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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Thomas W. Schaller - Interview

I met Thomas on Facebook, and I saw a few works by him in the Watercolor Magazine. Short time ago I realized that I would like to know more about the artist but the net gave me too poor information. Then I asked my qquestions directly to Thomas.

When you started painting with watercolor? Did you ever try some other medium?
    In University, I studied painting in oil, acrylic, as well as various methods of printmaking.  But it was in architecture school that I first became drawn to the watercolor medium. I studied in the traditional Beaux-Arts   methods of precise pencil line drawing  with the application of layered washes of transparent watercolor.  These techniques have always resonated with me; and while much adapted and evolved over the years, have  formed the basis for all my watercolor artwork since.

Thomas W. Schaller. Man and Beast. 20x13`

How far can you go in imagination when you paint a concrete landscape?
    Also from my studies of historic architectural artwork, I developed a fascination with and love for more purely fictitious, imaginary subject matter.  Now, even when I paint from life, i will incorporate elements of pure imagination drawn from memory or pure emotion.  In addition, I often do painting entirely derived from imagination and sense memory.

Thomas W. Schaller. Ruins - Palatine Hill. 14x10`

How often do you paint on location? Do you often complete your work by painting life or you prefer to finish the painting in a studio?
    I would say that I paint on location about 40% to 50% of the time.  Sometimes i will begin a piece on location, and then complete it in the studio.  the rest of my work is studio-driven.  But even for these pieces - which tend to be larger - I call upon my experiences in plein-air, or  site work , to experiment with color, composition, and atmospheric effect.

Thomas W. Schaller. After Storm. 22x28`

What is your favorite size of a watercolor painting?
    My on-site work tends to be about 12X18 inches, while my studio work is typically half-sheets at 15x22 or full sheets at 22x30 inches.  I suppose that these days, I most enjoy doing the larger pieces since they allow for a more free, more loose and kinetic, impressionistic approach that is quite exhilarating.

Thomas W. Schaller. Carillo Beach - Malibu. 22x28`

Do you have some authorities in watercolor who would be a source of knowledge and inspiration for you?
    My influences in watercolor are many. Among the great watercolorists and of the past, I am most moved by Turner - for his breath-taking atmospherics, Sargent for the joy and freedom evidenced in his work, as well as his extraordinary draftsmanship abilities.  He could draw with a brush like no other. 
    I also deeply admire John Sell Cotman, Cyril Farey, and F.G. Widgery, great English landscape and architectural painters; and  Edward Seago - for the incredible amount of information he could convey while employing the least amount of brush strokes. 
   Joseph Michael Gandy , Piranesi, and the American Hugh Ferriss were all astounding  draftsmen, visionaries, and artists.
     Of those watercolorist masters who are happily still with us, I am most moved by the work of Robert Wade, Alvaro Castagnet, and Joseph Zbukvic.
    And then there are a score of my contemporaries from whom I derive great inspiration. Their numbers are too great to list, but I hope they all know who they are.

Thomas W. Schaller. Dad. 12x15`

What is your opinion on importance of drawing basics in watercolor painting?
    Having come up as an architect and architectural artist trained in the Beaux-Arts techniques of draftsmanship, I have a profound love of  drawing, and the drawing process.   The great Beaux-Arts masters -   such as Etienne-Louis Boullee and Claude Nicholas LeDoux -  produced luminous ink wash and transparent watercolors which were essentially "hung" from a framework of exquisite line drawings.
   That said, over time, I have moved further and further way from base drawings in my watercolor work.  Perspective and composition become somewhat second nature and so nowadays, I try to "draw" more and more with the paint brush and rely less and less on pencil base drawings.  I also attempt to imply much more in my paintings rather than explicitly state.

Thomas W. Schaller. Alley Venice. 12x15`

What attitude would be yours: to paint everyday no matter what happens or, the artist should paint when he is in a right mood for painting?
     I tend to paint most everyday, although I try not to be too rigid about this.  A day completely off from painting now and again can be a good thing, but I love to paint, it is second nature to me, and if I spend too much time away from the easel, it can take some time to find my rhythm again.

Thomas W. Schaller. The Royal Crecscent - Bath, England. 22x30`

You seem to have a German name. Is there some specific cultural background that would influence you as an artist?
     While I was born in America, I am from a German heritage.  My family settled in Ohio - in America's midwest - among many other German immigrants of that period.  I was raised on a farm and so my cultural heritage and influences are more those of an approach to life based on a somewhat simple rural background: the value of hard work and persistence being foremost among these.

Thomas W. Schaller. For Mom. 21x14`

Is there any importance of keeping watercolor technique pure avoiding any masking or whites?
    This is a strictly personal preference, but I confess that while I used to be quite a purist  - eschewing any use whatsoever of white, opaques, or masking -  I have loosened my opinions over the years.  I still do not use any masking within he body of a painting - not for reasons of purity - but because I prefer the hand struck lines and shapes only evident when not impeded by masking.  I think the limited use of white or other opaques can actually add depth and enhance the appearance of a work otherwise completely transparent in nature, so I have slowly incorporated them into my work of late.

