorrow of Cheerful Things: The Art of Wayne Thiebaud” at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Alexander Nemerov argued that — unlike the 1960s still life paintings, in which Thiebaud celebrated and found beauty in the ordinary and everyday objects unnoticed in automats, lunchrooms and cafeterias — his figure paintings were meant to present a physical moment: preoccupied distracted thinkers, not luminous cheerful sitters.

In the tradition of American realist painter Thomas Eakins, the figures possess faces that are, as Nemerov put it, “sad indeed.” He confirmed that my sad little portrait, “Girl in White” (1975-76), was not unlike the Eakins portrait of Maud Cook that Nemerov showed at the lecture. “You are in good company,” he assured me.

Suddenly this small painting, which I thought portrayed an unhappy teenage girl, was transformed into a moody Eakins-inspired iconic painting.

Wayne was not a fashionable 20th- or 21st-century careerist. In a world where NFTs are floated as credible artworks for purchase, Wayne had nothing obviously “new” to offer. His bold and distinctive paintings are formal constructions disguised as landscapes, still lifes and figures. His advocacy for art history and art education was rooted in his own childhood; when he was confined to bed from a sports injury that broke his back, drawing was his escape.

Until practically the day he died on Dec. 25, at age 101, Wayne took risks in his work. He was not content to rest on his laurels. He was a philosopher, a joke teller and a diplomat. He was not a minimalist, not a conceptualist, but a man who, with a pencil, a pastel stick or a brush, did what he loved: making art.

Jeremy Stone has been working as an art advisor, curator and appraiser for 30 years. She founded Business Matters in the Visual Arts LLC in 1998.

Robbed shopkeeper says San Francisco is so broken it needs Batman

The Deli Board’s Adam Mesnick is sick and tired of SOMA crime

How Jackie Speier elevated the Armenian community

‘There’s a lot of allies in Congress for the Armenian story to be told’

What happens when a pandemic becomes endemic? S.F.’s top health official weighs in

Dr. Susan Philip envisions a city that will manage this ongoing disease