Thomas w schaller

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Thomas W Schaller: The Vibration of Complementary Colors

Like all artists – of course I love color (I often say that I can’t even broach the doorway of an art supply store without “adult supervision” – I’ll want most every tube of paint and every brush I see!). But in truth, color in my paintings – while crucial – is secondary in importance to value and both of those factors must take a backseat to an overall compelling idea, story, or vision. Value and color alone are ways of helping the artist to make art, but are rarely art in themselves.

Thomas Schaller’s Palette:
New Gamboge
Mars Yellow
Permanent Orange
Perylene Scarlet
Permanent Alizarin Crimson
Venetian Red
Burnt Sienna
Sap Green
Cobalt Teal Blue
Verditer Blue
Cobalt Blue
French Ultramarine
Imperial Purple
Lunar Violet

As for wanting every color on the shelf – compelling as it can seem – it just isn’t necessary. One of the qualities I love most about painting in watercolor is its immediacy and the fact that so few “tools” are needed to create something truly good. Paper, pigment, a few brushes and of course water – and you’re good to go! But because the tools required are so few in number, the quality of those tools takes on added importance. You may not need many, but what paper, what brushes, and which pigments you choose to spend your hard-earned money are very important.

So often in my teaching and online, I am asked a version of this question: “What blue, (or red or yellow) did you use?” It’s an understandable question – and not an invalid one – but a clear answer is almost never to be had. I rarely pre-mix colors in my palette, preferring to allow them to “mix themselves” on the surface – and within the fibers – of the paper itself . So for example, the blue you might be seeing in any one of my paintings is unique – tempered as it is with other tones with which it has blended on the paper.

But probably the most characteristic quality of my painting style is my tendency to work almost solely with complementary colors which – strongly or in more subtle ways – help tell the story of light that I hope characterizes much of my work . Naturally when any two complements meet (any variation of the primaries blue, yellow, or red) – a gray or an off-tone will be created . An infinite variety of unique mid-tones just wait to be discovered. But it is the power of these grays and mid-tones – juxtaposed with the vibrancy of more pure colors – that can give a work so much life. The way blues vibrate and sing as they blend with oranges on the paper can be very potent and high key. Violets allowed to blend with various shades of yellow can transmit other and very different vibrations – often at a lower key. And warm earth tones and reds melting into various greens can create an infinity of amazing lively and transparent mid-tones that never cease to amaze me .

Over time, I have tinkered a lot with my palette – trying to minimize the number of “essential” pigments – trying to find the most trust-worthy and versatile colors that allow for the widest range of creative and expressive possibilities. I’ve come to prefer pigments that are a bit more sediment-based than stain-based. This is because – for me – they tend to create value more convincingly and they tend (because of the more textured papers that I prefer) to result in washes that float the pigment over the “peaks” in the paper’s surface while allowing it to sink into the “valleys”. The result can often be a painting that – when dry – seems more shimmering and alive than one I would do on a smoother surface. Such washes also appear to have more depth and transparency, and have that “still wet” look that I strive to achieve .

The DANIEL SMITH Company has been incredible. They have made for me a palette of essential pigments – all with an eye for the complementary tones I love and with all the light-fastness, sedimentary qualities, and transparency I could hope to find . As with all their pigments, these are top-shelf in quality and consistency. Their intensity and ability to blend on the paper’s surface are just amazing, and are such a joy to use. With only a few of these pigments, your paintings can really begin to vibrate and resonate and – in the words of the great Jeanne Dobie (my first watercolor instructor and likely the best colorist I ever met) – really start to sing.


Artist Thomas W Schaller

The Artist Says:

My interests in fine art and in architecture grew simultaneously throughout my life. Eventually, I have come to see that they are one and the same. But as much or more than any real world structure, the images of architecture - the stories it has to tell - are what truly fascinate me.  What buildings and the cityscapes of the world have to tell us about who we are as people; how we view our lives: past, present and future, our relationship to our natural environment and other creatures,  as well as to our fellow humans, make endlessly compelling narratives.  These are the stories I try to tell in my paintings.


"Why we paint is far more important than what or how we paint. My work is a study in contrasts: light and dark, vertical and horizontal, warm and cool, the real and the imagined, and elements of the past, present, and future. I love to design with conflicting elements - allowing them to find balance and resolution on the surface of the paper in surprising and expressive ways, trying never to paint just what I look at, but rather how it is I see. Painting for me is less about the result and more about becoming fully present in the process. I learn by better listening to my own creative voice. And I invite you to take part in this process - not to listen to any narrative of mine, but to help you to find and develop the artistic voice that is yours alone.   Thank you all for spending some time with me. Tom"

Thomas Wells Schaller  AWS NWS TWSA ASAI
Los Angeles - 2021


Thomas W. Schaller is an award-winning artist, architect, and author based in Los Angeles. As a renowned architectural artist, he received a Graham Foundation Grant and was a two-time recipient of the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize. He has authored three books; the best-selling, and AIA award winner, Architecture in Watercolor (VNR – McGraw Hill) The Art of Architectural Drawing (J.Wiley and Sons), and  Thomas W. Schaller, Architect of Light : Watercolor Paintings by a Master - a retrospective of his recent artwork released by North Light Books / F+W Media and now Penguin / Random House, NYC  in 2018. He is in demand worldwide as a speaker, exhibitor, author, instructor, and juror. Artist Network Television has produced two best-selling series of instructional Videos and DVDs of his technique. Creative Catalyst / Streamline Video published a full length video of his process in 2020. In October 2021, he has released a first of its kind [...]

