Welcome to the PleinAir Podcast with Eric Rhoads. In this episode Eric interviews the world famous watercolorist Thomas W. Schaller on bad painting habits, developing good design as a painter, the one thing that has made him want to burn his brushes, and much more.
Listen as Thomas W. Schaller shares the following:
• Personal insights on his relationship with his father, which was “contentious” early on, but has a happy ending. “It turns out that he and I are very much alike.”
• The importance of his architectural experience and how it influences his paintings
• Thoughts on the fear-based resistance to plein air painting
Bonus! Eric Rhoads, author of Make More Money Selling Your Art, shares insider tips on doing market research to sell more art, and advice for artists who don’t have years of experience but still want to build their brand in this week’s Art Marketing Minute.
Listen to the PleinAir Podcast with Eric Rhoads and Thomas W. Schaller here:
– Thomas W. Schaller online: https://www.thomasschaller.com/
– Realism Live: https://realismlive.com/register-now
– Fall Color Week 2020: https://fallcolorweek.com/white-mountains
– Eric Rhoads on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/ericrhoads/
– Eric Rhoads on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/eric.rhoads
– Sunday Coffee: https://coffeewitheric.com/
– Plein Air Salon: https://pleinairsalon.com/
– Value Specs for Artists: https://streamlineartvideo.com/products/paint-by-note-red-glasses
– Paint by Note: https://paintbynote.com/
– The Great Outdoor Painting Challenge TV Show: https://thegreatoutdoorpaintingchallenge.com/casting-call
FULL TRANSCRIPT of this PleinAir Podcast
DISCLAIMER: The following is the output of a transcription from an audio recording of the PleinAir Podcast. Although the transcription is mostly correct, in some cases it is slightly inaccurate due to the recording and/or software transcription.
Eric Rhoads 0:00
This is episode number 188. Today we’re featuring watercolor superstar artist Thomas W Schaller.
This is the Plein Air Podcast with Eric Rhoads, publisher and founder of Plein Air Magazine. In the Plein Air Podcast we cover the world of outdoor painting called plein air. The French coined the term which means open air or outdoors. The French pronounce it plenn air. Others say plein air. No matter how you say it. There is a huge movement of artists around the world who are going outdoors to paint and this show is about that movement. Now, here’s your host, author, publisher and painter, Eric Rhoads.
Eric Rhoads 1:05
Thank you Jim Kipping. And welcome to the Plein Air Podcast. I am coming to you from the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. And I’ve done more painting this summer than any in the past. But of course, it’s still not enough and it’s starting to cool down, the leaves are starting to turn and I’m looking forward to painting some color. I love painting color. It’s hard to do, actually and get it right. I think, speaking of color, the only live event we’re doing this year is our fall color week, which is going to be in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, where the Hudson River school painters painted and we have some seats left. It’s unusual because we’re normally sold out. But of course, we lost some people due to COVID. I don’t mean lost them last time. I mean, they had to cancel for whatever reasons. But anyway, it’s going to be held and we thought for sure it wasn’t but now it is, and we’re going to do it so it’s safe. And so if you want to attend you can come this year. And of course if you’re close if you’re on the east coaster anywhere really you want to drive and you’re in, you’ve been in quarantine we’d love to have you. We’re taking a lot of safety measures and but we’re going to paint for a week. It’s our retreat. It’s called fall color week and you’re going to love it and just find out more about it at fallcolorweek.com You know, this is an event that’s been hard to get into. So if you’re if this is kind of like ringing a bell with you, you might want to come this year. If you feel like it’s the right thing to do. By the way, artist Eric Koeppel is going to be with us He lives in the area is going to show us all his favorite painting spots. And that’s going to be pretty cool. So just visit fallcolorweek.com. Some big news, we are going to be doing the plein air salon awards ceremony presenting the $15,000 grand prize in the 28 or $30,000 in prizes at 8pm. Eastern on the 25th of of September, almost said October. So just coming up really soon in about 10 days from now on. So and you want to watch it it’s going to be live on Facebook. It’s going to be live on a lot of other stuff but we’re gonna award the money we wanted to give it away at the August plein air convention which of course got canceled and we were going to give it away originally at the May plein air convention, which it got postponed and canceled and moved to August and you know, you know the drill. Anyway, we’ve been sitting on this money, we want to give it away so you can learn more at pleinairsalon.com. While you’re there, you want to make sure you get your entry in for this month by