Earlier this month, Vanity Fair magazine published an item on its Web site titled, "Thomas Kinkade's 16 Guidelines for Making Stuff Suck."
And though your taste may preclude any consideration of Kinkade as a serious artist, the fact that he has captured an incredible number of Americans' eyes and pocketbooks based on his vision and "mirroring" of visual perceptions is worth our while.
I'll pause while you roll your eyes.
The VF piece was occasioned by the discovery of a memo the Painter of Light™ issued to the makers of his film, Thomas Kinkade's Christmas Cottage, advising them how to recreate on celluloid the trademark "look" that has sold millions of prints of his paintings and made him a very wealthy man.
The guidelines include darkening around the corners and edges of the frame to create a cozy look, keying colors to the desired mood ("cooler tones to suggest somber moods, and warmer, more vibrant tones to suggest festive atmosphere").
Kinkade told the filmmakers to use a standing adult's eyepoint, rather than "off-kilter vantage points," to include in each scene "dramatic sources of soft light" ("dappled light patches, glowing windows, lightposts"), and to prefer a "gauzy" look to hard-edged realism.
Schlock and kitsch, you shout, and I won't stop to debate the artistic merits (or lack thereof) of Kinkade's cinematic vision.
But I was struck by a couple of points toward the end of his list of guidelines:
"Favor shots that feature older buildings, ramshackle, careworn structures and vehicles, and a general sense of homespun simplicity and reliance on beautiful settings."
"Older buildings are favorable. Avoid anything that looks contemporary--shopping centers, contemporary storefronts, etc."
"Hidden spaces. My paintings always feature trails that dissolve into mysterious areas, patches of light that lead the eye around corners, pathways, open gates, etc. The more we can feature these devices to lead the eye into mysterious spaces, the better."
Those rules could be dismissed as an expression of romantic nostalgia, but I think they reflect an intuitive grasp of something deeper and timeless about places and people.
Thomas Kinkade seems to understand that places--houses and shops, landscapes and streetscapes--have the ability to touch the heart. In his choice of subjects and his depiction of main streets, neighborhoods, country cottages, townhouses, and bungalows, he strikes a chord with the viewer.
His cinematic suggestions brought to mind what architect Christopher Alexander called the "Timeless Way of Building."
This timeless way expresses itself in patterns in the way we make a town or a building.
Every building, neighborhood, town, and city is constructed from a collection of patterns. Alexander observed that some patterns are living and some are dead. The ones that are living are those that connect in some way with human nature--they attract people, making them feel at home and alive.
Dead patterns repel people, making them feel ill at ease and restless. A place shaped by dead patterns becomes neglected and uncared for and attracts trash, decay, and crime.
In the book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Alexander and his colleagues identified and gave names to 253 lively patterns that appear to be timeless, recurring across cultures and centuries. Kinkade's suggestions to his filmmakers echo many of these patterns: Pools of Light, Magic of the City, Four-Story Limit, Paths and Goals, Warm Colors, Street Windows, Shielded Parking.
(The list of patterns, with brief descriptions, is online at http://downlode.org/Etext/Patterns/)
A Timeless Quality
Those same living patterns are evident in Kinkade's paintings.
Kinkade's cottages are perhaps his best known images, but he's produced nearly as many cityscapes. Some depict the busy streets of San Francisco (a favorite subject of his), Paris, Kansas City, Charleston and Chicago. Others show the slower pace on the main streets of resort towns like Key West, Mackinac Island and Carmel. Some of the paintings feature landmarks, but most are ordinary street scenes.
Although his work may be sold in suburban malls to be hung on suburban walls, the realities of suburban life do not intrude onto Kinkade's canvas.
In Kinkade's cityscapes, the townhouses and commercial buildings come up to the sidewalks and have windows that allow passersby to see inside. In his neighborhood scenes, the houses have porches and big windows facing the street.
The buildings have eye-catching details above the windows and along the rooflines. The scale of the buildings and the details are proportionate to the pedestrians passing by. The light is gentle, coming through building windows, from small lights reflecting on the façade or signage, or from subdued streetlights.
In Kinkade's world, there are no glaring "acorn" streetlights blinding the viewer from seeing anything else. There are no surface parking lots, blank walls, or mirrored glass surfaces. I have looked through Kinkade's collection and can't find a single painting of a McMansion or a Garage Mahal.
Try to imagine a Kinkade-style painting of a snout house--the sort where the garage is the most prominent feature of the home, sticking out toward the street. There wouldn't be any windows for his trademark warm light to shine out of. It wouldn't work, and it wouldn't sell.
But I could imagine him painting the Charles Dilbeck-designed home at 19th and Peoria -- with the snow on the peaked Tudor-style roof and diagonally-paned vertical windows framing a glowing Christmas tree within.
I could imagine a successful Kinkade painting of Cherry Street, but not one of 71st Street.
Kinkade's paintings sell because they depict places where people want to be, places that are full of life.
But thanks to zoning laws with their setbacks and segregations by use and minimum numbers of parking spaces, thanks to modern commercial building practices and lending practices, thanks to indiscriminate demolition and the lack of conservation ordinances, places like these are harder and harder to come by.
And so instead of inspiring in their suburban owners the hope of living in such a place, these paintings embody a bittersweet nostalgia for the kind of streets that, they have been led to believe, can not exist in the modern world. Oh, maybe in a big city on the east coast, or over in Europe, but not in a sprawling Sun Belt metropolis like Tulsa.
If a painter can sell millions of prints by depicting places that have a timeless quality, places that are composed of patterns that are full of life, then it suggests that real-world places with those qualities would be popular, too.
A strategy suggests itself: Protect those places in your city that have that same timeless quality. Instead of mandating (through the zoning code) the use of dead patterns for new development, encourage new development that employs those lively patterns of place-making.
In practical terms, that means urban conservation districts and form-based land-use codes. It means Tulsa protects places like Brookside and seeks to create similar districts elsewhere.
(For example, make Elgin Avenue, from the new ballpark through the Blue Dome district to 11th Street, a replacement for the Main Street that the urban planners of the '60s and '70s destroyed.)
Imagine that Tulsa could be so beautiful and full of life that people who had never been here would hang paintings of our streetscapes on their walls and dream of someday coming here.
Share this article: