Wayne Thiebaud’s Student is a masterpiece in storytelling. It shares many of the stylistic elements the still lifes that brought him fam, but here they are used to deftly tell the narrative of a college student, midway through day, sleeves rolled up and attention on the viewer. Because Thiebaud himself is a teacher the painting takes on an autobiographical tone, the viewer is not looking at just any student, but a student from the perspective of the teacher. By breaking the conventions that create a realistic work such as linear perspective, Thiebaud creates a surreal picture.
The off color and warped perspective detach the student from reality, and give the viewer a glimpse into Thiebaud’s mind. The clock is past midday, and the student, through in college now, is old enough to graduate soon. Thiebaud has her attention, but not for much longer. Wayne Thiebaud was part of the pop art movement, where he was most known for contemporary still lifes. He modernized the style by painting cakes and pies, often in rows to show the beauty in mass production. While his painting Student breaks from his other work, it’s important to recognize how it fits into his work as a whole.
His style is almost unchanged but the subject matter is very different. This is because Thiebaud paints what he knows, San francisco streets from when he lived in the city, and deltas when he lived there (Thiebaud). These objects are fundamentally different than student however, because it’s a one way exchange. Teaching intrinsically a conversation. “It keeps you honest (Thiebaud)” Student is much more introspective than his other work, because not only was he was a student, as everyone is at some point, but also a teacher for 35 years.
The easiest way to identify a painting by Wayne Thiebaud is color. He paints with such a plethora of colors that some seem out of place, but drawing on the ideas of Georges Seurat, he uses them to bring out the color of their neighbors on the canvas. Though the vast majority of the painting is taken up by shades of white and gray, Thiebaud’s touch can still be seen throughout the work. There is the hair of the student, a dirty blond, but also brushed with greens and reds. The shadow on her neck, accented with blue.
The folds of her clothes, and the lines of the desk also all contain multitudes of color. The bountiful use of color makes the painting vibrant. The student is ressed in gray simple clothing, but through color she shines like an angel, and to Thiebaud, she is. Another way of identifying the work of Thiebaud is by unconventional way of applying paint. He will use a knife to scrape paint of some parts of the work, while building up others. Examples of the later can be most clearly seen by the students right foot and the edge of the desk top.
The scraping can be seen throughout the painting, but is especially noticeable in the background. This aspect of Thiebaud’s painting gives the work a feeling of depth without relying on conventions such as atmospheric perspective or oreshortening, two techniques that would disrupt the color or spacing of his work. Thiebaud paints without a traditional use of perspective. This can most clearly be seen in his landscapes, especially those of San Francisco, where his flattened picture plane is highlighted by the steep streets of the city; but this also comes into play with his portrait of the student.
The orthogonals created by the desk suggest a vanishing point somewhere behind the student’s torso, but the students upper body isn’t congruent to that. This disassociation brings emphasis to the students face by pushing t forward as the desk looks to fall into the background. The perspective of this work is also surreal in how it portrays the size of objects. The desk is much too small and the clock too big. However that is where the similarities between these two objects ends. The shadows of the the clock and the desk point in different directions.
The shadows of the desk match the shadows of the student, placing them in the same reality, and suggesting more permanence to the desk than that of the clock. Student is a large work, 60in by 48in, but the canvas is mostly empty. This gives the several objects placed on it immense eight, and they succeed in telling a story. The three objects in the room: desk, clock and student all hold symbolism that help tell the story of the student teacher relationship in this painting. Perhaps the most important symbol of the work is the desk.
Thiebaud places it in the center of the picture, and highlights it with a vibrantly multi colored trim. While the student may be the natural focus of the painting, it is the desk that informs us that she is a student at all. Thiebaud was an avid student of art history, and so like all art his must be consumed with context. The desk shows us who the character is in the same way that a halo signals a saint in a renaissance painting. Thiebaud is rebelling against the notion that beauty and importance come from biblical, royal or even natural sources.
In a truly pop art fashion he is using an everyday and ubiquitous item, one that everyone has experienced from their time in school, to signal to the viewer that this is a student, and they are important because they are a student. In the top left hand of the picture there is a clock. It reads about 1:22 in the afternoon. The writing is very clear on the lock, and this is made even more apparent by the lack of any other small details. The pad of paper has no lines, and the student does not even hold a pencil.
The closest thing to the clock’s hands and numbers are her shoelaces, and even these are large, and at the furthest point from the clock. Not just the clock, but it’s shown time is important because it differs so much from the rest of the painting. The time is midday, morning has given way to afternoon, much in the same way that the student as left adolescence and is entering adulthood. Student is a truly unique painting. It combines Thiebaud’s istinct and mesmerizing style with a deeply introspective look at one of the most important parts of his life.
Through color, perspective and iconography Thiebaud creates a portal into his classroom. Thiebaud loved to paint, and even late into his life still holds the wonder that got him started in the first place: “Painting really can be a kind of miracle, because it’s a total unnatural act, it ain’t natural to make three dimensions on a two dimensional surface, it’s strange, but wonderful. (Thiebaud)” Thiebaud is excited about painting, and that passion surely came out in his teaching.