This One’s For Cubeland Mystic

Longtime readers of Godsbody may recall (the way reader Charles did in the comments of this post) the interesting discussion surrounding the plans to make a film based on Thomas Kinkade’s painting “The Christmas Cottage:”

Of particular interest was Cubeland’s willingness to defend the painting:

“I want to live in the Christmas Cottage. I would like if some of you who share the same faith as I do lived around my cottage (but not too close) in similar looking cottages. I would like the village that we all live in to be surrounded by a 14 foot high wisteria-covered red brick wall with Victorian lanterns about 20 feet apart and a gently running stream circumambulating the wall. On the other side of the steam I’d like to see a hedge of willows and oaks lining the other side of the gentle stream. On the other side of the willows and oaks I’d like to see a half mile of razor wire and antipersonnel mines completing the circumference with a single narrow foot path leading to a well guarded steel gate. Nothing ostentatious perhaps an integrated guard tower with dual fifties on either side, with heavily armed guards. Perhaps Opus Dei members.”

I thought of Cubeland’s response when news of the film’s direct-to-DVD release hit the web – or rather, when that news served as the occasion for Vanity Fair to publish a leaked memo from Kinkade to the filmmakers. The memo outlined 16 guidelines for creating the “Thomas Kinkade look” on film:

“1) Dodge corners or create darkening towards edge of image for “cozy” look. This may only apply to still imagery, but is useful where applicable.

2) Color key each scene to create mood, and color variation. When possible, utilize cooler tones to suggest somber moods, and warmer, more vibrant tones to suggest festive atmosphere. In general, create a color scheme for each scene that can be accentuated through filtering, DI treatments, or through lighting. Most of my paintings feature an overall cool color envelope, into which warm accents are applied.

3) Create classic compositions. Paintings generally utilize a theme and variation compositional motif. Heavy weighting of the image towards one side, with accented areas of interest balancing it on the other side. Allow the eye to wander into the scene through some entry point. Be aware of where the viewer is standing at all times. Utilize traditional eye levels for setting the shot — that is, no high vantage points, off-kilter vantage points, or “worms eye view” vantage points. Generally focus on a standing adults viewpoint of the scene at hand.

4) Awareness of edges. Create an overall sense of soft edges, strive for a “Barry Lyndon” look. Star filters used sparingly, but an overall “gauzy” look preferable to hard edge realism.

5) Overall concept of light. Each scene should feature dramatic sources of soft light. Dappled light patches are always a positive, glowing windows, lightposts, and other romantic lighting touches will accentuate the overall effect of the theme of light.

6) Hidden details whenever possible, References to my children (from youngest to oldest as follows): Evie, Winsor, Chandler and Merritt. References to my anniversary date, the number 52, the number 82, and the number 5282 (for fun, notice how many times this appears in my major published works). Hidden N’s throughout — preferably thirty N’s, commemorating one N for each year since the events happened.

7) Overall sense of stillness. Emphasize gentle camera moves, slow dissolves, and still camera shots. A sense of gradual pacing. Even quick cut-away shots can slightly dissolve.

8) Atmospheric effects. Whenever possible utilize sunset, sunrise, rainy days, mistiness — any transitory effect of nature that bespeaks luminous coloration or a sense of softness.

9) A sense of space. My paintings feature both intimate spaces and dramatic deep space effects. We should strive for intimate scenes to be balanced by deeper establishing shots. (I know this particular one is self-evident, but I am reminded of it as I see the pacing of the depth of field in Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”.)

10) Short focal length. In general, I love a focal plane that favors the center of interest, and allows mid-distance and distant areas to remain blurry. Recommend “stopping down” to shorten focal lengths.

11) 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.

12) Surprise details. Suggest a few “inside references” that are unique to this production. Small details that I can mention in interviews that stimulate second or third viewings — for example, a “teddy bear mascot” for the movie that appears occasionally in shots. This is a fun process to pursue, and most movies I’m aware of normally have hidden “inside references”. In the realm of fine art we refer to this as “second reading, third reading, etc.” A still image attracts the viewer with an overall impact, then reveals smaller details upon further study.

