Interview with Watercolorist Thomas Bucci - Creative Catalyst Productions

Interview with Watercolorist Thomas Bucci

February 26, 2018 7 min read 4 Comments

At just 10 years old, with a little help from Watergate, Thomas Bucci discovered the joy of drawing. He began sketching people he saw on TV and got encouragement from those who recognized the people he was portraying. That drawing has come in handy as Bucci went on to study graphic design and then earn a Master of Architecture. All of that has coalesced perfectly n his watercolor landscapes. And as he says on website, “You have to be willing to take risks to fully enjoy the potential of watercolor.”

Let’s start with process: How much time do you spend preparing for a painting vs painting the painting? What do the individual steps of your painting process look like?


Preparing for a painting is a full time job with lots of overtime. I am always actively looking for ideas for paintings. Sometimes the scene serves up a ready painting idea and I just have to put it down on paper. More often ideas come from something less complete; a glimpse of atmospheric effects, the way sunlight lands on a surface, or an element in a landscape.

I think the most important part of painting for me is not actually painting but the mental preparation that I’m doing all the time. With that said, it’s extremely important to actually paint at every opportunity. There is no substitute for lots and lots of brush time. Small pencil or watercolor sketches are also a key part of that preparation. We are fortunate today that technology provides the ability to capture any potential image on the spot, but this needs to come with a WARNING LABEL for artists. Photos are not a substitute for studied observation or, more importantly, sketching. Smartphones make it easy to take way too many pictures and come away with very little actual experience.

Why watercolor and not oil or acrylic? What is it about watercolor that draws you to it as your primary medium?


I’ve dabbled in oils, graphite, chalk, pastel, and printmaking, but watercolor was my first love. The ability to quickly suggest form with transparent washes and conjure the illusion of detail with crisp brushwork has always appealed to me. I’ve chosen watercolor for its gestural quality, capriciousness, and spontaneity. I like that watercolor requires me to work quickly to get what I want from it.

My early efforts with it were mostly disappointing. Around 2015 I decided to focus exclusively on watercolor to try to overcome my difficulties with it. I gave away all my other art materials, including a beautiful early-20th-century etching press made in Brooklyn. I set up watercolor easels in my studio, started taking workshops, and went to watercolor demos by many of the country’s most accomplished watercolorists. I realized that while I approached composition and design intuitively, watercolor technique was not intuitive. Like a tennis serve or golf swing, I really needed someone to help me avoid the common pitfalls.


Watercolor has a reputation for being a difficult medium. Why do you think it has that reputation? Do you think it deserves it? Why or why not?


While all artistic mediums have their difficulties, watercolor has some unique challenges. The natural tendency is to keep working on it until it looks the way you want. You can get away with this in opaque media, but with transparent watercolor, it mostly leads to failure. I took my first watercolor workshop with Charles Reid in early 2016. On the first day, as I dabbled with a wash, he snapped, “Leave it alone. You’re only going to make it worse by messing with it.” Also, “If it looks good while it’s still wet, that’s a BAD sign.”

In subsequent workshops, the same valuable advice was repeatedly driven home, “less is more,” “the fewer brushstrokes, the better,” etc. Eventually it started to make sense; don’t push the washes around too much, identify the basic shapes that comprise the scene, simplify details. Overworking often puts a watercolor on life support, and its very difficult to recover from. Here’s a watercolor joke, “How many artists does it take to paint a watercolor? The answer is two. One to paint it and one to tell them when to stop.”

Let’s talk about materials a bit. What kind of paper do you use and why? Are there certain things one type of paper can do over another? Strengths and weakness? How important is understanding watercolor paper when someone is just getting started?

Fabriano Artistico Rough 140lb is my paper of choice at present. I prefer a rougher texture paper with a lot of sizing. More sizing means slower absorption and longer working times. Sometimes I even soak paper in a gelatin bath prior to painting to increase the effect. The paper surface and sizing content dramatically affect the way paint reacts with the paper. So it’s important for the novice to choose the right paper surface to achieve the result they desire. This is another reason that instruction is so valuable.


In terms of color, what qualities are you looking for in your pigments? How limited is your palette? Any go to favorite color combinations?


I like to simplify my palette of colors by limiting it to a variation on each primary plus a neutral. A current favorite color mix for me is French Ultramarine (blue), Quinacridone Burnt Orange (red), Yellow Ochre (yellow), and Shadow Violet (neutral). There are many fine paint brands available. I mostly use Daniel Smith from Seattle because they have consistent quality over a very broad range of colors.

