Wayne Thiebaud was born in Mesa, Arizona, but his parents moved to Long Beach, California when he was only six years old. He would spend most of his youth in Southern California, but his large Mormon family had deep roots in the desert Southwest, and the young Wayne Thiebaud also spent a number of years living on an uncle's ranch in Utah. His early enthusiasm for comic strips and illustration led to an interest in serious art. Although he showed a precocious talent for drawing, fine art training -- or even a college education -- seemed like remote possibilities in the depressed economy of the 1930s. One summer between terms in high school, a teenage Thiebaud found work at Walt Disney Studios as an "in-betweener," laboriously drawing the thousands of individual frames that gave the illusion of movement to animated characters. The following summer, he enrolled in the Frank Wiggins Trade School in Los Angeles with the intention of learning sign painting. Experienced commercial artists in the school encouraged him to study illustration, and he set himself to learning the skills of a commercial artist.
After the war, Wayne Thiebaud resumed his career as a commercial artist, working for the Rexall drugstore chain, among others. At Rexall he met a fellow commercial artist, Robert Mallary, who was also an aspiring fine artist. Mallary encouraged Thiebaud to study fine art, and to broaden his education generally. Nearing 30 years of age, Thiebaud enrolled in the California State University system, first at San Jose and then at Sacramento, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees. Thiebaud had set himself a new goal, to support his family by teaching while pursuing a career as a fine artist. He found work at Sacramento City College, where he worked throughout the 1950s.
Thiebaud spent a sabbatical year in New York City, where he made the acquaintance of the leading American painters of the day. Among these were the abstract expressionists Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline, as well as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, two painters whose work would later be identified as cornerstones of the pop art movement.
There were no galleries to speak of in Sacramento in the 1950s, so Thiebaud exhibited wherever he could, in shops and restaurants, even in the concession booth of a drive-in theater. Impressed with the artists' cooperatives he had observed in New York, he founded a cooperative gallery in Sacramento, now known as Artists Contemporary Gallery, and an artists' retreat known as the Pond Farm. In 1958, Thiebaud and his wife Patricia divorced. Their daughter Twinka became a celebrated artist's model, author and painter in her own right. Wayne Thiebaud later married filmmaker Betty Jean Carr, and adopted her son Matthew, who also became an artist. The couple had a second son, Paul, who became a noted art dealer and gallerist.
Thiebaud never embraced the concept of pop art, often characterized as a parody or critique of commercialism and consumer society. Thiebaud preferred to describe himself as a traditional painter of illusionistic form, and regarded the craftsmanship of advertising, cartoons and commercial illustration with respect and affection. He also distinguished himself among his contemporaries through his exacting craftsmanship and his uncompromising dedication to his own vision, without regard for changing fashions or trends in the art world.
He has received numerous honors for his work, most notably the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President William J. Clinton in a 1994 ceremony at the White House. A 2001 retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum in New York won enthusiastic acclaim. After the death of Allan Stone in 2006, Thiebaud was represented by his son, art dealer Paul Thiebaud, until Paul's death in 2009. Although Wayne Thiebaud is now retired from teaching, his decades of mentoring younger artists has had a major influence on American art. Many of his students have enjoyed distinguished artistic careers, not the least of whom was the late Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). In his 90th year, Wayne Thiebaud was still painting. His vast body of work continues to inspire and delight viewers with its unique vision of the charm and beauty of everyday things.