Perhaps you’ve seen ads for little trinkets by Thomas Kinkade, “the painter of light”, or maybe you’ve visited one of the Thomas Kinkade galleries selling reproductions of his paintings in soft light and a rich, home-like setting. I was vaguely aware of him from inserts in the Sunday paper that showed little cute cottages but didn’t realize he actually was a painter nor the breadth of his business empire until reading Billion Dollar Painter by Kinkade’s associate Eric Kuskey.
Billion Dollar Painter has two main themes: Thomas Kinkade the man and his business empire, and art as a business.
Thomas Kinkade and His Company
Kincaid died of alcohol poisoning, leaving behind a mess. He had partnered with ambitious, unscrupulous people in a company to first, reproduce his paintings to reach more customers, second, to license his images for everything from mugs to odd plastic snowmen with cottages inside, and third, to sell his reproductions for large sums through dedicated galleries.
Kuskey described how Kinkade and his partners created an image of a Godly man that combined with his appealing scenes to reach over 20 million customers and eventually over $4 billion in sales. Unfortunately the company’s push for volume at all costs eventually was its undoing.
Kuskey tried to portray Kinkade as a gentle person, a dedicated artist who truly believed he was called by God to spread joy through his art, but he gave enough hints about Kinkade and his associates (including himself) to show the man was so hungry for acclaim and money that he became a fraud.
Example: The company portrayed the Kinkade galleries as a no-brainer investment to hundreds of middle-aged couples who were eager to be part of the Thomas Kinkade mystique. Gallery owners had to set up showrooms with expensive fittings, buy a minimum amount of inventory every year and were forbidden to discount. Hundreds of couples lost everything when the company over saturated the market.
Example: Kinkade developed the technique to mass produce reproductions of his paintings onto art canvas, then have someone add a few highlights by hand and sign mechanically using a tiny bit of his blood in the ink to prove provenance via DNA. The company made enormous editions – shipping them by the truckload – yet marketed them as collectible, almost original, at very high prices. While one could purchase a small paper print for $100, the hand-highlighted canvas giclees were over $10,000.
Example: Kinkade loved to drink and gamble. Kuskie describes several incidents where Kinkade got sloppy drunk and urinated out the hotel window or in the elevator. He mentioned one evening where they played poker and drank and talked about football, baseball and girls. (I wondered whether it was “locker room banter”.) The man could never drink enough or own enough things. He even bought a house out from underneath his supposed best friend, and purchased cars and boats and more houses. Kuskie didn’t mention Kinkade helping anyone learn to paint (as he had been helped) or charitable giving, just desperate consumption.
Questions of Art and Business
I was unfamiliar with Kinkade’s work and looked at his paintings online. The cottages and homes are lovely, pretty homes with a welcoming walk to a front door all set in verdant lawns or trees or snow-covered shrubs. They look 3-dimensional and are appealing, I wanted to walk up that path and open that door. At least that was the first house and the first cottage. The second house and cottage were almost identical to the first. Same building, different setting. Third, ditto. Fourth, fifth, so on, all were essentially the same.
All were warm and welcoming, some place that a frazzled young couple could imagine living, where the baby doesn’t have colic and the bills never pile up. He painted an imaginary life filled with peace and happiness.
The paintings appealed to many people, especially folks that had not bought art before. The pictures were safe, easy to display, pretty, impressively framed and non-controversial. According to Kuskie, Kinkade wanted to “envelop his audience in a memory, a feeling, a world that held a sacred, safe place for them”. Kuskie made the point that Kinkade’s work “questioned the modern art mandate that art has to be inaccessible, cerebral, or negative in order to be legitimate”.
There is some truth to Kuskie’s comment. I have seen the same sort of slotting in art, where pieces that are frankly ugly, but make a political point or use impressive techniques or have symbolic meaning have won acclaim. Some sophisticates seem to feel that good art is always challenging, that common people won’t understand or appreciate it, and that by definition, if common folks do like something then it cannot be any good.
I wouldn’t consider Kinkade’s endless series of cottages or houses as particularly great art, but not because middle class folks like them. I like the fact they convey peace and the viewer’s emotional response becomes part of the art. But there isn’t anything after that initial welcome feeling. We don’t see the inside, just the inviting exterior, and the lighthouses and gazebos look artificial, not at all appealing. (Kinkade did plein air paintings that were quite good but they weren’t part of the company’s marketing engine.)
Kuskie contrasts the dynamic in fine art, where the balance between demand and supply needs careful attention to maintain its limited nature. Artists create reproductions to reach a wider audience and increase over all sales and income and must be careful to keep edition sizes low as otherwise the art print has limited value. By contrast, the licensing business thrives on volume, the more trinkets and calendars the better.
I am interested in business and art and found Kuskie’s insights about marketing and building a consistent product backed by on-message promotion and placement and with a price point just high enough to be a bit of a stretch but not too high that it was unaffordable. Kuskie was more comfortable talking about business than talking about his friend Thomas.
Kuskie has interesting stories and ideas and I enjoyed reading Billion Dollar Painter, but he is not a good writer. There is repetition and filler and he jumps around in time too much. A good editor would have cut it by a third.
Kuskie describes Kinkade as fun-loving and a great friend to be with, but the man he shows with his examples is someone I would never want to be around. Many other company leaders also come across as obnoxious, greedy and not all that good at running a profitable company or behaving fairly with customers. Kuskie sees himself as a good guy, only peripherally involved with the company, not responsible for its results. He sees himself as Thomas Kinkade’s good friend, yet he seems to have enabled the drinking binges, always willing to go out with Kinkade to a dive. It didn’t ring true.
The selection of colored plates is weak. Kuskie has many photos of Kinkade with his business associates, but no pictures of his paintings and only one picture of a licensed trinket. Kuskie contrasts Kinkade with other successful artists, none of whom I was familiar with, and a plate or two of each one’s work would have been interesting. I ended up finding them online.
Read Billion Dollar Painter if you are interested in art or business, or want to see how someone managed to pull tragedy out of success. Don’t expect great writing or deep insights about the man Thomas Kinkade. It’s a fast read and worth the time.