How important do you think it is -especially in watercolor - to know what each of your pigments does? How early do you think a beginner artist should start concerning themselves about pigment qualities? Why?

Watercolor pigment has several characteristics: staining v. non-staining; transparency v. opacity; granulating v. non-granulating. There are many considerations and it can be a lot of fun to experiment with swatches to see how the paint dries and how the pigments mix. But knowledge of pigment characteristics is a moving target. It will change as your palette choices change. Paint products are also constantly evolving, manufacturers are bought and sold, formulations change. Aspiring watercolorists should start paying attention to paint and paper behaviors from the start to find what works for them.


You have a background in graphic design and architecture. How do you use drawing in your process? How much of drawing is skill building versus getting to know your subject?  Drawing can seem such a formidable skill: What do you say to beginning artists who are resistant to drawing and just want to jump directly into painting?

I suppose it depends on what you want out of your work. If you want to be a representational painter, you must have basic drawing skills to be able to represent what you see, whether you sketch first with a pencil or not. In addition, many beginners learn to sketch but lack an understanding of perspective. I’m not referring to a precisely constructed perspective drawing, but rather to an application of the basic principles to create a convincing illusion of depth. Perspective is not just applicable to geometric shapes. Even a properly drawn portrait can serve as an example of these principles.


Where in your painting process do you think about and plan design? How important is understanding the elements and principles of design to you as a painter?

In my estimation a painting is successful when I visualize it first and then make it happen.

Regarding design, it’s a complex subject, especially visual composition. There are lots of formulas, rules, and principles for composition. I think there’s value in understanding them, but it’s very easy to over-analyze. For every rule someone makes regarding composition, you can find many examples of great art that contradict it.

Too much analysis kills the spirit and soul of painting for me, and I tend to rely more on intuition when it comes to composition. I use small and simple sketches to work out a diagram for the painting. That diagram defines the composition, locates the main positive and negative shapes, and indicates 2 or 3 value levels.


We’ve talked about material knowledge, drawing knowledge, and design knowledge. Which of these skills do you think a beginning artist should focus most on? Why? Which of these has helped you move from an intermediate to an advanced artist?


Knowledge of materials and drawing skills can be readily acquired from a good teacher, books, or videos. Design is much more difficult and elusive, and it can make the difference between good work and great work. Composition and design for me is often more of a feeling than a plan. The design instincts I’ve developed as graphic artist and architect have been helpful in my efforts with watercolor. But of course I’m still learning. It’s a life-long journey. You never really arrive- you just keep on truckin’.


You mentioned that you don’t have to paint what you see directly in front of you. So many of us are chained to a reference photo or what we see through our eyes. Why are they important to learn to do as an artist? Any advice for getting better at that particular skill?

I like to work from life and on location, drawing inspiration directly from a subject. However what I see in front of me is only a suggestion and can be manipulated as I see fit. A painting is not bound by light conditions, actual colors, or physical elements. I often move, eliminate, and add things to make a composition. This is the fun part.

My advice is to enjoy the process and exploit that piece of paper in front of you. As an architect or graphic designer I always had a client saying what needed to be added to the design or what had to go. One of the most appealing aspects of painting is that I also get to be the client, I say what goes in and what goes out. No artist should surrender that power.

Learn more about watercolorist Thomas Bucci including his live workshop schedule, at his website or on Facebook.

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4 Responses

Margaret leoty
Margaret leoty

October 25, 2019

Hello Mr. Bucci from Louisiana,
Do you have any floral or kitchen paintings available? I have your watercolor prints of the tea pots And would like to continue coordinating prints in my kitchen.
A prompt reply is greatly appreciated.
Thank you.
Margaret Leoty

Margaret leoty
Margaret leoty

December 07, 2018

Hello Mr. Bucci,
Have you painted any addditionall watercolors of “Over Tea” ? I have all of the “over tea” prints displayed in my kitchen.

Also do your have any water color prints 11x 14 or 16 × 20 florals with yellow, rust or burnt red
I’d like to display over my fireplace in my kitchen and living rooms

Please advise me of the color frame that would look best on my “over tea” watercolors. My kitchen walls are painted in blonde with off white lightly distressed cabinets, I have granite counter tops with variations of gold brown & cream
Thank you m
Margaret Leoty


May 04, 2018

it’s been a while since i have enjoyed your fantastic work,thanks for sharing.tom and I were at coffee last nite and he forwarded this to me.He is so looking forward to meeting up with u in Italy,enjoy your trip.
Love to you and yours


Ron Clark
Ron Clark

March 01, 2018

Words of poety, thanks Thomas

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