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Meet Master of American Watercolor — Thomas Schaller
Enjoy this exclusive interview with American watercolor master, Thomas Schaller, below to learn more about his paintings, inspirations, process and more.
Come study watercolor with Thomas in famed and beautiful Italian countryside this September at his Retreat in Tuscany. Reserve your spot now!
How did you become interested in watercolor?
Growing up in rural Ohio, my only exposure to the wider world in general, and to art in particular, was through books. My mother and grandmother had quite a collection of art books. As a kid, I’d look through them endlessly; becoming lost in the stories, visions and imaginations of the artists in those pages.
I always loved to draw, to get lost in imaginary worlds of my own creation, far beyond what I saw as my own rather limited one. And so the life of an artist seemed the best possible one for me. And that became the spring board for all my dreams. My logic was that if I never got to see all the wondrous places I dreamt of, I could at least draw and paint my own — and maybe even better ones — right there in my sketchbook.
And so it was in this frame of mind that the dreamy, fluid nature of many of the watercolors I saw in those early days became so especially resonant. The playful, powerfully imaginative work of John Marin and Charles Burchfield really hit home. And the stark clarity and honest emotionality of Edward Hopper’s watercolor paintings stun me even now, many years later.
Who were the watercolor artists who inspired you?
Aside from those mentioned above, I remember being shocked at about 10 years of age, by images of a number of watercolor seascapes by Turner. I was too young to truly understand, but something in the otherworldly luminosity and emotional turmoil in those inspired works drew me in.
It was the very lack of detail — the lack of “answers” provided — that compelled me far more than the highly specific or articulated seascapes created by others. Turner seems almost to challenge the viewer to solve a puzzle or unravel a mystery in his works.
The medium of watercolor seemed ideal for this kind of light-infused, atmospheric and emotionally-charged story telling. And it still does.
You have referred to your work as “interpreted realism.” Can you explain that?
I am always counseling my groups (and myself) not to paint what we see so much as how what we see makes us feel. Or in other words, I might say: “Try to paint your actual inspiration — not whatever it was that inspired you.”
And I don’t mean this to sound as cryptic or as pretentious as it might. What I mean is that once we start painting, the only world we live in is there on the easel in front of us — nowhere else.
Whatever view, or scene, or idea it might have been that inspired us to paint, it is the painting that matters in the long run. In my view, it is the artist’s job to bring a unique emotional insight and vision to our painting; to interpret what it is we see, not just try to produce a facsimile.
What do you look for — or what attracts you most — in potential subjects?
Artists are always painting I believe — even when we are not at the easel. As I move through the world, I am constantly noticing compelling patterns of dark and light. And these are what inspire me far more than actual things or scenes.
So much of my work is informed and shaped by patterns of light. But what really inspires me are the broader ideas of connection — of dialogue and tension — between opposing forces: dark and light, shade and shadow, warm and cool, lost and found, etc. It is in the contrast and occasional bridge of resolution between these opposing forces that all the questions I wish my art to ask can be found.
Do you sketch on location, work with photos, or both?
I never go anywhere without a sketchbook. So if I can’t paint what I might wish on site and in the moment, I’ll always do a quick, rough, little sketch of whatever it was that inspired me. Far more than photos, these sketches are invaluable tools because they record my impressions, my reactions, my feelings about a potential painting.
So then, if days or even months later, I choose to paint something that inspired me, these impressions in my sketchbook can take me right back to that place, that moment, and I’ll remember how I felt and why I wanted to paint it in the first place. I often supplement these with photographs as well, but I try to paint more from my sketches than from the photos, as the sketches contain more of the actual stuff of art.
Your paintings are recognized for their sound design and value contrasts. Do you make pencil thumbnail sketches or value studies?
Yes, almost always. Such sketches are not always absolutely necessary, but I nearly always do them anyway.
They help anchor in my consciousness the essentials of a potential painting — the best format, the values, the organization and composition of dark and light shapes. They also tell me what elements are essential and what details can be edited away for my painting to tell its story most effectively, without anything unnecessary being included.
Also, it’s my goal as I am painting to think less and feel more. So these sketches are a great way for me to get all my thinking out of the way beforehand. Then I can paint from a more emotive, intuitive stance than I might otherwise.
Many of your paintings feature architectural subjects involving perspective. Do you do much preliminary drawing before you begin?
No. I do everything freehand on the final surface without any special tools or preliminary perspective constructions. But in fairness, I was a commercial architectural watercolorist for over 20 years, so drawing in perspective has become second nature to me.
Your paintings are noted for their striking color and feeling of atmosphere. Do you make preliminary color sketches?
I think of myself as more of a value painter. I have much yet to learn about — well everything — but certainly, about color. It is important to me but less so than a successful composition of darks and lights. No color will save a painting that suffers from a range of values lacking in dynamics or strength.
Years ago, one of my first teachers was the great Jeanne Dobie who remains one of our greatest colorists. I continue to learn from her teachings even now. From her I learned the power of complementary tones and I’ve been adapting and expanding on that theme ever since. I work almost exclusively in complementaries.
The atmospherics, the satisfying tension and electricity in a watercolor that can be achieved when one color bleeds into it’s complement is exciting — and like nothing else that can be done as successfully in another medium.
Sometimes I will do a preliminary color study, but usually not. However, I do always have a basic color plan in mind, a base of two complementary tones that will set the tone for the painting ahead. And I let the painting develop as it wants from there.
Are there some colors that you seem to rely on — like old friends?
