Ask the Expert…Thomas W. Schaller

Question : How do I capture the emotion of a scene successfully?

Editing – And the Power of the Unpainted, Thomas W. Schaller

Often, I like to tease my groups by holding up a blank sheet of watercolor paper, and announcing, “Look! The light is already finished – so you’re nearly done!” Joking aside, there is truth there. More than with any other medium, watercolor uses the surface of the paper to supply all the light evident in the final work. I write and talk often on the topic of watercolor as a “subtractive medium”. What I mean by that is – because of it’s transparency – all colors and tones, all the values needed to establish a successful painting are achieved by quite literally subtracting away from the maximum amount of light provided – the pure white of the untouched paper itself. In the final work, this light is either preserved completely in areas of saved white paper, or allowed to shine through – in varying degrees – the translucent washes of the medium.

And so – as in no other medium – the power of what is not painted in a watercolor is just as potent as the power of what is. Just as musicians sometimes describe music as the “space between the notes”, so too painting in watercolor can be seen as the saved light between tones. This is why I have titled my workshop series “The Architecture of Light”; because as artists, we can design and build our paintings with shapes of sun and of shadow.

Watercolor has a reputation of being an unforgiving and difficult medium with which to work. That may be debatable, but while it is sometimes possible to scrub away, to lift, or even to scrape certain areas of a work in an attempt to regain areas of light that have been lost, there is little substitute for the look of a painting where the areas of light have been designed beforehand and cleanly preserved.

Site Study : New York Public Library - NYC Pencil and Watercolor on Stillman & Birn Beta Series Sketchbook Paper 9x12 inches - 2014 This extremely quick composition/value study was done on site in about 10 minutes. Even if I can’t finish a full work on site, plein-air studies are important to record not only what the basic shapes and elements look like, but more importantly, my first reactions and impressions to a subject. So weeks or months later, when I see a quick site study like this in my sketchbook, I am taken right back to that time and place and I can infuse a studio piece with much of that initial emotional immediacy.
Site Study : New York Public Library – NYC Pencil and Watercolor on Stillman & Birn Beta Series Sketchbook Paper,9×12 inches – 2014. This extremely quick composition/value study was done on site in about 10 minutes. Even if I can’t finish a full work on site, plein-air studies are important to record not only what the basic shapes and elements look like, but more importantly, my first reactions and impressions to a subject. So, weeks or months later, when I see a quick site study like this in my sketchbook, I am taken right back to that time and place and I can infuse a studio piece with much of that initial emotional immediacy.

It is for this reason that I often do – and urge my groups to do – small, very quick value /composition studies before beginning a larger work. These informal little doodles should take no more than a minute or so to complete, but can be invaluable in helping to identify the basic “value road map” that you wish your work to follow.

When doing this final studio painting, I was reminded by my earlier site study to not get too hung up on minute architectural detail - to only show what was essential to tell the story of light. Important here too was the strong and simple arrangement of values - the lightest lights being the pure saved white of the paper.
New York Public Library- NYC Thomas W. Schaller – Watercolor on Saunders Waterford Paper; 140 lb. rough surface, 22×30 inches – 2014. When doing this final studio painting, I was reminded by my earlier site study to not get too hung up on minute architectural detail – to only show what was essential to tell the story of light. Important here too are the strong and simple arrangement of values – the lightest lights being the pure saved white of the paper.

If you can identify three basic compositional values– the lights, the darks, and the mid-tones before you begin, the subsequent painting process will unfold so much more organically and with a great deal more immediacy.

By no means am I suggesting that every detail of a final painting could or should be decided upon and planned beforehand. In watercolor – as in any other medium –this is both unrealistic and undesirable. I mean simply that if you have a basic plan of attack – and know essentially what areas of the paper you wish to preserve as the lightest of the lights – you can then paint with so much more abandon and freedom, adjusting as you go knowing that the basic values of your painting – it’s foundation –are in place. Because much as any of us may love color – no color can save a painting if the values are not comfortably composed and executed with strength and conviction.

It’s become more and more my goal as an artist to “think less and feel more” as I paint. So for me, it’s a good idea to try to get my thinking out of the way before I begin a painting. This way, as I paint, I can truly become lost in the emotive world of the process. And as much as possible, I can thus eliminate anything tentative, indecisive, or half-heartedness in my work.

I’m often asked to describe the “style” in which I work. It’s a fair enough question, but it hasn’t a very clear answer. I suppose I would call it a kind of “Interpreted Realism”. I am always asking my groups to try to paint less of what they see and more of how they feel about what they see. For me, this is not an abstract concept or slogan, but what I genuinely try to do. As a visual person (and one who is slightly near-sighted! ) as I move through the world , I tend to see everything in patterns of dark and light.