Thomas W. Schaller. Wells Cathedral. 9x12`

I realized that you are very openly communicating with other artists on FB. Do you still learn something from your art-fellows?
    From the work of my contemporaries, I learn more than I can say.  The almost daily barrage of astounding watercolor work posted on Facebook , artists' blogs, and other social media outlets has been nothing short of a miracle to me - and many others. 
   As artists, we tend to work a lot in isolation, and the postings and interaction afforded by Facebook for example have been a great way for artists to form a sort of intimate, global community - a virtual marketplace of ideas and inspiration.  It is also a great way to learn of new media and techniques, and find out about upcoming exhibitions, competitions, publications, etc. 
   There is also a sort of good-natured challenging, and competition that occurs between watercolor artists online that can only encourage one to produce better and better work.

Thomas W. Schaller. Madison Square Park- NYC. 21x14
The approach of your paintings is very different depending on a place or a subject. Do you indulge yourself in experimenting with technique sometimes?
   I do experiment a great deal more than ever before.  All artwork has a type of narrative and the story of all my work is "light". From this springboard, I try to allow the light of any given subject matter tell me how it wants to be depicted - in strong shade and shadow?  more diffusely and atmospherically?  in warm hues or cool?   Once this mood - the story - is decided upon , the technical approach to the painting is dictated.  For example a loose, impressionistic, wet-in-wet approach may be more appropriate,  or a more definitive, edge-based and controlled approach may be called for.  Most often, there is a combination of these and other approaches within the same work, but typically, one technique will dominate.

Thomas W. Schaller. Lincoln bvld. - Venice. 20x30`

What is the part of control and letting flow in your painting process?
     As stated above - I tend to think that the strongest, most successful watercolors are those that employ a range of watercolor applications within a single work.  I like to have examples of more controlled, even dry-brush work, as well as much more loose, wet-in-wet techniques, and those much discussed "lost and found" edges,  appear together in a single work.   While one technique may be the dominant in any given work, it is the range of these techniques which can give a painting great depth and emotional power.

Thomas W. Schaller. Brooklin Bridge. 21x14`

What made you write your books?
   My first book,  "Architecture in Watercolor" was an attempt to link the great traditions of the past - especially the French Beaux-Arts  and the more English-based landscape painting school - to the emerging field of architectural painting in watercolor of the present day. 
  I had hoped to try to keep these grand traditions alive in a modern context, and to introduce them to  a new generation of students and practitioners of both fine arts and architectural arts.
  It was my fear that the great traditions and skills in drawing and watercolor of the 18th , 19th, and early 20th centuries were becoming lost in the onslaught of modern technologies.

Thomas W. Schaller. After the Rain. 15x22`

My second book "The Art of Architectural Drawing : Imagination and Technique"  was an examination of the impulse to draw - to paint - to create hand-done works of art
    And it was - and is - my fervent belief that in an architectural context - better  design can result from the practice of these hand-done skills.
    Beyond the field of architecture, I looked at the way in which drawing and painting can illuminate our own natures - can afford us all windows into our true selves - and in ways that nothing else can.

Thomas W. Schaller. Farley Building. 14x9`

Do you teach? If you do, what is the most important in watercolor painting that you stress on?
    I do not now teach on a regular basis .  But I have - and continue - to conduct occasional workshops and lectures on both the practice and the history of watercolor .  I have lectured extensively around the world on the history of architectural watercolor and I do now give workshops in both plein-air and studio- based watercolor.  At present, I am  concentrating more on studio work and preparing for a new book - based more on my efforts in watercolor in the field of fine art.

Thomas W. Schaller. Great Hall - Ellis Island.

What is your professional choice of the paper? colors? brushes?
    I try many - but ultimately, I have currently settled on two primary types of watercolor paper; Saunders and Arches.  I prefer the Saunders for more loose, atmospheric and impressionistic work; and the Arches for more controlled, purely transparent and layered watercolors.  In both, I prefer the rough surface as I believe it affords the most beautiful washes when using more granulated pigments.  And I prefer the 300lb surface in each case when using a  regular 22x30 inch full sheets.  This thicker paper can absorb a bit too much pigment at times, but is more durable, buckles less, and has a deeper tooth than the thinner stock.  

Thomas W. Schaller. Palladian Logia. 22x14`

For brushes - again, I try many, but my preferred brushes of late are a series of squirrel mops by Raphael, and Neef , a couple of sable rounds by Isabey, two Escoda round synthetics by Perla, a large Robert Wade flat, and various smaller composite rounds by DaVinci.



  1. Very interesting and inspiring interview Tom.
    My very best wishes,
    Patty Schwarz

  2. Great interview, I have just received my copy of the new book, it is engrossing. Looking at trying to register for a workshop next year.