Thomas Kinkade: Life And Works

Thomas Kinkade: life and works

William Thomas Kinkade III (January 19, 1958 – April 6, 2012) was an American painter of popular realistic, pastoral, and idyllic subjects. He is notable for the mass marketing of his work as printed reproductions and other licensed products via the Thomas Kinkade Company. He characterized himself as “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light,” a phrase he protected through trademark but one originally attributed to the British master J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). It has been estimated that 1 in every 20 American homes owns a copy of one of his paintings.

Despite wide commercial success throughout his life, Kinkade is generally held in low esteem by art critics; his pastoral paintings have been described as maudlin and overly sentimental.


Thomas Kinkade biography

Thomas Kinkade art

Thomas Kinkade facts

Thomas Kinkade paintings

Thomas Kinkade quotes

Thomas Kinkade biography

Thomas Kinkade, (born January 19, 1958, Sacramento, California, U.S.—died April 6, 2012, Monte Sereno, California) American artist who built a successful industry on his light-infused paintings of tranquil idyllic scenes.

Kinkade studied art history and took studio classes for two years at the University of California, Berkeley, before transferring to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. It was there that he began experimenting with techniques to create the effects of light and atmosphere in his paintings. After graduation he and a friend rode boxcars from California to New York, and Kinkade sketched the American towns and landscapes that they encountered along their journey; these works were published in the book The Artist’s Guide to Sketching (1982). Kinkade was hired shortly thereafter to help paint some 700 backgrounds for the animated film Fire and Ice (1983), for which he created his trademark luminous scenes.

In his own oil paintings, which he began selling in local galleries in the 1980s, Kinkade incorporated radiant effects that he considered expressive of spiritual values. (About that time he had become a born-again Christian.) Accordingly, he promoted himself as the “Painter of Light,” a moniker historically associated with English painter J.M.W. Turner but that he registered as a trademark in 1996. Typical subjects of Kinkade’s paintings included cottages, bridges, gardens, and Americana scenes infused with the warm glow of sunlight. He also produced Impressionist-style paintings under the brush name Robert Girrard from 1984 to 1990.

In 1984 Kinkade began to distribute his artwork with the help of investors, and in 1989 he and Ken Raasch launched Lightpost Publishing, which was dedicated exclusively to Kinkade’s work. Lightpost eventually developed into the holding company Media Arts Group, Inc. (later the Thomas Kinkade Company), which, among other endeavours, opened Thomas Kinkade Gallery retail stores, mostly in the United States. The nostalgic quality of Kinkade’s paintings, which were reproduced in the thousands, made him wildly popular with the general public, and he became one of the most highly collected living artists. Despite his commercial success, Kinkade was often derided by critics who considered his work to be kitschy. They also denounced the mass marketing of his work, which appeared on a wide variety of products, including calendars, notecards, and coffee mugs.

As his profile expanded, Kinkade occasionally partnered with other corporate entities. With the Disney Company, Kinkade created the Disney Dreams Collection, a series of paintings—including Beauty and the Beast Falling in Love (2010) and Sleeping Beauty (2011)—that encapsulate an entire Disney animated film in one image. Additionally, Kinkade was named the featured artist for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Centennial Era, a commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 race. In that capacity, he created the paintings Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 100th Anniversary (2009) and A Century of Racing! The 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500 Mile Race (2011), each of which was depicted on the official Indianapolis 500 program.

Kinkade also published numerous books, including Lightposts for Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life (1999), that featured images of his work. With Katherine Spencer, he wrote the Cape Light and Angel Island series of inspirational novels, begun in 2002 and 2010, respectively. Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage, a film inspired by his life and art, was released in 2008. In April 2012 Kinkade died from an accidental overdose of alcohol and Valium.

Thomas Kinkade art

Artistic themes and style

Recurring features of Kinkade’s paintings are their glowing highlights and saturated pastel colors. Rendered in highly idealistic values of American scene painting, his works often portray bucolic and idyllic settings such as gardens, streams, stone cottages, lighthouses and Main Streets. His hometown of Placerville (where his works are omnipresent) was the inspiration for many of his street and snow scenes. He also depicted various Christian themes including the Christian cross and churches.

High Country Christmas

Kinkade said he was placing emphasis on the value of simple pleasures and that his intent was to communicate inspirational, life-affirming messages through his paintings. A self-described “devout Christian” (even giving all four of his children the middle name “Christian”), Kinkade believed he gained his inspiration from his religious beliefs and that his work was intended to contain a larger moral dimension. He also said that his goal as an artist was to touch people of all faiths and to bring a sense of peace into their lives through the images he created. Many pictures contain specific chapter-and-verse allusions to Bible passages.

Kinkade said, “I am often asked why there are no people in my paintings,” but in 2009 he painted a portrait of the Indianapolis Speedway for the cover of that year’s Indianapolis 500 race program that included details of the diversity of the crowd, hiding among them the figures of Norman Rockwell and Dale Earnhardt. He also painted the farewell portrait for Yankee Stadium. About the Indianapolis Speedway painting, Kinkade said:

The passion I have is to capture memories, to evoke the emotional connection we have to an experience. I came out here and stood up on the bleachers and looked around, and I saw all the elements of the track. It was empty at the time. But I saw the stadium, how the track laid out, the horizon, the skyline of Indianapolis and the Pagoda. I saw it all in my imagination. I began thinking, ‘I want to get this energy — what I call the excitement of the moment — into this painting.’ As I began working on it, I thought, ‘Well you have this big piece of asphalt, the huge spectator stands; I’ve got to do something to get some movement.’ So I just started throwing flags into it. It gives it kind of a patriotic excitement.

Artist and Guggenheim Fellow Jeffrey Vallance has spoken about Kinkade’s devout religious themes and their reception in the art world:

This is another area that the contemporary art world has a hard time with, that I find interesting. He expresses what he believes and puts that in his art. That is not the trend in the high-art world at the moment, the idea that you can express things spiritually and be taken seriously … It is always difficult to present serious religious ideas in an art context. That is why I like Kinkade. It is a difficult thing to do.

Essayist Joan Didion is a representative critic of Kinkade’s style:

A Kinkade painting was typically rendered in slightly surreal pastels. It typically featured a cottage or a house of such insistent coziness as to seem actually sinister, suggestive of a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel. Every window was lit, to lurid effect, as if the interior of the structure might be on fire.

Didion went on to compare the “Kinkade Glow” to the luminism of 19th-century painter Albert Bierstadt, who sentimentalized the infamous Donner Pass in his Donner Lake from the Summit. Didion saw “unsettling similarities” between the two painters, and worried that Kinkade’s treatment of the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains Declare His Glory, similarly ignored the tragedy of the forced dispersal of Yosemite’s Sierra Miwok Indians during the Gold Rush, by including an imaginary Miwok camp as what he calls “an affirmation that man has his place, even in a setting touched by God’s glory.”

Mike McGee, director of the CSUF Grand Central Art Center at California State University, Fullerton, wrote of the Thomas Kinkade Heaven on Earth exhibition:

Looking just at the paintings themselves it is obvious that they are technically competent. Kinkade’s genius, however, is in his capacity to identify and fulfill the needs and desires of his target audience—he cites his mother as a key influence and archetypal audience — and to couple this with savvy marketing … If Kinkade’s art is principally about ideas, and I think it is, it could be suggested that he is a Conceptual artist. All he would have to do to solidify this position would be to make an announcement that the beliefs he has expounded are just Duchampian posturing to achieve his successes. But this will never happen. Kinkade earnestly believes in his faith in God and his personal agenda as an artist.


Kinkade’s production method has been described as “a semi-industrial process in which low-level apprentices embellish a prefab base provided by Kinkade.” Kinkade reportedly designed and painted all of his works, which were then moved into the next stage of the process of mass-producing prints. It is assumed he had a hand in most of the original, conceptual work that he produced. However, he also employed a number of studio assistants to help create multiple prints of his famous oils. Thus while it is believed that Kinkade designed and painted all of his original paintings, the ones collectors were likely to own were printed factory-like and touched up with manual brush strokes by someone other than Kinkade.

Kinkade is reportedly one of the most counterfeited artists, due in large part to advances in affordable, high resolution digital photography and printing technology. Additionally, mass-produced hand-painted fakes from countries like China and Thailand abound in the U.S. and around the globe. In 2011, the Kinkade studio said that Kinkade was the most collected artist in Asia but received no income from those regions due to widespread forgery.

