Wayne Thiebaud was born November 15,1920 to Mormon parents in Mesa, Arizona, U.S.A.. His family moved to Long Beach, California when he was six months old. One summer during his high school years he apprenticed at the Walt Disney Studio. The next summer he studied at a Los Angeles trade school. He earned a degree from Sacramento State College in 1941. From 1938 to 1949, he worked as a cartoonist and designer in California and New York and served as an artist in the United States Army Air Force.
In 1950, at the age of thirty, he enrolled in Sacramento State where he earned a Master's Degree in 1952 and began teaching at Sacramento City College. In 1960, he became assistant professor at the University of California, Davis, where he remained through the 1970s and influenced numerous artist students. However, he did not have much following among Conceptualists because of his adherence to basically traditional disciplines, emphasis on hard work as a supplement to creativity, and love of realism. Occasionally, he still gives pro bono lectures at U.C. Davis.
On a leave of absence, he spent time in New York City where he became friends with Willem De Kooning and Franz Kline and was much influenced by these abstractionists as well as proto pop artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. During this time, he began a series of very small paintings based on images of food displayed in windows, and he focused on their basic shapes.
Returning to California, he pursued this subject matter and style, isolating triangles, circles, squares, etc. He also co-founded the Artists Cooperative gallery, now Artists Contemporary Gallery, and other cooperatives including Pond Farm, having been exposed to the concept of cooperatives in New York.
In 1960 he had his first one-man show in San Francisco at the Museum of Art and in New York City at the Staempfli and Tanager galleries. These shows received little notice, but two years later, a 1962 Sidney Janis Gallery exhibition in New York officially launched Pop Art, bringing him national recognition although he disclaimed being anything other than a painter of illusionistic form.
In 1961 Thiebaud met and became friends with Allan Stone (1932-2006), the man who gave him his first "break" decades ago. Stone was Thiebaud's dealer until his (Stone's) death in 2006. Stone said of Thiebaud "I have had the pleasure of friendship with a complex and talented man, a terrific teacher and cook, the best raconteur in the west with a spin serve, and a great painter whose magical touch is exceeded only by his genuine modesty and humility. Thiebaud's dedication to painting and his pursuit of excellence inspire all who are lucky enough to come in contact with him. He is a very special man." The Allan Stone Gallery is currently located in New York City and carries many other pop-artists artwork. Since Stone's death, Thiebaud's son Paul has taken over as his dealer. Paul Thiebaud has been a successful art dealer in his own right and has eponymous galleries in Manhattan and San Francisco.
In 1962 Thiebaud's work was included, along with Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Phillip Hefferton, Joe Goode, Edward Ruscha, and Robert Dowd, in the historically important and ground-breaking "New Painting of Common Objects," curated by Walter Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum. This exhibition is historically considered one of the first Pop Art exhibitions in America. These painters were part of a new movement, in a time of social unrest, which shocked America and the art world and changed art forever.
In 1963 he turned increasingly to figure painting, wooden and rigid with each detail sharply emphasized. In 1964 he made his first prints at Crown Point Press, and has continued to make prints throughout his career. In 1967 his work was shown at the Biennale Internationale.
One of Thiebaud's successful students from Sacramento City College was renowned artist, Fritz Scholder (1937-2005) who went on to become a major influence in the direction of Indian art through his instruction at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico (1964-1969).