13) Mood is supreme. Every decision made as to the visual look of each shot should include the concept of mood. Music can accentuate this, use of edges can accentuate this, atmospheric effects accentuate this, etc.

14) The concept of beauty. I get rid of the “ugly parts” in my paintings. It would be nice to utilize this concept as much as possible. Favor shots that feature older buildings, ramshackle, careworn structures and vehicles, and a general sense of homespun simplicity and reliance on beautiful settings.

15) Nostalgia. My paintings routinely blend timeframes. This is not only okay, but tends to create a more timeless look. Vintage cars (30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s etc) can be featured along with 70’s era cars. Older buildings are favorable. Avoid anything that looks contemporary — shopping centers, contemporary storefronts, etc. Also, I prefer to avoid anything that is shiny. Our vintage vehicles, though often times are cherished by their owners and kept spic-n-span should be “dirtied up” a bit for the shoot. Placerville was and is a somewhat shabby place, and most vehicles, people, etc bear traces of dust, sawdust, and the remnants of country living. There are many dirt roads, muddy lanes, etc., and in general the place has a tumbled down, well-worn look.

16) Most important concept of all — THE CONCEPT OF LOVE. Perhaps we could make large posters that simply say “Love this movie” and post them about. I pour a lot of love into each painting, and sense that our crew has a genuine affection for this project. This starts with Michael Campus as a Director who feels great love towards this project, and should filter down through the ranks. Remember: “Every scene is the best scene.”

The list above is not all-inclusive, but is a good starting point for internal dialogue. These guidelines are not listed in order of importance, but are dictated off the top of my head. After painting for nearly 40 years, I still wake up every morning daydreaming about new ways to make paintings. Creating a movie is a natural extension of the picture making process, and hopefully my catalog of visual paintings, along with my visual guidelines in this memo will provoke dialogue, experimentation, and a sense of over-arching visual purpose.”

(Balk goes after the bit about “ugly parts” – whitewashing! – but what about the old line about art lying to tell the truth? Not a rhetorical question.)

Needless to say, Vanity Fair et. al. have great fun with this, because they think Kinkade’s work is crap. But the comments are rather more interesting. Viz.

“The movie is actually really good. Very well written and Peter O’Toole is… Peter O’Toole.” [Peter O’Toole!]

“Why does VF care? (1) The memo makes perfect sense if you are trying to create a movie that captures Kinkade visually; (2) What’s wrong with what he does? It makes my mom very happy.”

“As a painter, poet and writer, i know the appeal of easy greeting card schmaltz. Kinkade’s appeal is that nobody has to think. All our mothers love his paintings, too much is not enough, drip all the colors you have on them, every color, every pastel, the bastardization of nature with glitter. Our mothers say ‘How Sweet!’ just like they did when we brought them real roses.”

“This was fun and snarky, but I’d much rather see a parody version directed at the empty grandstanding crap-shovellers from the Saatchi stable. Damien Hirst is no better, just a different kind of pandering.”

And my favorite:

“One is tempted to call the liking for kitsch ‘bad taste’, but it may be truer to say it is not taste at all, not in the sense that a liking for any kind of real art is ‘taste.’ Admirers of Kinkade’s work, I suspect, do something very different with it from waht we do with the pictures we admire. Clearly some lovers of kitsch are otherwise perfectly intelligent, even sensitive people; they only have a blindspot when it comes to seeing art. We look to see what the artist can show us; they only want to be reminded of experiences and the pleasurable sentiments associated with them, and anything fresh or unexpected in a picture would only be a baffling annoyance to them. There is nothing wrong with the sentiments evoked by kitsch. Often they are noble ones. It is an old observation that the subject matter of kitsch art is nearly always such as would be deeply moving if it were encountered in real life. What makes the indulgence in such sentiment through kitsch art ‘sentimental,’ in the bad sense, is the mindlessness of the knee-jerk response it evokes. There is (mutatis mutadis) a parallel with pornography. And with kitsch, as with pornography, there is a constant demand for fresh product. The particular instances go stale on the user very quickly.”