Indy Excitement


Kinkade’s works are sold by mail order and in dedicated retail outlets. Some of the prints also feature light effects that are painted onto the print surface by hand by “skilled craftsmen,” touches that add to the illusion of light and the resemblance to an original work of art, and which are then sold at higher prices. Licensing with Hallmark and other corporations have made it possible for Kinkade’s images to be used extensively on other merchandise such as calendars, jigsaw puzzles, greeting cards, and CDs. By December 2009, his images also appeared on Walmart gift cards.

Kinkade authored or has been the subject of over 120 books and is the only artist to license his trademark and artwork to multiple housing developments.

Kinkade is reported to have earned $53 million for his artistic work in the period 1997 to May 2005. At the height of his business, there was a national network of several hundred Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries; however, they began to falter during the Late-2000s recession. In June 2010, his Morgan Hill, California, manufacturing operation that reproduced the art filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, listing nearly $6.2 million in creditors’ claims. The company, Pacific Metro, planned to reduce its costs by outsourcing much of its manufacturing.


Although Kinkade was among the most commercially successful painters of the 1990s, his work has been negatively received by art critics. Shortly after news of Kinkade’s death in April 2012, author Susan Orlean called his passing the death of a “kitsch master.” In the same month, journalist Laura Miller lampooned Kinkade’s work as “a bunch of garish cottage paintings.” Kinkade was also criticized for the extent to which he had commercialized his art, for example, by selling his prints on the QVC home shopping network. Some academics expressed concerns about the implications of Kinkade’s success in relation to Western perceptions of visual art: in 2009, Nathan Rabin of The A.V. Club wrote, “To his detractors, he represents the triumph of sub-mediocrity and the commercialization and homogenization of painting […] perhaps no other painter has been as shameless or as successful at transforming himself into a corporation as Kinkade.” Among these circles, he is known more today as a “mall artist” or a chocolate box artist than as a merited painter. Rabin went on to collectively describe Kinkade’s paintings as “a maudlin, sickeningly sentimental vision of a world where everything is as soothing as a warm cup of hot chocolate with marshmallows on a cold December day.” In a 2001 interview, Kinkade proclaimed, “I am really the most controversial artist in the world.”

Business practices

Kinkade’s company, Media Arts Group Inc., was accused of unfair dealings with owners of Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises. In 2006, an arbitration board awarded Karen Hazlewood and Jeffrey Spinello $860,000 in damages and $1.2 million in fees and expenses due to Kinkade’s company ” to disclose material information” that would have discouraged them from investing in the gallery. The award was later increased to $2.8 million with interest and legal fees. The plaintiffs and other former gallery owners also leveled accusations of being pressured to open additional galleries that were not financially viable, being forced to take on expensive, unsalable inventory, and being undercut by discount outlets whose prices they were not allowed to match. Kinkade denied the accusations, and Media Arts Group had successfully defended itself in previous suits by other former gallery owners. Kinkade himself was not singled out in the finding of fraud by the arbitration board. In August 2006, the Los Angeles Times reported that the FBI was investigating these issues, with agents from offices across the country conducting interviews.

Former gallery dealers also charged that Kinkade used Christianity as a tool to take advantage of people. “They really knew how to bait the hook,” said one ex-dealer who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They certainly used the Christian hook.” One former dealer’s lawyer stated, “Most of my clients got involved with Kinkade because it was presented as a religious opportunity. Being defrauded is awful enough, but doing it in the name of God is really despicable.” On June 2, 2010, Pacific Metro, the artist’s production company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, one day after defaulting on a $1 million court-imposed payment to the aforementioned Karen Hazlewood and Jeffrey Spinello. A $500,000 payment had previously been disbursed.

From 1997 through 2005, court documents show at least 350 independently owned Kinkade franchises. By May 2005, that number had more than halved. Kinkade received $50 million during this period. An initial cash investment of $80,000 to $150,000 is listed as a startup cost for franchisees.

Personal conduct

The Los Angeles Times reported that some of Kinkade’s former colleagues, employees, and even collectors of his work said that he had a long history of cursing and heckling other artists and performers. The Times further reported that he openly fondled a woman’s breasts at a South Bend, Indiana, sales event, and mentioned his proclivity for ritual territory marking through urination, once relieving himself on a Winnie the Pooh figure at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim while saying, “This one’s for you, Walt.” In a letter to licensed gallery owners acknowledging he may have behaved badly during a stressful time when he overindulged in food and drink, Kinkade said accounts of the alcohol-related incidents included “exaggerated, and in some cases outright fabricated personal accusations.” The letter did not address any incident specifically.