These abstract patterns are what inspire me the most – far more than any literal “scene” or thing I may be seeing. In fact it is the tension, the dialogue, the conflict and the resolution between opposing forces that most interest me in a painting…light/dark, warm/cool, horizontal/vertical – these “opposites” and many others –are what make a painting able to be a vehicle for emotional impact. So, it is not any specific scene that inspires me and that I try to paint. It is the story of these opposing forces that defines and gives it life – that is what I most try to get down on the painting surface. For me, that is the stuff of art.

Value / Composition Study - Steps of Girona - Spain Graphite on Stillman & Birn Beta Series Sketchbook Paper 12x9 inches - 2015 Though a site sketch of real things in a real place, what I was drawn to here and tried to emphasize, was the compelling and abstract pattern of bright lights and deeply etched darks. I arranged three basic values - light, dark, and mid-tones in a vertical pattern to emphasize the narrative of the work - the upward climb from the cool shadows below into the hot sun of this Spanish city above.
Value / Composition Study – Steps of Girona – Spain,Graphite on Stillman & Birn Beta Series Sketchbook Paper,12×9 inches – 2015. Though a site sketch of real things in a real place, what I was drawn to here and tried to emphasize, were the compelling and abstract pattern of bright lights and deeply etched darks. I arranged three basic values – light, dark and mid-tones in a vertical pattern to emphasize the narrative of the work – the upward climb from the cool shadows below into the hot sun of this Spanish city above.

Before I begin to paint, I have a general plan, – an idea in mind – for the story I wish that painting to tell. Things may change as the painting evolves, but I have a pretty clear idea before I start of formatting : a vertical painting tells a very different story than a horizontal one – composition: value organization and registration : will this painting be dominantly light or dark and how will those shapes of tone be organized ? – and color key: I work almost exclusively in complements -blue/orange, yellow/violet, red/green, etc. All combinations of colors, subtle mid-tones and neutrals can elicit an infinite number of emotional responses in a viewer.

Steps of Girona - Spain Thomas W Schaller - Watercolor Fabriano Artistic Paper, 140 lb. The final studio piece was derived almost in full from my site sketch rather than from reference photos. I followed the lead of the sketch to show only the essential elements in the work - the strong and dynamic range of deep,luminous darks, to the saved white paper of the highest lights. And the sense of warm, reflected sunlight - illuminating even the deep arch and cornice - was suggested by the use of complementary color - primarily in the blue / orange range.
Steps of Girona – Spain, Thomas W Schaller – Watercolor Fabriano Artistic Paper, 140 lb. The final studio piece was derived almost in full from my site sketch rather than from reference photos. I followed the lead of the sketch to show only the essential elements in the work – the strong and dynamic range of deep, luminous darks, to the saved white paper of the highest lights. The sense of warm, reflected sunlight – illuminating even the deep arch and cornice – was suggested by the use of complementary color – primarily in the blue / orange range.

In part -because of this subtractive approach I take to watercolor – I have become more and more interested in the larger idea of editing in my artwork in general. More than ever, I am intent on having my paintings tell their story with no more “extras” than are absolutely necessary. If a single brushstroke is unneeded, it is my hope to know that and to leave it out. When I hear my inner voice begin to mumble that I should do “just one more thing”, it is getting increasingly easier to listen to my painting, to stop painting and call the work done.

In doing so, what I have found is that my paintings can have so much more presence and can tell an even deeper, more poetic and more powerful story. If the artist allows the viewer to become involved in his or her work, you will find that they will “connect the dots” – fill in a good deal of detail with their mind’s eye and with their own imaginations. So, I try very hard to not illustrate what I see, but by the assiduous editing of detail, I can interpret my inspirations and present them as actual reaction, response and emotion.

Composition in Violet Thomas W Schaller - Watercolor on Saunders Waterford Paper; 140 lb. rough surface ,24x18 inches - 2015 Derived primarily from imagination, this painting was inspired by my many visits to the American Great Lakes and specifically the feeling evoked by long waits in the evening for Ferry boats to arrive. Another influence were the sparse - almost minimal - and very powerful nocturnes of Whistler. I used primarily shades of purple , but of course they find more strength when vibrating at a quiet frequency with just a bit of complementary yellow - suggesting the calm of peaceful moonlight reflecting on the still water.
Composition in Violet, Thomas W Schaller – Watercolor on Saunders Waterford Paper; 140 lb. rough surface ,24×18 inches – 2015. Derived primarily from imagination, this painting was inspired by my many visits to the American Great Lakes and specifically the feeling evoked by long waits in the evening for Ferry boats to arrive. Another influence were the sparse – almost minimal – and very powerful nocturnes of Whistler. I used primarily shades of purple , but of course they find more strength when vibrating at a quiet frequency with just a bit of complementary yellow – suggesting the calm of peaceful moonlight reflecting on the still water.

As artists, we all have a unique point of view and our own stories to tell. But if you involve viewers, invite them into your world and encourage them to imagine their own stories, art can become a kind of silent conversation – a communion – between painter and viewer.

thomas schaller

 

To see more of Thomas’s work, please visit his website.

We are pleased  and honored to announce that Thomas be one of our judges for the 2016 Art Muse Contest.

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