Interview with Thomas W. Schaller

by Paint Tube 7 Minutes

Interview with Thomas W. Schaller

A multi award-winning artist, architect, and author, Thomas W Schaller "Watercolor: The Power of Design") has been painting in the medium of watercolor for more than 35 years. He exhibits and teaches around the world and is a Signature Member of AWS, NWS, TWSA, elected artist member of the California Art Club, the Salmagundi Club, and the International Masters of Watercolor Alliance. He is President Emeritus of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators, an Advisor to American Watercolor Weekly, and a Founding Member of the North American Watercolor Association. Tom is based in Los Angeles.


What does a reference need to have for you to want to paint it?

I never paint anything that I have not experienced in person. Real world observation is absolutely essential for me to have any hope that my paintings will convey some sense of my unique personal reaction to the world around me. It is only in this way that I can speak with my own artistic voice.

So even my paintings that are done fully in the studio are from sketches and photos that are from my own real world observations. They record not so much what I look at, but rather how I see and react to the world.

What are the questions you’re asking yourself when you’re editing a reference?

Whenever anything - a scene, a feeling, a memory, etc. - moves me to want to paint it, I immediately begin an internal inquiry. Why? Why do you choose to paint this subject rather than that? What is it that you want to say? And more to the point, what does this subject have to say - either to me or to a wider audience - and how can I best bring that story to light?

It takes a lifetime for any painter to begin to fully grasp what he or she has to offer as an artist. For me, I’ve come to understand that some subjects are better left alone. They may make a great memory, a great photograph, but not necessarily a great painting. Or perhaps they are best suited to a different painter than I. I truly believe that it is the artist’s job to do more than simply depict the world around us. We should strive to interpret it and do so in a way that only we uniquely can do.

So whenever I look at any subject, either on site or from a photo, I begin the process of design. This process begins internally and before the brush ever touches the paper. What elements are essential to advance the story I wish the painting to tell? And consequently, what elements can be left out?

Choice. It is the universal constant of all design. We must decide what is essential and what is not in order to tell our stories in the most personal, clear, and expressive way. So whether you are an architect, a painter, a writer, a musician, a gardener, baker, farmer, etc. you are involved with the process of design

Whenever any of us set out to create anything, we must decide what elements are helpful and which are not. You would not use every ingredient in the kitchen to bake a great blackberry pie, or every building material available to build a beautiful house. So too, you can’t hope to use every gimmick, technique, or color in your paint box to paint a great painting. For some paintings, some simply work better than others for how you wish to paint.


You’ve spoken of intent: What is intent and why is it important?

Intent is everything. It is where it all begins. And by “intent” I am referring to the very personal, internal process wherein the artist decides to commit something to paper.

The artist’s intent is a communion of the intellect and the intuitive – the head and the heart. At what do I look? And what do I see there? How does this make me react? And so, what do I want my painting to say?

And by that, I don’t mean that I want my paintings to tell some obvious, explicit story to the viewer. No. But I would hope that because a clear intent, I might help inspire viewers to begin to tell their own stories.

In general, why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you wouldn’t have without it?

I speak for myself only of course, but I do think it fair to say that for many of us, too much thinking can really get in the way when we paint. And so a general plan is a good idea for me so that I can get my thinking out of the way before I begin to paint.

If I have a general direction that I wish my painting to take – a plan – I can paint far more quickly, more expressively, and with more joy than if I do not.

Of course, this does not mean that my paintings always go to plan. In fact, they very rarely do. I build in the assumption that my plan will necessarily change and evolve as I go. But nevertheless, an overarching idea is incredibly helpful to me as a painter.


What are the biggest challenges you see with students approaching architectural subject matter?

First, I think it important to say that for me, the term “architecture” does not just refer to buildings or the man-made environment. I approach everything I paint – buildings, people, landscapes, skies, even pure atmosphere – in a similar way. Everything we try to express on the two-dimensional sheet of paper in front of us is composed of shapes – shapes of value and color. Everything has a top, a bottom, and sides.

So to answer the question, I think many are intimidated by purely architectural subjects because they fail to see them as just a collection of shapes, no different than a cloud, a tree, or a face.

Moreover, I think a building can confound the painter because of all the observed and often minute detail. What I try very hard in my classes to convey is that very few of these details are necessary in order to capture the essence of any particular building – no matter how ornate it may appear. In a painting, everything is just a collection of shapes – lights and darks. A sound arrangement of values will convey the sense of amazing amounts of detail without having to draw or paint it at all. The mind and the eye of the viewer will fill in an enormous amount of detail even when the artist shows very little.

And finally, the concept of perspective is off-putting for many artists. I tend to think that most of us worry far too much about it. Perspective – on the flat, two-dimensional piece of paper – is just the illusion of three-dimensions. For the most part, it is just simple common sense. Objects you wish to appear closer are larger than equally sized objects that you wish to appear further away, for example.

In any case, the built environment should seem no more daunting than the natural environment as a subject for a painting.

As a painter, if you simply choose to emphasize suggestion and interpretation over explicit depiction, you will be so much happier and better off. There is nothing to fear!


How do you use the colors you see in your reference as a starting point for the painting? How then do you change them so that it makes a good painting?

I am generally not at all concerned about specific colors that I see in site observation or in a photo reference. In fact, I think it is a better idea to work from black and white photos or better still, from simple value sketches. When you do so, you can concentrate on the far more important shapes of values than any specific color. For me, this is true at least ninety percent of the time. Color can bear an emotional weight in a work. But value alone can carry narrative and structural power.



How important is drawing? What does being able to draw give you as an artist?

Here I admit that I am biased. Growing up, as a dorky, introverted kid, drawing was my first love. It was my religion, my greatest source of joy. I drew reflexively, obsessively. Drawing was my way to wake up, to go to sleep. I drew to tell stories and to invent worlds that I preferred to the one I saw around me. It was my escape as well as my destination. It is the most immediate, intimate, and direct conduit of the creative spirit. And drawing has always been the best way for me to explore ideas, and to express myself without words.

And after all these years, very little has changed.

What’s the biggest challenge you see with your students? What advice do you give them?

We are all connected and so, in many ways, we are all much the same. Yet, we all have different influences, face different challenges, and all at different stages of our lives.

But at the risk of generalization, I’d say that one of the biggest challenges we all face as artists is the tendency to assume that the answers we seek exist somewhere “out there”. We can then spend far too much time looking to others to provide answers, or direction,

Often, we compare ourselves to others far too much. We concern ourselves too often with the “how” of painting rather than the “why”. When we do so, we become a bit obsessed with how others and what others are painting, what paper, brushes, and pigments others use. And while all of this is natural enough - and even necessary when we are beginning, - over time, we can begin to lose ourselves. Or worse, we may never find our own unique artistic voice at all.

In truth, all the answers needed we already have. It took me years to discover that to become a better painter, I needed to look less “out there” and far more “inside” . Everything I needed, to become the artist I hope to be, I know I already have.

That does not mean that it is all obvious or easy to find. But it does mean that I know how to proceed. If I have anything at all to say as an artist, I know that while I have to continue to improve my technical skill, just as importantly, I have to improve my skills of both observation and of interpretation. And to do so, I need to be as direct, as honest, and as personal as I can be.

Only in this way can I ever hope to truly connect with others in any sort of meaningful way. And the non-verbal communication between artist and viewer that can expose our shared humanity is– to my mind – the highest purpose of art.