Conversation with Thomas Wells Schaller

Posted October 21 2015

We recently began carrying some of Thomas Wells Schaller's Video workshops and wanted the Creative Catalyst community to get to know him better. 


Talk about when you become interested in art?  

Always - that’s the simplest answer. It is hard to find a photograph of me as a child where I am not clutching a pencil or a paintbrush. My mother said I was born with a pencil in my hand. For her sake – I hope not! 


But as a kid, I didn’t really think of it as “art”. Drawing and painting was just what I did – who I was really.  I was always more interested in non-verbal ways of self-expression, self-discovery, and of story telling. I still am. 

 Bike - Bridge - Berlin   13x18 inches Sketch  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller

Bike - Bridge - Berlin   13x18 inches Sketch  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller


What inspires you?  

That’s a broad question, and the simplest answer would “light”.  But that’s not fully accurate.  What really inspires me is the idea of connection, the dialogue, tension, and occasional resolution of opposing forces. Light and dark / shade and shadow / warm and cool / strength and subtlety, etc. etc.  It is the bridge that can link all sorts of opposing forces that points me toward the questions I want my art to ask.


Is art a spiritual experience for you?  

Well, yes, but I don’t think of art as a belief system or “religion” so much as a way of being – a way of seeing the world.   It has taken me many years to discover that “art” is not just painting, or music, or writing, etc., it is found in the passion and commitment we choose to apply to whatever we do with our time – with our lives.

Artists of all kinds inhabit the Earth. And not all of them paint. 

Chambers Street - NYC  30x22 inches  2013 by Thomas Wells Schaller 

Chambers Street - NYC  30x22 inches  2013 by Thomas Wells Schaller


Did you go to art school?  How did it prepare you for a life as an artist?  How did it not prepare you?

I majored in both Fine Arts and Architecture at Ohio State University. I graduated with a 5 year degree in Architecture and became a registered architect some years later.  I did post-graduate work in Fine Arts at OSU as well as at Schiller College in France and RISD.

But probably the best training I received in any schooling or university was my exposure to works of great art and of great artists – of all kinds - down through the years.   A solid foundation in art history is invaluable – on many levels.  Aside from the study of technique and style – you can begin to see the crucial role the arts have played in the shaping of cultures , nations, and history throughout time.

 Chesneys Bridge - Northern Ireland  15x22 inches 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

Chesneys Bridge - Northern Ireland  15x22 inches 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller


When did you decide to make a career of it / become a full-time artist?

I worked as a commercial architectural artist in watercolor for over 20 years.  And I always said that if business ever became slow - or I stopped enjoying it – I’d spend my time painting.  And in 2010 - with the slowing economy  - I decided to be true to my word. So I jumped into the deep end of the pool and decided to find out if I could make a go of it.


Fog on the Tiber - Rome  30x22 inches 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

Fog on the Tiber - Rome  30x22 inches 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller


How long did it take you before you felt like you could call yourself an artist?   That’s a good question.  For years, I didn’t like the word “artist”, and refused to call myself – or consider myself – one.  Secretly however, it’s what I knew I was or was meant to be. 

    But in about 2010, I decided that choosing to be unafraid to describe myself as an artist might help give me the strength to become a better one.  And that has been the case.  And I’ve found the life of an artist is not so much in what you do – but in who you are.

    So in short - It’s when I realized that being an artist is not something you choose – it is something that chooses you.

    Grand Central Light - 30x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Grand Central Light - 30x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Earlier in your life, before becoming a full-time artist, how did you find the time to paint? Was that a struggle?  How did you balance life and art?  

    Well, I’ve always painted –  it’s a thing I simply had to do.  Professionally, I’ve painted for years. But what’s changed is that I used to paint the visions of others.  Now I paint my own.
    Kiyomizu-dera in Snow -   Kyoto 20x17inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller 

    Kiyomizu-dera in Snow -   Kyoto 20x17inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    How did you approach learning to paint? Was it self-instructed? How did you use teachers, art videos and books to direct your learning process?  

    On a basic level, I believe that art  - as much as any other discipline - is almost always self-taught. You have to put in the time and effort to become good at anything – there is no shortcut .

    But that said, I also think that we should also not be afraid to learn from our contemporaries as well as those who came before.  Education, instructors, art books, videos, etc. all helped me to focus my interests and passions and to better and more quickly form the path I wished to travel. 

