End of the Year Reflections

The following is an excerpt of Maria Brito’s blog The Groove, issue #115

entitled “How to Get Better at What You Do.”

I find her posts engaging and inspiring. I hope you do too.

Enjoy! Happy Holidays!

How Wayne Thiebaud Found His Signature Style

Wayne Thiebaud in his studio in Sacramento in 1963. 

You know that everything has been invented and done already. What makes you and the world tick about what you have to say or offer is how different you are from everyone else. 

Despite having seen Wayne Thiebaud’s paintings about pastries, diners, fruits, and objects thousands of times, I still delight in their uniqueness and consistency. Besides, you can recognize a Thiebaud from miles away. Nobody paints like he did. That is a true signature style, the thing that is yours and only yours and that applies equally to all you do: artmaking, content development, teaching, selling or anything else. 

But for Thiebaud that wasn’t always the case. He grew up between Arizona and California and had a natural talent for drawing and painting. This is what he was organically good at. 

Thiebaud didn’t have the money to go to art school but was able to cut his teeth in jobs in the ad and graphic design department of a few companies, including Disney. Around 1956, he was toying with the idea of becoming a full-time artist and he took a trip to New York because he wanted to meet his idols, the painters of the abstract expressionism movement.

Wayne Thiebaud, Boston Cremes, 1962. Oil on canvas. 

And he got his wish, especially with Willem de Kooning, who invited Thiebaud to his studio on 10th Street. “He said that he thought I was a pretty good painter, but that it lacked any kind of focus in a way which was important. You are focusing on what I call ’the signs of art.’ In other words, someone suddenly becomes famous and everybody looks at what the signs of that particular painter are – brushstrokes, drips, whatever. So, you think, maybe that’s what I should get into my work. That’s not the way to go about it.” 

When de Kooning asked Thiebaud, “Why are you painting anyway?” He replied, “Well, I love doing it.” de Kooning answered, “That’s not enough; you have to find something you really know something about and that you are really interested in, and just do that.”

In simpler words: de Kooning had told Thiebaud: “you do you.” 

And that is the most crucial step to get to your unique proposition. The things only you can do because only you have had all the cumulative experiences that form and inform your life and that nobody else has.

If You Sit with the Question (and Do the Work) the Answer Will Come

Wayne Thiebaud, Jolly Cones, 2002. Oil on wood.

There are two things that I always stress when people ask me how to get unstuck or move forward professionally: spend time in silence feeding questions to your subconscious and get to work immediately after. 

For Thiebaud, the conversation with de Kooning was a rude awakening. He went back to California and sat with this question for a bit, asking to himself “who am I?”

“I’ve never been to art school. I know a little bit about art history. I grew up a Mormon boy in America. I worked in restaurants and helped cook hamburgers, washed dishes, was a busboy. What is that world? Is there anything in that world? So, I said I’m going to just start as directly as I can. And I took the canvas and made some ovals, thinking about Cézanne – the cube, the cone, and the sphere – and put some triangles over them and thought, well, that maybe could represent a pie on a plate.”

It’s not that Thiebaud spent months philosophizing about his life. He just went straight to the canvas and started representing the honest answers to his questions in a physical form. 

Those answers became the beginning of an insanely successful career that lasted until last year when he died at the age of 101. Thiebaud became known for his unique focus on paintings of everyday subject matters -especially food- inflected with pastel hues and a sense of Americana. These works are now staples at major exhibitions, art fairs and auction house sales; Four Pinball Machines (1962) sold at Christie’s for a staggering $19.1 million in July 2020.

So here are three questions to ponder for the remainder of 2022: 1) Why are you doing what you are doing? If the answer is “because I love it and I’m good at it”, that’s great but you need to answer two more: 2) who are you? 3) what do you really know and are really interested in? 

Once you’ve reflected on them, write them down. Be raw and honest, and then go to work. You may just find your home run.