Some meat there. And yes, this is the painting above my fireplace:

And I keep it there because it evokes home to me, even as it also evokes death and the dying of the light.


  1. j. christian says

    It is an old observation that the subject matter of kitsch art is nearly always such as would be deeply moving if it were encountered in real life.

    That’s the crux of the matter. There seems to be little made of the defenses we build to keep out beauty. Sentimentality is the unremarkable crack in the ramparts through which real goodness would pour if left undefended.

    Maybe I worry too much about archness, cynicism, and the death of sincerity. I’m critically minded enough to dismiss work like Kinkade’s, but I can’t help admitting that the warm glow of these images hits something deep. Kudos to Cubeland Mystic for his defense of it!

  2. I enjoyed the VF article, tho it made me feel like I was indulging my mean streak a bit too much.

    It might make for fun conversation around the dinner table to poll family and friends as to which painting they would like to see made into a movie or in which painting they would like to live.

  3. cubeland mystic says

    Thanks Matthew and Charles for mentioning it. It is very kind. I forgotten I wrote it. DISCLAIMER: I do not own a Kinkade.

    The instruction with which I disagree artistically is number 15 about nostalgia. I never saw his work as a looking back sort of thing. It is always a place to go sort of thing, since I was raised on the other side of the razor wire. I am not a nostalgic person. For me there is little good back there in the “good” old days. It’s his business how he views his work, I see it as a looking forward, not a glance back.

    About the article, it is pretty uncool to look at how the sausage was made and then be critical of the process. That note lacks context that can never be understood outside of the people working on the project. Maybe it is a joke, or made up/embellished, or even Kinkade was legally required to give his technical input. Maybe he didn’t want to and his lawyers had a “come-to-Jesus” with him. I suppose art could be described as a measurable process about immeasurable things. As a technologist I see no problem with someone giving technical instructions. He was even courteous enough to translate his ideas into a film example (Barry Lyndon) for the film people. I wish someone would try to speak my language at work. So why criticize and humiliate based on leaked technical notes when the final work will earn equal hatred? VF should just wait a few weeks to ridicule.

    Having said all that I know about the evangelicals and the big Kinkade marketing machine. Perhaps that is the real problem. I’ve seen “originals” (I think) up close and they look like real paintings with real brush strokes. I suspect if he had only a 1000 paintings he’d be considered a master.

    Which art makes a more powerful impression, the scourging at the pillar, or Mary Crowned Queen of Heaven? I suspect the scourging because we can relate to it. There is more power there because we are all going to suffer immensely and then die. On the other hand, only one of us is going to be crowned Mary Queen of Heaven. MQH art is a bit boring too.

    Kinkade’s work is closer to MQH than to the scourging at the piller. Fluffy blue hydrangeas and people strolling in the twilight next to glowing cottages conflicts with modernity. It is hard to relate to, sort of like heaven. On our side of time we are more comfortable with the scrounging. I think the cynical are afraid of Kinkade, not because it is unrealistic, but because it is possible. If they accept the ideals of his work then they might have to change.

    When we look at how we live our lives it is remarkably close to the Thomas Kinkade ideal. Any home schoolers on the blog? Any Godsbody readers holed-up on farms in rural areas? Any Godsbody readers matriculate amongst like minded students on a picturesque campus in a warm idyllic California valley?

    “Older buildings are favorable. Avoid anything that looks contemporary — shopping centers, contemporary storefronts, etc.” No Wallmart there eh? We had long email and blog dialog facilitated by MTL in this general subject area when you and the magnificently wonderful Mrs. L. were in Roma. I am surprised that Kinkade doesn’t have a Wendell Berry series of prints.