     Manhattan Nocturne  24x18 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Manhattan Nocturne  24x18 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    What advice would you give about self-teaching to someone who wants to learn to paint?
    Self-teaching is simply learning. It is realizing that we have to put in the effort. No one can do that for us. But it is crucial and should encompass a dedicated study of great art and master artists of the past – a keen curiosity about life in the present including great art being produced right now – and a never-ending quest to improve your own level of skill and powers of observation, interpretation, expression.  As any practice should be – art is a process – a never-ending quest to be a better version of who you are right now.
    Night in the City  30x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller 

    Night in the City  30x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    How much time do you spend painting now? Do you set a weekly or daily schedule or do you just see where the week takes you?  

    My life doesn’t really lend itself to a regimented schedule.  But I paint something almost every day.  There are periods where I am far more productive than others, and I believe occasional breaks are helpful – even necessary.  But I am almost always happier when I am painting.

    Old Boat - Lake Superior  15x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller 

    Old Boat - Lake Superior  15x22 inches  2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    Have you ever changed mediums you work in?  What did the new medium say that you couldn’t express in the previous medium?

    I’ve tried various mediums through the years. But in general, watercolor has always been the best and most successful avenue for me to convey the range of expression I want my work to embody.

     Santa Monica Pier - 22x30 inches - 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Santa Monica Pier - 22x30 inches - 2014 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    What type of images move you to paint? Do you paint from reference photos? From memory? How do you approach a piece? Do you work through thumbnails before beginning or do you go directly to the page?  

    As I move through the world, I know I am drawn primarily to abstract patterns of dark and light  - and these can be found anywhere of course.  So I am not often moved to paint specific objects or scenes, but to the interactions, and tension found between areas of sun and shadow. Architectural subjects, streetscapes, bridges especially –in their context  of interaction with the atmosphere and elements of the  natural world– often provide ample  inspiration.  But there are countless others.

     Steps of Girona - Spain  24x18 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Steps of Girona - Spain  24x18 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    Do you work on more than one painting at a time?  Describe your process.
    I work fast – and very wet.  And I always try to complete every painting in one go. This can take anywhere from half an hour to a few hours.  But it is important to me to finish each work  - no matter the size - before it is allowed to dry completely. 

    Working in this way helps to ensure that the final work looks as spontaneous and as fresh as possible.  I like it when my completed work still looks wet – even after it is completely dry.

    So for this reason, it is rare that I would work on two paintings at the same time.

     Streets of Rocamadour - France  30x22 inches  2013 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Streets of Rocamadour - France  30x22 inches  2013 by Thomas Wells Schaller


    How do you know when to quit (a painting)?  

    Haha!!  I always say that a painting is finished about 10 minutes before I stop!!  But seriously,  it is perhaps the hardest thing to know.  

    Over time, you can begin to learn to “listen to your painting”.  It often knows what it needs better than you do. And eventually, you begin to hear it say, “OK, enough – step away from the easel or else!” When you are finally able to hear that and obey – then you know you have grown as an artist.
    Vicars Close - Wells, GB  18x24 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    Vicars Close - Wells, GB  18x24 inches  2015 by Thomas Wells Schaller

    How can less experienced artists find their style?   

    Well sadly, this can be an issue even for more experienced artists as well. 

    As we learn and develop, we cannot help but be impressed and influenced by the work of those artists whom we admire.  We may study their techniques and even emulate them.  For a time – as young artists especially – this is a sign of respect.  But soon emulation can become plagiarism.

    I have no answer here – only an opinion.  As an artist –  as a person – you and you alone have a voice – your own unique way of saying and expressing who only you are or could ever be.

    So I think it my job as an artist and as a person -  to do whatever work is necessary -  to dig as deep as I can - to uncover that voice and let it be heard.

    It is my belief that we all have it. It just comes down to who is willing or able to put in the time and effort it takes in order to find it.

    How important do you think it is to have a particular style as an artist? How does it play in the marketability of your work?  

    The importance of your own style and it’s marketability may be connected concepts – but are two very separate things.   Some artists may sell better if they follow someone else’s lead, or paint in a style much like another.  But if so - what sort of success is that?
    Integrity as artist goes a long way. If it is not your own voice that is speaking – how much can you hope to say?

    I try as hard as I can to stay true to my own artistic voice. And it becomes more clear with each passing day.  Then if I paint as true and clear to that voice as I possibly can – the honesty and integrity of the work will be what will market it.  I won’t have to do much else.

