Eating Figures (Quick Snack), painted in 1963, showcases Wayne Thiebaud’s masterful use of vibrant color and his unique ability to approach the human figure with emotional distance by employing the same techniques that make his sumptuous confectionery paintings so irresistible. Freezing his figures against a white background in a transitional moment devoid of narrative potential, Thiebaud instead draws viewers into the virtuosity of his brushstrokes and use of bold, arresting colors that bring warmth to painted flesh. One of a limited number of paintings that focus exclusively on the human figure, Eating Figures (Quick Snack) is unique in its reference to Thiebaud’s earlier iconic food paintings.
Two figures sit side by side on metal stools; though their shoulders are touching, they seem to occupy entirely different universes, gazing downwards. Both the woman and man hold a cup of soda in one hand and raise a hot dog toward their mouths with the other. The woman’s voluptuous hairstyle and floral dress typify the decade of this painting’s creation, the blue and green pattern perhaps taking its roots in the repetitive treatment of Thiebaud’s cake displays. The geometric metal stools on which the man and woman sit contrast with their warm and vulnerable flesh, rendered ironic by mechanical and nearly unnatural movements.
Painted in 1963, shortly after the artist achieved critical acclaim for his first solo show at Allan Stone Gallery, Thiebaud’s Eating Figures (Quick Snack) exemplifies a brief foray into figure painting. Born out of a desire to break away from his categorization as a Pop artist that resulted from his focus on consumer imagery, Thiebaud hoped to tackle the human figure and challenge himself, commenting that “an artist’s capacity to handle the figure is a great test of his abilities” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: 70 Years of Painting, exh. cat., Palm Springs Art Museum, 2009, p. 22). While many of his previous works were painted from memory, he began using live models for his figurative paintings. He recalled, “…My wife and friends have posed long hours for me, making it possible to work for a considerable time on a single pose. This encourages me to work with specific visual information about the subject at hand and allows enough time to consider more details that memory does not furnish me” (W. Thiebaud quoted in exh. cat. Wayne Thiebaud: Figures, 2008, p. 7).
The process of choosing a pose sometimes took hours, but Thiebaud deliberately picked compositions that avoided implied action or intent. “If I come upon something that looks like it might be illustrational, I shy away from it,” the artist explained (ibid.,). The man and woman in Eating Figures (Quick Snack) address neither the viewer nor each other, but instead gaze downwards, caught just prior to a moment of action. Although both figures raise a hot dog towards their mouths as if to take a bite, their lips are closed, highlighting Thiebaud’s interest in capturing non-narrative moments. He has explained, “It occurs to me that most people in figure paintings have always done something. The figures have been standing, posing, fighting, loving, and what I’m interested in, really, is the figure that is about to do something, or has done something, or is doing nothing, and with that sort of centering device, try to figure out what can be revealed, not only to people, but to myself” (ibid., p. 8). Historically, figure paintings illustrate moments of maximum human tension, but Thiebaud focuses on what is about to happen, never providing a full narrative or giving the satisfaction of a full story. Rather than constructing a dialogue, Thiebaud sets up a tableau that leaves viewers wondering what will happen next.
The avoidance of expression could be perceived as isolated self-absorption, leading to comparisons between Thiebaud’s figures and those of Thomas Eakins or Edward Hopper. The present subjects, painted with emotional distance and reserve, display an avoidance of expression that leads them to appear object-like, similar to the still lifes. Thiebaud enhanced his concentration on the figures throughout the painting process via the use of techniques he borrowed from commercial photography studios. By placing models against a white backdrop and illuminating them with intense floodlights, he created an environment of clinical austerity, staring intently at his subjects in order to more fully examine their formal elements. Thiebaud emphasized the difference between staring and gazing. “Close staring has a tendency to expand what you are looking at,” he described. “I am very fascinated with the concept of stare. Staring fixedly at an object does something to expand time. The more you look at it, the more the edges, the inside and the minute particles quiver. It is almost as if it is loaded and you recognize a kind of stillness which tends to vibrate. When I stroke around the object with a loaded paintbrush it is calculated to echo the presence of that object” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in J. Coplans, Wayne Thiebaud, exh. cat., Pasadena Art Museum, p. 35-36).
The undulating edges and vibrant colors surrounding each form create an expressive energy, making the surface of the figures feel real despite their stillness. Known for his use of color, Thiebaud claims that he developed his sense of color accidentally, having never been to art school. Instead, he took note of how painters such as Monet and Van Gogh handled edges, using contrasting colors to highlight an object. Direct lighting techniques allowed Thiebaud to explore these halos: “…strong display lights have been developed which can do all kinds of goofey [sic] things … make an object cast colored shadows, change its local color before your eyes, glow and develop a halo” (W. Thiebaud, quoted in Wayne Thiebaud: 1958-1968, p. 28). Although in Eating Figures (Quick Snack) the vivid yellow, red and green outlines defining the man’s jawline and the woman’s shoulders do not make literal sense on the skin—they enhance the liveliness of the flesh. Equal emphasis and attention are paid to all areas, from facial features to the spaces between the fingers or the shoelaces on the man’s feet. Although they comprise a small portion of his total oeuvre, Thiebaud’s figural paintings epitomize his ability to present carefully constructed forms using vibrant color and composition. Produced on the heels of his first one-man show, Eating Figures (Quick Snack) demonstrates an exploration of the human condition, using the warmth of color and creativity to overcome isolation and loneliness that infect the modern world.