In 2006, John Dandois, Media Arts Group executive, recounted a story that on one occasion six years previously, Kinkade became drunk at a Siegfried & Roy magic show in Las Vegas and began shouting “Codpiece! Codpiece!” at the performers. Eventually he was calmed by his mother. Dandois also said of Kinkade, “Thom would be fine, he would be drinking, and then all of a sudden, you couldn’t tell where the boundary was, and then he became very incoherent, and he would start cussing and doing a lot of weird stuff.” In June 2010, Kinkade was arrested in Carmel, California, for driving while under the influence of alcohol. He was later convicted.

Related projects and partnerships

Kinkade was selected by a number of organizations to celebrate milestones, including Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, Walt Disney World Resort’s 35th anniversary, Elvis Presley’s purchase of Graceland 50 years previously and the 25th anniversary of its opening to the public, and Yankee Stadium’s farewell 85th season in 2008. Kinkade also paid tribute to Fenway Park.

Disney Dreams

Kinkade was the artist of choice to capture the historic Biltmore House on canvas; he also introduced the commemorative portrait of the 50th running of the Daytona 500 in 2008.

In 2001, Media Arts unveiled “The Village at Hiddenbrooke,” a Kinkade-themed community of homes, built outside of Vallejo, California, in partnership with the international construction firm Taylor Woodrow. Salon’s Janelle Brown visited the community and found it to be “the exact opposite of the Kinkadeian ideal. Instead of quaint cottages, there’s generic tract housing; instead of lush landscapes, concrete patios; instead of a cozy village, there’s a bland collection of homes with nothing—not a church, not a cafe, not even a town square—to draw them together.”

Charities and affiliations

Kinkade supported non-profit organizations focusing on children, humanitarian relief, and the arts, including the Make-a-Wish Foundation, World Vision, Art for Children Charities, and the Salvation Army. In 2002, he partnered with the Salvation Army to create two charity prints, The Season of Giving and The Light of Freedom. Proceeds from the sale of the prints were donated to The Salvation Army for their relief efforts at Ground Zero and to aid the victims of the September 11 attacks and their families in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. More than $2 million was donated as a result of this affiliation.

In 2003, Kinkade was chosen as a National Spokesman for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and during the 20 Years of Light Tour in 2004, he raised over $750,000 and granted 12 wishes for children with life-threatening medical conditions.

In 2005, the Points of Light Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging more people more effectively in volunteer service to help solve serious social problems, named Kinkade as Ambassador of Light. He was the second person in the Foundation’s 15-year history to be chosen as Ambassador, the first being the organization’s founder, former U.S. President George H. W. Bush. During his Ambassador of Light Tour, Kinkade visited cities nationwide to raise awareness and money for the Points of Light Foundation and the Volunteer Center National Network, which serves more than 360 Points of Light member Volunteer Centers in communities across the country.

Archbishop Mitty High School of San Jose dedicated the “Thomas Kinkade Center for the Arts” in 2003.

Kinkade was reportedly a member of the Church of the Nazarene.

Awards and recognition

Kinkade received many awards for his works, including multiple National Association of Limited Edition Dealers (NALED) awards for Artist of the Year and Graphic Artist of the Year, and his art was named Lithograph of the Year nine times.

In 2002, Kinkade was inducted into the California Tourism Hall of Fame as an individual who had influenced the public’s perception of tourism in California through his images of California sights. He was selected along with fellow artists Simon Bull and Howard Behrens to commemorate the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the 2002 World Series. He was also honored with the 2002 World Children’s Center Humanitarian Award for his contributions to improving the welfare of children and their families through his work with Kolorful Kids and Art for Children.

In 2003, Kinkade was chosen as a national spokesperson for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. In 2004, he was selected for a second time by the Christmas Pageant of Peace to paint the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. The painting, Symbols of Freedom, was the official image for the 2004 Pageant of Peace.