Well I suppose so, but it’s more accurate to say that there are specific color combinations upon which I consistently rely. These are almost always complements, a warm and a cool. So Cobalt Blue is a staple of many palettes, my own included. But I never think of the cool Cobalt Blue without its warm complement — Light Red or Cadmium Orange most usually for me.
The same is true, in a deeper register, for Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna; also violets and yellows, reds and greens of various hues. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with paintings in which I use primarily only a single color, shades of blue or shades of purple perhaps. It’s then an interesting challenge and exciting to watch the power that one small dot of orange can have in an all blue painting, or a small area of yellow in an all purple one.
Are there some colors that you try to avoid for any reasons, personal or technical?
I much prefer pigments that are primarily sediment-based. Since I use fairly textured papers, these pigments tend to be a bit “heavier” when in a water solution and so will sink to the bottom of a wash — settling into the indentures of the paper and flowing over the peaks. This results in paintings that have that translucent, textured shimmer that can be so characteristic of watercolor.
For the same reason, I tend to avoid the more stain-based pigments. They will simply dye the surface of the paper and, for me, can result in a work that appears more flat — less alive.
What type of paper do you prefer?
Within reason, the more textured the better (for the reasons stated above). So I use rough-surfaced Saunders Waterford or Fabriano Artistico most often. Usually I avoid thicker papers because they tend to absorb too much pigment and can flatten the appearance of a work as it dries. So 140lb (300gsm) is the weight I usually prefer.
Arches has a beautiful texture, but tends to have a lot of sizing. While it is great for harder edges, it is not always quite as good for wet-in-wet effects. With softer papers such as Saunders, the wet paint/water solution will literally mix within the fibers of the paper itself.
Do you usually prepare your paper — by wetting it, mounting it, etc.?
If I am working at a larger scale — full-sheet size and up — I will usually staple the paper down to a stretcher board to avoid problems with buckling. If I’m using a heavily sized stock, I will soak and stretch it as well before stapling.
But for smaller works — half-sheet size or so — usually just taping the paper down to a board is sufficient. It may buckle a bit when quite wet but will dry absolutely flat.
Can you tell right away when things aren’t working right in a painting?
That’s a great question, but one without a clear answer. I would say that even when I think I can tell, I am often wrong. In fact, I am wrong to be even asking that question.
What can often happens is that we have a preconceived notion in our heads as to how we believe the painting “should” go, or how it “should” look. But somewhere along the way, it takes a left turn and we react badly. This is the wrong answer. Letting go of those notions to begin with, and learning to listen to your painting as it evolves is the right one.
The painting often knows what it wants or needs more than you do. What I am continuing to learn is the importance of having an overall plan, but also in having the willingness to let go of that plan if the painting tells me that it wants to go in another direction.
Watercolor is a medium that cannot, and should not, ever be completely controlled or “mastered.” When I get lost in the process of painting — when I turn off my critical mind and just paint from intuition and feeling — I will always come out with a more successful painting than I would if I tried to bend and force the medium into some preconceived box. The resultant painting may be very different than what I may have initially imagined it would be. But it will almost always be better.
What is the best advice you can offer a young, aspiring watercolor artist?
My best advice to most anyone on any topic would be to not take too much advice. I really mean that, and not in any ironic way. Yes, of course, we should study from the masters; we should learn from and be inspired by them. They can open our eyes and make our way easier.
But in the end, to become good at anything, we all have to just be willing to put in the time and the effort to know ourselves and to forge our own paths. It is only in doing this that we can ever hope to find our own voice, become acquainted with our own passions and sources of inspiration.
And as much as possible, we should try not to compare ourselves too much with anyone else. To do so can become a kind of poison. It breeds a type of unhealthy competitiveness, and it can foster both unnecessary self-doubt and unnecessary self-pride — both dangerous pitfalls.
It’s absurd to believe that we could ever fully master watercolor. But we should paint as if we believe we can. It is my wish for all of us to love the process of striving, of learning and of improving — painting by painting — as a joyous lifetime pursuit.
After all, there is no one “right” way to paint in watercolor, or to do most anything else for that matter. There is only the way that works best for you, only the way in which your own unique voice can be formed and can be heard telling the stories to which you alone could ever know the words.
More about Thomas Schaller
Following a 20-year career in New York as an architect and architectural artist, Thomas Schaller is now based in LA where he works full-time as a fine artist painting in watercolor. A Signature Member of the AWS and the NWWS, Tom was also recently elected as Artist Member of the California Art Club and the Salmagundi Club in NYC.
Schaller’s work has been accepted into many prestigious exhibitions around the world — including the American Masters Exhibition, NYC; the American Watercolor Society; the National Watercolor Society; the Gold Medal Exhibition of the California Art Club; the Shenzhen Watercolor Biennial, China; the Zhujiajiao International Watercolor Biennial, China; The Masters of Watercolor Exhibition, St. Petersberg; The World Watermedia Exposition, Thailand; Acquarello in Fabriano, Italy; Eau en Couleurs, Belgium; Salon de L’Aquarelle du Haillan, France.
Examples of his work have recently been added to the permanent collections of the Tchoban Foundation’s Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin and the Pacific Arts Foundation in Newport Beach. Tom has authored two books; the best-selling, and AIA award winner, Architecture in Watercolor and The Art of Architectural Drawing. He is currently at work on his third book, and has recently released a video and DVD series: Capturing Light in Watercolor: Figure Painting, which is available now.
You can learn more about Schaller and his art by visiting his website.