Sunday, July 30, 2017

Riding Freight Trains With Thomas Kinkade

Before he was the Painter of Light™, Thomas Kinkade was a hobo. (Direct Link to YouTube).

So was I. In 1980, he and I decided to take a summer off from art school to ride the freight trains across America. Here's a vintage tape recording from that journey. The quality isn't great, but it's a memory rescued from oblivion.

Thomas Kinkade and James Gurney in Missouri
I first met Thomas Kinkade in 1976, when he was assigned as my freshman college roommate at UC Berkeley.

After Berkeley, we were both art students at Art Center in Pasadena. The train-riding idea began after we met a hobo named Bud at a freight yard in Los Angeles. He told us which cars to ride and where to catch them. We decided to give it a try. 

We got short haircuts and we packed our backpacks with sketchbooks, markers, corncob pipes, felt hats, uniform shirts, and a Tupperware full of a mixture of peanut butter and honey. We were inspired by the writers Charles Kuralt and John Steinbeck, and we wanted to do the same thing with art.

All that summer we slept in graveyards and on rooftops and sketched portraits of gravestone cutters and lumberjacks. To make money we drew two-dollar portraits in bars by the light of cigarette machines.

By the time we got to Manhattan, we had a crazy idea to write a how-to book on sketching. We hammered out the basic plan for the book on Burger King placemats.

By night we slept on abandoned piers and by day we made the rounds of the publishers. We eventually got a contract from Watson-Guptill, and The Artist's Guide to Sketching was published in 1982. It is as much about the adventure of sketching on the road as it is about technique.

One effect of that trip on both of us was that we got a healthy respect for how all kinds of different people look at artwork. We set up at the Missouri state raccoon-hunting championships with the goal of doing portraits of everybody’s favorite dogs. The owners were very particular with the dogs’ proportions and markings, and they weren’t going to pay us two dollars unless we got the details right. It was a tougher critique than we ever got in art school.

We never returned to art school. My art-school friend Jeanette and I stayed in touch and we did some sketching trips together. She stayed through school to graduate from ArtCenter, and I learned what I could from her class notes.

But I got my art education from self-teaching and from working with Frank Frazetta and Tom Kinkade on the movie Fire and Ice in the early '80s.

I was always friendly with Tom in later years, but we were both busy and didn't stay in very close touch. Our families went on a few painting excursions together during the subsequent decades, to Colorado, Ireland, and the Catskills of New York State. I was sad Tom died so young, because his fearlessness and exuberance were a big influence on me.

As a footnote, Thomas Kinkade's New York Times obituary in 2012 said that "Mr. Kinkade traversed the country by boxcar with another artist, James Gurney, to sketch the American landscapes that they encountered."

One of the commentators after the obit doubted the veracity of the claim: “Really? Do you believe that a man born in 1958 traveled around the US in a boxcar like some Depression-Era hobo? He must be laughing wherever he is, that someone was gullible [enough] to believe that myth-making."
Previously: Working on Fire and Ice with Tom Kinkade


Luca said...

Thanks for sharing with us your memories about that famous travel and those years... From the subjects you like to sketch i'd say that, at least for you, that trip never actually ended. And i loved the delicate way you included your wife in this story, even if that detail was not essential to understand it. But as the fox says, "what is essential is invisible to the eye"... :)

Now, before i get too romantic: any hope for "The Artist's Guide to Sketching" to be reprinted? :\

bernicky said...

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. As for those who doubt the experience of others - it says more about them than anything or anyone else.

Carole Pivarnik said...

I loved reading about this. Such interesting lives full of adventure and exploration!

Susan Krzywicki said...

To think that two such talented people knew each other, and had such adventures together - amazing. Usually the Universe spins out talent into a thin sheet across humanity - but this seems to be a slub in the fabric. A bump, an anomaly, and a rich place for imaginings.

Thanks for sharing.

Eric said...
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Eric said...

It's great to see the unexpected histories that can pop out of someone's life. I can't help but see Kincaid in a new light after imagining these adventures. Much more interesting to see someone's work, even work you might have ignored otherwise, once you have a more humanized picture of the artist.

As it happens, I'm sitting next to an open copy of The Artist's Guide to Sketching that I got from my library (long wait list, but wonderful book!) just a few days ago. I probably won't have a better excuse to ask this question, so here it goes. You guys both use markers a lot in these sketches. It seems like a convenient way to get a range of values immediately, but I haven't seen you mention that in this blog. If you no longer use markers, was there a reason? Is it easier these days to just use water media or ink wash with waterbrushes and is there some technical advantage there?

Vladimir Venkov said...

Such a great story! Thanks James.

msp said...

Thank You, James. What a great "Books on Tape" Sunday I've had! Delightful! Your descriptive skills were honed even back then. Thank you so much for sharing your adventure.

nuum said...


I have my copy of "Sketching" here.

One of my favourite books.

Good old days.


Glenn Tait said...

It's interesting and telling that both of you continued throughout your careers to sketch and paint on location. There are some great YouTube videos of him doing plein air painting. I would love to see a book of his plein air works.

Steve Gilzow said...

Thanks for this deeper look into your time with Thomas Kinkade. Your careers and lives eventually went down different paths. It's significant to me that you don't highlight those differences but instead express gratitude for the gifts your friendship gave --"his fearlessness and exuberance were a big influence on me."

Ernest Friedman-Hill said...
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Ernest Friedman-Hill said...

I paid a pretty penny for a copy of the book a few years back. It was totally worth it!

David King said...

As soon as I learned about your cross country sketching trip with Kinkade and the resulting book I knew I had to have a copy and kept a lookout for an affordable one. Luckily I did find one and have enjoyed it very much. I wish more people knew about the other side of Kinkade, it seems even most artists are only familiar with his "cottages" and don't know what a great plein air painter and life sketcher he was too, it's a shame.

Unknown said...

I picked up a copy of your book about twenty five years ago in a used book store in Denver for $5. It is autographed by Thomas Kinkade. At the time I did not know who either of you were, but thought it was a great book on sketching. I still maintain that it is the best book on sketching ever published, and I would pay the current going price in a heartbeat if I were to lose my copy.

Kit Miracle said...

I have that book and it is one of my favorite plein air drawing book. Boy, what experience you guys got that summer! And, James, you were by far the better artist of the two. In my humble opinion.

Look forward to your blog posts every day. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

Elisabeth said...

I wish that book were back in print, I would love a copy.

markmors said...

I loved this book. It really spoke to what it meant to see people. I unfortunately sold it years ago when I needed money.
I have to say, you were effing crazy back then. It is a wonder you were not hurt. But I am glad that you were and are ok.
Thanks for letting us look into your life. : )

Eric Bouffard said...

Thanks so much for the share James. "Artist guide to Sketching" is such a gem, but to hear your stories while creating it makes it all the more richer in value. Thanks!

Robb said...

I always love when you share any information about this adventure. Thank you!

rock995 said...

Great story. My friend Brian and I took the train across Canada one time (1973-4) doing pretty much the same thing except the sketching part, unfortunately.