In 2004, Kinkade received an award from NALED recognizing him as the Most Award Winning Artist in the Past 25 Years. In 2005, he was named the NALED Graphic Artist of the Year. He was also recognized for his philanthropic efforts by NALED with the Eugene Freedman Humanitarian Award.

In popular culture

In Heath and Potter’s book The Rebel Sell: Why the Culture Can’t Be Jammed, Kinkade’s work is described as “so awful it must be seen to be believed.” In Dana Spiotta’s 2011 novel Stone Arabia, the main character’s boyfriend, an art teacher at a private school in Los Angeles, gives her presents of Thomas Kinkade Painter of Light pieces. “When I asked him why Thomas Kinkade, he just said, ‘Well, he is America’s most successful artist. And a native Californian as well.’ Or he would say, ‘His name has a trademark — see?’ and he would point to the subscript that appeared after his name.” The pieces are “deeply hideous” and “kitschy,” but for some reason she loves them.

In the popular Fable franchise a painter exists by the name of Thomas Kaidkin, a reference to Kinkade.

Mat Johnson’s 2011 novel Pym includes a parody of Kinkade named Thomas Karvel, “the Master of Light.”

A self-produced movie about Kinkade, Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage, was released on DVD in late November 2008. The semi-autobiographical story looks at the motivation and inspiration behind his most popular painting, The Christmas Cottage. Jared Padalecki plays Kinkade and Marcia Gay Harden plays his mother. Peter O’Toole plays young Kinkade’s mentor, who tells him, “Paint the light, Thomas! Paint the light!”

Thomas Kinkade facts

  • Thomas Kinkade’s biography claims he has sold more canvases than any other painter in history. His artwork hangs in an estimated one out of every 20 homes in the US.
  • The original of a Kinkade piece that has been published will usually appraise at $100,000 to $400,000, depending on its popularity.
  • One of Kinkade’s most popular pieces, the original of this Disneyland 50th Anniversary painting, has been appraised at over $1 million.
  • Sources estimate that Kinkade’s paintings and products bring in approximately $100 million a year.
  • Thomas Kinkade began his life as a professional artist by selling his prints outside a local supermarket for $25 a piece.
  • Kinkade would often pay tribute to his family by incorporating their images or initials into his paintings. In 1990, he began a tradition of hiding a letter ‘N’ in his paintings to honor his wife Nanette. Some paintings include a number in the lower corner that indicates how many times the ‘N’ appears in the painting.
  • According to his website, Kinkade’s company has partnerships with many major companies like Disney, Billy Graham, Major League Baseball, Warner Brothers, NASCAR, Indianapolis 500, Elvis Presley Enterprises, The Denver Broncos, The Tim Tebow Foundation and the Biltmore Hotel corporation.
  • Hidden Messages. There is more to Kinkade’s work than just beautiful and bright scenes. Within his work are messages that speak to Thom’s inspiration for each image. Family member initials, hearts and Disney characters can be found hidden within each painting. His latest work from the Disney Dreams Collection is of the Little Mermaid, which is said to hide the following within the image: six mickey ears silhouettes, Timon (from The Lion King), the Beast, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Thumper and Tinker Bell.
  • Heroes. Kinkade was known for comparing himself to fellow artists Norman Rockwell and Walt Disney. I share something in common with Norman Rockwell and, for that matter, with Walt Disney, in that I really like to make people happy, he said. According to the Associated Press, the artist called Rockwell his earliest hero. I remember my mom had a big collection of copies of  magazines, and that was really my introduction to those great illustrators, he said.

Thomas Kinkade quotes

The concept that an artist would be revered by popular culture is an immediate dismissal of his relevance as an artist.

The worlds I paint leave a lot to engage the imagination by hinting at what lies beyond the four edges of the painting. I think getting beyond the four edges of an opportunity or challenge is one of the basic skills you need in business.

There’s been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn’t been, until now, million-seller art.

It is easy to have a lot of paintings or projects hanging around that are ‘almost done.

I think the art world… is a very small pond, and it’s a very inbred pond. They rely on information from an elect elite sect of galleries, primarily in New York.

Rather than set aside daily time for prayer, I pray constantly and spontaneously about everything I encounter on a daily basis. When someone shares something with me, I’ll often simply say, ‘Let’s pray about this right now.

Balance, peace, and joy are the fruit of a successful life. It starts with recognizing your talents and finding ways to serve others by using them. 

References and useful Resources

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