Read the rest of this bio on the artist's website >>

Content Copyright - Thomas W Schaller Fine Art

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Following a 20-year career in New York City as an architect and architectural artist, Tom Schaller is now based in Los Angeles, California where he devotes himself full-time to artwork in the watercolor medium.

He has long been considered one of the foremost architectural artists in the world. In the field, he has won every major award for his artwork - including being a two-time recipient of the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize. He has authored two books; the best-selling, and AIA award of merit winner, Architecture in Watercolor, and The Art of Architectural Drawing. He is increasingly in demand internationally to conduct his watercolor workshop series, "The Architecture of Light": also the title of his next book currently in progress.

Recently, his artwork has been recognized in the upcoming Splash 13,  Splash 14, Splash 15, and Splash Retrospective Books by North Light Books (Aug. 2012, 2013, 2014), a feature article and the cover art for "International Artist" magazine (Oct./Nov. 2011), a feature article and the cover art for "Watercolor Artist" magazine (April 2012); a feature article in "Southwest Art" magazine (Aug. 2012); feature article and cover image "Decor Magazine": Norway; feature article and interview (Feb. 2012) for "Creative Catalyst Productions", a feature article in “American Artist” magazine (April 2010); a finalist in "The Artist's Magazine" 28th Annual Art Competition Issue (Dec. 2011); a winner in "Southwest Art" Magazine's Artistic Excellence Competition (Dec 2011).

His work has been showcased several times in “American Art Collector” magazine; most recently, a feature Feb 2012. He won Honorable Mention in the 2012 and 2013 Watermedia Showcase Competition (Feb.2012/13) a feature article in Holland's "Palet"  magazine (Sept.2011), France's "The Art of Watercolour" and "Practique des Arts" magazines, and is the featured artwork on the cover of  "Watercolor Artist" magazine's "One's to Watch" issue (Dec. 2010). His work is represented by the RS Hanna Gallery, Fredericksburg; Total Arts Gallery, Taos.

Mr. Schaller's artwork has been selected for inclusion in a number of prestigious recent exhibitions including:

  • The 143rd, 145th, and 147th "Annual International Exhibition of the American Watercolor Society", New York City (Winner of the Dong Kingman Award 2014);
  • The "World Watermedia Invitational Exposition", Thailand;
  • The 2013/2014 "Shenzhen Watercolor Biennial", China;
  • The 2014 "Eau en Couleurs; International Watercolour Biennial", Belgium (NWS group);
  • The 102nd and 103rd "Gold Medal Juried Exhibition" of the California Art Club;
  • The 2014 - "Water Views:Watercolors of the 21st Century", Vicenza; 
  • The 2013 -"Hangzhou Invitational Watercolor Exhibition", China; 
  • The 2013 -International Art-Bridge Watercolor Competition, St. Petersberg;
  • The 2010 and 2012 "Zhujiajiao International Watercolor Biennial", Shanghai;
  • Second Place Crystal Trophy Award - "San Diego Museum of Art - En Plein Air; International Competition;
  • The 2012 International Watercolour Biennial - Belgium";
  • "II Bienal Iberoamericana de la Acuarela", Madrid (Best of Show/Award of Excellence);
  • "Trienal Internationacional de la Acuarela"; Colombia (Second Place, Award of Excellence);
  • "Exposicion Internacional de Acuarelas", Seville;
  • "The International Watercolor Biennial Mexico", Mexico City;
  • "Salon de L'Aquarelle du Haillan", France; a winner in both the Northwest Watercolor Society's Annual and Waterworks Exhibitions;
  • Seattle, a Best of Show/Award of Excellence "Golden State Treasures" California Art Club;
  • Premier Exhibit in the USA at the Strathmore Gallery in Bethesda, MD of the North American Watercolor Artists; and was a Grand Jury Prize Winner in the 2010 National Paint the Parks Competition.

Mr. Schaller is a Signature Member of the AWS, NWWS, Artist Member of the California Art Club, and President Emeritus of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators. Tom is a member of a great many other professional arts organizations as well as a founding member of the group; North American Watercolor Artists. 

Thomas Schaller “Watercolor: The Power of Design” **FREE LESSON VIEWING**

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.

To learn more about Thomas W Schaller's"Watercolor: The Power of Design"

Covey Shirley
Covey Shirley

March 30, 2020

I’m one of Tom’s biggest fans and have taken four of his workshops. Personable, generous and one of the best instructors I’ve had the pleasure of knowing.

Janine Cairnes
Janine Cairnes

March 26, 2020

Love your work. Love the sense of light and the colour in your shadows which gives so much life to your paintings
You are an inspiration.

Lloyd Smith
Lloyd Smith

March 26, 2020

What amazes me is the emotional response that Schaller’s paintings evoke from me when viewing them. They take me to another place where I can see the beauty in the ordinary surroundings of the world we live in. The extraordinary use of light and shadow, of color and value, make his paintings come alive. Because I have had a life-long interest in architecture, I love his portrayal of interesting shaped buildings in their unique settings. I especially appreciate his ability to edit the minute details, and let your mind fill in the rest.

Shirley Coles
Shirley Coles

March 26, 2020

Great interview. Tom is my number one painter!

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CWA Demo With Thomas Schaller- Jan 2021


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