Thomas Schaller Watercolor Workshop

I recently attended a fantastic workshop at the Fallbrook School of the Arts, in Fallbrook, California. It was taught by Thomas Schaller, who has long been one of my 'heroes' with regard to architectural illustration, and who for the past several years has turned his attention - and his formidable skills with pencil and brush - toward fine art watercolors. The workshop was titled "The Architecture of Light," which seemed to be right up my alley, so I was eager to participate. We spent four days together, mostly in the studio, watching Tom work and listening to his observations and thought process as he created a series of very instructive demonstrations. We followed each demo with our own attempts to incorporate his techniques.
It would be impossible to describe everything Tom talked about, and demonstrated, in the four full days of the workshop. I'll just summarize a few things that really appealed to my own sensibilities regarding watercolor. First, the workshop really confirmed my growing understanding that value is far more important than color. I don't mean to say that color is unimportant, but it is a secondary consideration, while value contrast is primary. To maintain clear value contrast, the lights must be carefully retained as the white of the paper. As Tom put it, watercolor is a subtractive process - every layer of pigment subtracts light from the image. So it's very important to identify the lights and darks while composing things - which was done in every case with a soft graphite pencil in a separate sketchbook.
Another revelation from the workshop was seeing the sheer volumes of both water and pigment Tom used in applying washes. Most often, he would keep the washes wet (occasionally using a small spray bottle) long enough to drop in additional pigment, or so that one wash might be allowed to bleed into another one (strategically, for the most part). There were often times when water was running off the page, but the wash could be 'recharged' with additional pigment as long as it remained wet.

There were many other techniques that I found very helpful, but I'll just mention one more. Not a 'technique' as much as an approach, I guess. It has to do with knowing when the reference (i.e., the subject or the view) has provided enough visual information, and when to stop being too much a slave to 'reality.' As Tom put it, and I'm paraphrasing here, 'at some point, you need to start listening to the painting ... what started as an interesting view is now a world unto itself in the image you are creating.' He advocated finding a 'story' that you're trying to tell, and developing both the composition and subsequent painting to most effectively tell this story - and if that means editing the components of the view, so be it. This is very different than my typical approach to sketching from observation, where I'm most often trying to be faithful to what I see ... but I found this idea of storytelling and listening to the painting to be both refreshing and challenging at the same time. 

Everything we did in the studio was from photo references. We had just one day of reasonably nice weather, so we headed out to work on-site at The Grand Tradition Estate and Gardens, a beautiful place that seems to be primarily devoted to hosting weddings. Perhaps this doesn't technically qualify as urban sketching - it's leaning more toward rural - but it was certainly sketching on location, unlike the work done in the studio. After Tom did an on-site demo, focused more or less on representing skies and water, I tried the same subject seen here. The goal was to create a clear center of focus at the gazebo by emphasizing the contrast of light and dark in this area of the image. The trees at left needed to be dark enough to create an anchoring frame to the composition, but not so dark as to compete with the focus at right. I was also trying to incorporate a wet-into-wet technique to blur the division between the sky and the trees, and was experimenting with ways to indicate the reflections in the pond. After finishing this sketch, I ventured into the semi-tropical forest in the background. Paved paths wandered among palm trees, flowers, and waterfalls, which I tried to capture in a very quick sketch in my Stillman and Birn Gamma Series sketchbook.

It was a wonderful week of painting and learning, and it will likely take some time to fully process all that I experienced. But many thanks go to the Fallbrook School of the Arts for hosting, and especially to Tom Schaller for being so generous with his time and advice. If he is ever doing a workshop near you, I can't recommend it strongly enough!


  1. thanks Matt- a great read. I like that thought about the subtractive process- every layer taking away from the light...
    off to check out Tom's work....

  2. Always learning with you. Helena Monteiro


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