Painter Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920) speaks here about Drink. Thiebaud has been at the forefront of American realist painting since his first show at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1961. He is best known for his paintings of everyday American objects like cakes, pies and deli counters. In 1994, President Bill Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts. He lives in California. - Rick Slater

THE BELIEVER: The subject matter of Drink is quite different – less tangible – from the cakes, yo-yos and deli counters you are famous for. Why did you decide to deal with such a different subject matter in this painting?

WAYNE THIEBAUD: I’m an old teacher. I’ve been teaching for 108 years or so [laughs] and I’m very committed to teaching because I’m also always trying to learn about my own self and my own works. This actually was a class project. On the one hand, it’s a rather simple project, and on the other, it has its complications. The students are asked to make a diorama with a flat plain in the back and a receding, diminishing plain in front, with a plastic glass of water under a single light source. The painting had to use all the colors of the rainbow, so it has to engage a spectral character; two yellows, two blues, two reds. It should be realistic, but still maintain itself as a painting. So that’s the real origin of it.

BLVR: Did you and the students paint this from memory? I’ve seen a million glasses of water and I have a good memory, but…

WT: I think artists, painters, have various issues with memory. To be able to hang onto a perceptual instant and be able to reproduce it is astounding, and a probably rare condition. While you often work from direct observation, you’re developing your memory so you are not only using direct observations, but using perceptual and conceptual attitudes about what painting is. Representation must include memory as well as perceptual nuances. This back-and-forth is what enriches painting and makes it a kind of small miracle of adjusted responses. 

BLVR: So memory is an intangible part of the painting, not just an element you use in the act of applying paint to a surface?

WT: Yes. 

BLVR: No matter what the subject matter is of your paintings, I think many if not most paintings are really about the way light plays off an object, but in Drink, more so than any other of your works, the light seems even more the subject than the object.

WT: That’s the thing. It’s a dialogue between substance and shadow. If you notice… if you make a kind of cross-hair, the object is slightly to the side of a series of shadows. The substance of shadows should in some ways be equal in terms of interest to the glass of water. This is something which is the hallmark of the tradition of painting…how you introduce elements like light, all kinds of light. For instance, there is direct light, but there is also a light that is simply a kind of glean, there’s a group light, a glaring light. You try to collate enough types of light as you can in order to build interest in the painting.

BLVR: Many of your earlier still life paintings from the 1960s were very carefully structured, brightly colored, and set against very monochromatic backgrounds. But along with Drink and similar works like Glass of Wine & Olives, and Jelly Rolls – all paintings from the last 15 years – you use more subdued surroundings. How come?

WT: That came from changing mediums, even types of paint. I experiment a lot. I sort of see myself as a research-type painter. I’m trying to find out more about painting itself, rather than just painting as an applied process. 

BLVR: How do you feel your experience as a commercial artist contributed to making you into a research-type painter? 

WT: The difference is essentially one of practicality. Painting doesn’t have to be practical, it doesn’t have to be logical, it only has to discover its own logic, and its own sense of purpose and direction. In applied art, that can’t necessarily operate – it has to end, it has to resolve itself, so that the great skills and great craft of commercial art and graphic design give you an expectation of goodness, of fineness, of resolvedness. When I finally tried to become a painter, this split was – and continues to be – a very difficult challenge. You can never be good enough, you can never rise to the level you’d like to. You make your condition of expectation not too high, and try to do the best damn thing you can.

BLVR: Along those lines, I noticed this painting is dated 1999-2002. What was it about this image that took you so long to complete? 

WT: Well, you never quite really accept who you are. When you keep things around, because of your awareness and your growth, or lack thereof, you see things differently.

BLVR: How different do you think that the original 1999 painting would have been from a possible 2003 version?

WT: One never knows. There probably is no progress in the thing we call art. Since the cave period, there hasn’t been an awful lot that can top that. Rembrandt is no less a painter than Picasso, and is maybe even a better painter. Who knows about these things? The horrible thing is that art doesn’t have to be progressive; it has to be sustained on its own verifiability as a precious object. And that’s what painters do: they give us other worlds to enter. I mean, think how wonderfully beneficial we are for having the world of Van Gogh. He’s created an alternate world. And that’s quite magical to me. It is a verifiable thing, a concrete example of human achievement.

BLVR: How do you think you would change this painting now?

WT: I don’t know, because I can no longer interact with it. I was privileged to watch De Kooning paint. We were having a cup of tea, actually, way back on 10th street in his studio. We had a pleasant lazy conversation and he stood up and said, “Excuse me.” And he got up and went to a stack of newspapers and pulled out a page of funny papers, looked at the painting that was wet on the easel…looked at it for a while, and cut or tore a shape and pressed it into the moist paint. He said, suddenly, “Ah, that’s better.” And all he did was re-establish the plane or surface of his canvas in order to judge problems he was having around the perimeter of the painting. In other words, you participate with the painting. You use your body as a guide. For a while, the painting will tell you what it needs to have, or how it would like to be. Painting is just a series of lines. It’s always flat no matter what you do to it. Into the painting you have to build time, movement, space, color, light… it’s an enormous challenge. And that’s why painting never dies. 

BLVR: Given your appreciation of artists such as De Kooning, Edward Hopper, Richard Diebenkorn, how do you judge your own work now that it is part of art history, as well?

WT: I can only judge my work through the formal conditions of the thing that’s in front of me. Is the space working? Is the color out of key? Does the color fit into its matrix? Is it comfortable? Does it need tension? 

BLVR: I’m sorry, I meant how do you judge your work in relation to the work of your idols and peers? 

WT: You mean I should have the temerity to judge myself in terms of historical importance?

BLVR: I don’t know if you can, but when one reads about you, you’re mentioned in the context of such significant painters as Morandi, Hopper, and Diebenkorn. That has to be gratifying.

WT: You just really want to be taken seriously. You just want to have contended with that aspect of challenge…to be sure you’re not ignobling the tradition, that you’re not cheapening it. It’s wise to remember we don’t know what art is. It’s still an abstraction, there’s not a concrete thing there. Chasing after art…it’s astounding. Better to just work for excellence, a sense of real achievement in comparison with a lexicon of great achievements.

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Wayne Thiebaud (b.1920), Drink, oil on panel, 10½ x 11¾ in. (26.6 x 29.8 cm.) 1999-2002. 

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