Wednesday, August 25, 2010

In the Style of - Wayne Thiebaud

After learning about Wayne Thiebaud and his paintings of food, the children use his style to paint colorful desserts. For ages 9 to 13. Plan 2 to 3 sessions.

  • Learning about Wayne Thiebaud and his paintings
  • Painting desserts in the style of Wayne Thiebaud
  • Working with warm and cool colors
halation, vibrate, impasto, warm and cool colors

Click here to see five examples of Thiebaud's paintings. Wayne Thiebaud, A Paintings Retrospective is an excellent book with more examples of his paintings. In the short film, "Wayne Thiebaud - CBS Sunday Morning," Thiebaud is interviewed while visiting the 2001 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The Life of Wayne Thiebaud
American artist Wayne Thiebaud is best known for his colorful and often humorous depictions of commonplace objects, such as pies, cakes, hot dogs, paint cans, and even lipsticks.

He was born in Mesa, Arizona, in 1920. His father worked among other things as a mechanic, an inventor, a rancher, and a milkman. When Thiebaud was six months old his family moved to California where he spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s farm. His first art projects were with his mother on rainy days and with his uncle who was a cartoonist.

For many years, Thiebaud did odd jobs like sign painting, cartooning, and illustrating movie posters. One summer he even worked in the animation department of Walt Disney studios. He was almost thirty years old before he realized that he could make a career of painting. When he returned to college to learn about art, he was offered a teaching job and spent many years teaching art in California universities.

At forty years old, he began his series of still-life paintings of food. Drawing with color and correcting his drawings with darker color led to a halo effect around his objects. This outline of pure, intense colors has become known as halation and adds to the vibrancy of Thiebaud’s paintings. He uses bright colors, thick rapid brush strokes, and simplified shapes to paint common, everyday food. Filling his canvas with a single cafeteria-style cake or pie elevates it to an absurd status that is part of his humor. At times he repeats the desserts over and over again, giving the impression that there is no end to these sweet things.

When painting a cake, Thiebaud says that he is painting a picture of an object that has already been painted. It’s as though he transforms the thick rich texture of oil paint into whipped cream or icing as he spreads it across the desserts on his canvas.

Wayne Thiebaud continues to paint even into his nineties.

  • White drawing paper approximately 10 x 14 inches
  • Pencils
  • Tempera paints
  • Paint brushes
  • Containers of water for rinsing brushes
  • Sponges for drying brushes
  • Trays for mixing paint colors (Styrofoam or plastic trays from the grocery store work well)
  • Cafeteria-style desserts to be used for the still-life paintings (see note below)
  • Examples of Wayne Thiebaud’s food paintings
Note: In this lesson, I use real-life desserts which add a lot of excitement for the project. Cakes, pies, and puddings are stored in a refrigerator between sessions. In lieu of real desserts, you can use pictures from food magazines.

First Session
  • Become familiar with the life and paintings of Wayne Thiebaud.
  • Gather examples of his food paintings.
  • Set out pencils and drawing paper.
  • Set out paints, brushes, containers of water, and sponges.
  • Set out the desserts, planning one per table being sure each child has a clear view.
How to Begin
  • Display the examples of Thiebaud’s paintings. As the children look closely, tell them about his life and his work. Explain to the children that they will be making paintings of desserts, using Wayne Thiebaud’s style.
  • Point out the characteristics of Thiebaud’s food paintings. He uses common everyday foods that might be found in a cafeteria; bright colors; thick brushstrokes; and stark backgrounds. He invented halation, where he intensifies his colors by drawing the outlines of his food with lines of bright colors. He either painted a single food filling the whole canvas, giving it a humorous stature, or repeated the foods in a very ordered composition as though there were no end to them.
  • Have the children lightly sketch the desserts to fill their papers and then go over the lines with a combination of bright colors.
  • Set the paintings aside to dry
Second/Third Session
  • Display the examples of Thiebaud’s paintings.
  • Set out the dried paintings and the desserts from the previous session.
  • Set out paints, brushes, mixing trays, containers of water, and sponges.
How to Begin
  • Explain to the children that, in this session, they will be painting their desserts using Wayne Thiebaud’s style of bright colors and stark backgrounds.
  • Discuss how Thiebaud makes the colors vibrate, or jump, by placing warm colors (red, yellow, and orange) next to cool colors (blue, green, and purple). He paints simple backgrounds so that the food stands out, and he uses a thick impasto or application of paint, leaving the brush strokes visible.
  • Have the children paint their desserts, taking care to not cover the halation. Remind them to dry their brushes well between colors to keep the paints thick, and to avoid smoothing away their brush strokes. 
  • After painting the desserts, have the children complete the backgrounds with either warm or cool colors, whichever will make the food stand out.
  • Set paintings aside to dry.
  • As children mix colors, they often thin the paint too much. To keep the paints thick, it's helpful to mix a variety of colors together as a group.
  • When painting the background color directly around the the desserts, it's helpful to use a small paint brush so as not to cover up the halation. 
  • Do the desserts fill the papers?
  • Are the brushstrokes visible?
  • Discuss the use and effects of the warm and cool colors.
What the children might say...
  • Can I draw more than one dessert on my paper?
  • I’m having trouble not painting over my halation.
  • I want to use yellow for the background of my pink cake, but they are both warm colors.
  • The pudding is in a glass dish which looks the same color as the background. How can I paint glass?
  • I’m feeling hungry. Can we eat the cake?
What you might say...
  • You can either draw a single dessert or repeat it several times to fill your paper.
  • It is easier to use a small brush when painting directly around your halation. It’s alright if some parts get covered, as long as we are able to see most of the halation peeking through.
  • Since you used mostly cool colors for the halation, let’s see if a yellow background will make your cake stand out even more.
  • As you look through the glass you can see the colors which are behind it. Try squinting your eyes to see another color or line that goes around the edges of the glass.
  • This food is not for eating. (However, when our paintings are finished, I will bring in cookies to celebrate.)
Click to view this lesson in a printer-friendly format.