Big Picture

Oil painter plays with reality on a large scale

By Jessica Laskey
July 2024

At first glance, the 5½ foot tall painting of a frog poking its head out of the water looks like a photograph. You can almost hear the gentle “bloop” of the delicate ripples, shimmering reflections and tiny bubbles created by the frog’s movement.

But look closer and realize it’s not a photo. It’s something more. It’s an oil painting done with such fine layers, richness of color and skilled brushwork you can’t help but say, “Wow.”

That reaction is courtesy of Thomas Nardinelli, prolific painter and retired arts educator who specializes in capturing the natural world—flora, fauna and faces—in vibrant color.

The Sacramento native started “doodling” in grammar school, an interest he passed on to his son Daniel, a graphic designer and Inside Sacramento’s chief operating officer. The elder Nardinelli’s parents were both artistic. Dad owned a hardware store in Fair Oaks and did metal crafts. Mom won an art contest as a kid.

But it was thanks to his brother that Thomas pursued art as a career.

“I had started off as a business major (at Sacramento State), but I liked doing art and going to museums,” Nardinelli says. “My older brother was in the military but was also a graphic designer. When he came back and reenrolled at Sac State, he said, ‘Why don’t you major in art?’ So, between 1970 and 1973, I took nothing but art classes. It was like going to art school.”

After studying with the likes of Joseph Raffael, Joan Brown, William Allan, Carlos Villa and Eduardo Carillo as an undergrad, Nardinelli pursued a master’s degree. He planned to teach college. But the job market was disheartening.

“A lot of other people were trying to get jobs and not having much success,” he says. “I went to the library and found the addresses of all the colleges in the U.S. and I applied to every one on the West Coast. And this was the old days. You had to type out each envelope on a typewriter. I got a lot of rejection and even more no responses.”

Nardinelli found it hard to break into the local gallery scene, so he focused his efforts where they were needed: in junior high and high school classrooms. He retired in 2010 after 28 years at Lodi High School as an art instructor and visual arts chair for Lodi Unified School District.

“It was very gratifying, encouraging my students and watching them feel good about what they were doing,” Nardinelli says. “Lots of them hadn’t received any positive reinforcement about their art and didn’t realize their talent.”

Retirement allowed Nardinelli to return to making art full time. This time with a different perspective.

“I got so bummed out early on because it was hard to find someplace that wanted to show large work,” he says. (He makes his own canvases that are mostly 4 feet or larger.) “I paint now for self-gratification. I’m not obligated to anyone else. I paint for myself. It’s hard to push yourself to do that, but I get up and do it every day.”

Over the decades, Nardinelli honed his process and style influenced by college instructor Joseph Raffael. Raffael encouraged him to work from photographs, and work in thin layers of oil paint that almost resemble watercolor.

Nardinelli still works from his own photographs but plays with the color palette and the subject matter to make a work that’s his own.

“When I’m doing a painting, it’s like doing a puzzle,” he says. “When (photos) get enlarged, you can see that all the little details are actually weird shapes that get put together as you paint. It’s a microcosm, all these little things put together. Those shapes allow me to explore while I’m painting. I let the painting take me where I want to go.”

For information, find Thomas Nardinelli on Facebook or email

Jessica Laskey can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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