    Does this mean that everyone will respond as I wish them to in terms of art juries or the marketplace?  Of course not. And in the long run, that’s a good thing.  If everyone loves your work, you’re likely doing something wrong.   But ultimately “popularity” cannot be the biggest concern, or we are lost.
    How do you market your art? Galleries, Etsy, Website, Facebook, other social media platforms? What advice can you share with other artists about what has worked and not worked for you?
    It wouldn’t be fair to say that I do not market my work.  But I don’t do much overt or aggressive marketing.  I post many of my paintings online – on my website, my blog, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. And I try to show original work in a targeted way in select galleries, exhibitions, and in my classes.

    I manage to reach a lot of people and I interact a good deal with them online as well as in the real world.   I’m as conversant and engaged about my work with as many as I can be in the time that I can devote to doing so.
    So is this marketing? Yes, I suppose so, but it’s not that calculated. It’s also just a part of who I am.

    As for advice. I guess I’d just say that you have to feel comfortable with yourself and how you present your work. 

    If you don’t like social media for example  – if it doesn’t feel right to you -  don’t worry about it.  Many successful artists do just fine without it almost altogether. 

    But show your work where it DOES feel right  to you – globally, nationally, or just in your own home town. Marketing should be an extension of yourself -  as is your painting itself.  Do what works for you and don’t worry about what others do.

    Ultimately, if you strive to be as authentic as possible - that will be the best “marketing tool” you can ever find .


    Do you teach?  

    Yes I do.  I conduct workshops in watercolor all over the world.  And I’ve recently launched a new series of smaller “home-grown” workshops to be conducted from my own studio in Los Angeles.

    Where do you see your art taking you in the next 5 to 10 years?  Any hopes and dreams?
    Plenty of hopes and dreams. Since the day about 5 years back, when I was finally willing to publicly call myself an artist , I cannot believe the changes that have occurred in my  art – in my life.

    New doors and new windows have opened onto a world I could have never even imagined before. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time exhibiting, teaching, writing, and striving to become the artist I wish to be – that I believe I can be, 

    Life has become more clear – my path both more obvious and compelling. And so that striving will never stop.  But I will likely edit away some of the rest.

    A little while ago, I read a quote by the writer JD Salinger who was – I believe – giving advice to a younger writer when he said:

     “ One day…. You will cease to care anymore whom you please or what anybody has to say about you.  That’s when you’ll finally produce the work you’re capable of.”

    That’s the day I see in my future.    

    In closing, what one or two pieces of advice would you like to give to newer artists?
    The world can be a noisy and distracting place.  That noise and that distraction can be a roadblock or the very stuff of life – and of inspiration.  I would advise any young person or newer artist not to tune it out so much as to hear it – but let it pass through you – and not let it knock you off your feet.  Use it all to make yourself stronger, and to help you figure out who you are – what it is you want – what  it is you do not.

    In time - while that noise will still be there - your own voice will get stronger and more clear – easier to hear.   That’s the voice you will learn to follow, because it alone will lead you to art – your own personal art – no one else’s.

    And finally - another quote - this by film-maker David Lynch. To me, it says it all:

    “Ideas are like fish.  If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you have to go deeper. Down deep the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”


      ABOUT: Thomas W. Schaller – Fine Art in Watercolor

      Following a 20-year career in New York City as an architect and architectural artist, Tom Schaller is now based in Los Angeles where he devotes himself full-time to fine artwork in the watercolor medium. Tom is a two-time recipient of the Hugh Ferriss Memorial Prize , President Emeritus of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators, and a recipient of a Graham Foundation Grant.  He 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, The Architecture of Light – also the title of his recently released video and DVD series by F&W Media Group and Artist Network TV.  He is also in great demand around the world as a leading instructor in the field of fine arts .

      His work has been accepted into many prestigious international exhibitions including the  American Masters Exhibition at the Salmagundi Club in NYC, the  American Watercolor Society, the National Watercolor Society,the Gold Medal Exhibition of the California Art Club, the Shenzhen Watercolor Biennial, 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; and Tom was the US Juror 2015 for Watercolor International II, Greece. His work has also been included in major exhibitions in Madrid, Turkey, Mexico City, South Korea, Vietnam, Columbia, etc. Examples of his work have recently been added to the permanent collection of the Tchoban Foundation’s  Museum for Architectural Drawing in Berlin and the Pacific Arts Foundation in Newport Beach. His work is collected world-wide and he has been profiled in a great many books, magazines, and other recent publications around the world.  

      A Signature Member of the AWS, and the NWWS, Tom was also recently elected as Artist Member of the Salmagundi Art Club and the California Art Club, and is an active member of many professional arts organizations. He is a founding member of the group; North American Watercolor Artists.