One of my favorite paintings in the East Building of the National Gallery is Wayne Thiebaud's Cakes (1963). Kids tend to love Cakes, too: the subject (of course), the number and variety of cakes in the painting to choose from, the ribbons and swirls of paint like icing on each one. It does look delicious.
Thiebaud paints more than just cakes, though; and Susan Goldman Rubin's Delicious: The Life and Art of Wayne Thiebaud (Chronicle, 2007) is an appealing introduction to both. It's also ideal for upper elementary and middle school students looking for something more substantial (at just over 100 beautifully designed pages) than a picture book biography of an artist.
Rubin's text--like Thiebaud's life, it would seem--is simple and straightforward, punctuated with quotes from the artist in oversize block letters and illustrated on almost every facing page with carefully chosen examples of his work (many of which are from private collections). I especially appreciate Rubin's attention to these individual works of art: in just a few sentences, she models how to write about art in a way that kids can understand and appreciate.
For example, in Chapter 6, "From Farms to 'Fantasy City'," Rubin focuses on Thiebaud's landscape and cityscape painting. Here's Rubin's description of Dark City (1999):
Dark City portrays San Francisco at night. Tall skyscrapers painted in deep shades of purple and periwinkle blue create a mood of excitement. The colors, though not true to life, give the feeling of nighttime. Little dabs of yellow and red suggest lit windows, street lamps, and cars driving up and down a hill that seems to go straight up into the air. The painting is huge--over 6 feet high--and is all verticals. Even the steep hill rising up in the middle like a roller coaster is shaped like the rectangular buildings on either side. (84)
[Me again.] Dark City is also gorgeous, all the more so for being a bit of surprise (to me, at least). Thiebaud's landscapes of the Sacramento River Delta, too, are strikingly beautiful.
But he always returns to Cakes, and so will I. At the gallery, I like to ask kids to sketch just one cake, making it fill the whole page. Next time I might ask them to describe it in words as well. Which cake would you choose?