    I want to live in the Christmas cottage. I won’t deny it. I think people are hard on the “art” because of the Kinkade machine. Who knows about the man himself, maybe he’s a jerk. Perhaps he deserves a bunch of criticism for saturating the market with a bunch of kitschy crap. But if you look at the originals, I don’t think it is crap or that he lacks talent. He’s managed to capture what we all want for our families–a warm safe Catholic place.

  4. Johnny Vino says

    From what I’ve learned driving by this blog for the last couple years, Matthew’s secret dream would be for the next Saw movie to be set in a Kinkade painting.

    And go straight to DVD.

  5. Johnny Vino says

    I would point Cubeland to Bouguerau’s Queen of the Angels as more involved depiction of Mary. She’s wearing the dark palestinian garb, with the tinge of coldness in her expression of a Queen presenting the prince with full past-to-future knowledge of our struggle to assent to his kingship. Maybe that’s just what I see, but it’s always struck me as a powerful image. I think his life was a bit dark – helpful for powerful artistic expressions.
    Tupac taught us all that lesson.

  6. Matthew Lickona says

    Very close, Johnny – I’m touched by your care and precision. But let’s be exact: it would be the Saw killer working on the crew of a porn film that was using a Kinkade painting as a set.

  7. Matthew,

    At any rate, Kinkade aside, I hope we’re not puttng Wyeth in the same boat…

    The tendency is to take anything that’s not avant garde (i.e. that is a true representation) and turn on it with fangs baring.

    I think the case for Wyeth as genius rests secure (backed up by a pretty impressive pedigree).

    NOt so sure about Kinkade.


  8. “…the Saw killer working on the crew of a porn film that was using a Kinkade painting as a set.”

    How about doing it as an animated feature starring those treacly Precious Moments kids?

  9. Matthew Lickona says

    Thanks, all – and thank you Cubeland, for revisiting this scene…

  10. cubeland mystic says

    J. C. thank you.

    JV I love your Bl Pro pic. I know that painting of Our Lady. It’s a good one.


    You’re welcome. The least I can do is try to do my part in making it interesting and funny here for your readers. As I looked at your fireplace picture, it also reminded me of home–the concept. It’s the little light in the corner of the house. As I thought about your picture, it occurred to me that what I am really defending is the warm glow.

    The warm glow was the missing essential ingredient for my first 35 years of life. I found the warm glow shortly after returning to the faith. Those of you who’ve always had it, cherish it, and never take it for granted.

    I come here because of the warm glow. May God sustain it in all of your homes always.

  11. Well put.

    I will take your advice to cherish the glow. And maybe even clean the windows (literally and figuratively!) to let that glow emanate.

  12. Matthew Lickona says

    Plenty of people are dismissive of Wyeth. When they call him “the People’s Painter,” they mean for better and for worse…
    I love him, but I’m a hack, so what do I know?

  13. Matthew,

    There was a great piece in – was it Smithsonian? – which draws the line well. His critics are generally the type that Tom Wolfe was needling in “The Painted Word” – the avante garde for avante garde’s sake.

    Remember the Helga pictures? They didn’t make a stir because someone discovered some new pieces of kitsch. No, I think Wyeth’s the real thing.

    Nor am I going to risk the wrath of CM by saying anything about Kinkade. Rather, I’d ask how Wyeth is any different from Sargent, Sloan, Bellows, Winslow Homer or Hopper?

    There’s more than emotion involved, there’s a sense of composition and proportion which makes these guys modern masters, no?


  14. cubeland mystic says

    When you said Wyeth, the name Andrew Wyeth popped into my head. I was not sure it was the same person. When I saw the picture below years ago I was struck. I could not take my eyes from it.

    I saw a documentary about him. The woman in the painting is actually handicapped. She crawled that way. I've been checking out some more of his work today. I love them.

    I like this artist a lot.

    If ever I seem wrathful, I apologize. Often I am at work in full high tech mode. A different side of the brain is working.

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