the end of the month pleinairsalon.com. And of course the biggest news of all time is that realism live our online conference with the world’s top instructors and attendees worldwide. I think we’ve got 30 or 40 registered out of the 1200 or so that are already coming. You can come for about a 10th of the price you’d spend to go to one of our live events after you spent your expenses and your airfare and your rental car and all that stuff. This event is teaching all the disciplines of realism right things that you Know what they are right? So, plein air landscape, still life flowers, figure and portrait. For those of you who are plein air people, we’ve got world famous, Marc Dalessio is going to be teaching, among others. Eric Koeppel is going to be teaching for instance, as well. And we have Kathy Odom, and that’s on landscape. But we also have, you know, some incredible artists, teaching in still life flowers, figure portrait, some of the best in the world. And all of these things inform your plein air work and you’re planning your work and farms, all these things and so it makes it better. It’s a good thing to do. You’re going to be a better painter at the end of this five days. We’ve got a beginner’s day at the first day that is optional, and there’s going to be a price increase on September 20. Take advantage of it by saving $200 if you register before the end of September, so you just go to realismlive.com that’s where you find it. I should remind you also the plein air magazine, the August/September issue, which is on the newsstands for a couple more weeks include An incredible feature called Beyond the paintbrush with Kevin MacPherson and I just read that article the other day I didn’t write it so I got a chance to read it. It’s one of the best articles I’ve ever read and it gives you an idea on how to use your creativity differently than you have been in to think about things differently. Kevin, put this together sheltering in place at his home in Mexico on the coast. It’s really worth picking one up of course, we are now in 238 Michael’s stores nationwide. We’re also the number one selling art magazine in the art and photography category at Barnes and Noble nationwide, so you can get it there. Of course you can get a subscription at pleinairmagazine.com so coming up after the interview, I’m going to be answering your art marketing questions in the art marketing minute. But first, let’s get right to our interview with the world famous watercolor artist Thomas W. Schaller. Thomas Schaller. Welcome to the plein air podcast.
Thomas W. Schaller 5:58
Thank you, Eric. I’m thrilled to be here to join you and everybody.
Eric Rhoads 6:03
So I understand that it’s a little smoky where you live.
Thomas W. Schaller 6:08
And a little bit I mean, I’m very fortunate where where I live is over by the sea or near the water. So I’m in no real danger like some are but yeah, the air quality is pretty bad.
Eric Rhoads 6:24
Yeah, I would imagine so well, so tell us just before we kind of begin, what has life been like for you in in COVID? What are you going to focusing on and doing with your with your time?
Thomas W. Schaller 6:39
Wow. Yeah, that’s a question on everybody’s mind. Right? I think I can speak for a lot of painters, artists. In general, I think I can least the ones I’ve spoken to. I notice is the case that in some ways, we’re we’re hardwired to do a little better on trying circumstances than other people. I guess by that, I mean, the pursuit of art is essentially, even if you do it with a group of people, which I love to do. But, you know, making art isn’t functionally a personal experience. A lot of us are kind of used to sitting alone drawing or painting. So it’s not been ideal for me. So I don’t want to make it sound too rosy. But on the other hand, it’s been an opportunity for me to sort of reset, rethink, reestablish why I like to paint what I want to paint to investigate some things that I might not have had time to do before. So long it’s not been all bad. Although I wish it would go away.
Eric Rhoads 7:54
Yeah, well, yeah, we all wish that. It’s interesting to hear. So in what ways have you recast your priorities? Are you thinking differently about the way you paint? Or is it about what you paint? Help me understand that?
Thomas W. Schaller 8:10
I think when I originally started drawing as a kid, I was very solitary. My, my father was very anti art. And I think there was some sort of strange, subversive element to, my wanting to draw to sort of avoid avoiding him. It was a very private thing. So, I always hid my drawings away. And that became sort of a life style. Not really his fault. It’s just the way it was. And I became very used to drawing and painting as a private endeavor where I didn’t really share it. I didn’t talk about it. Throughout, it’s been very different. Obviously, my life over the last 10 years or so has been very different, very public. teach a lot, I’m always painting with others and talking about art and and by I love it. But so this period has given me a little opportunity to sort of re engage with the original instinct, I had to want to create art in the first likes, in a healthy way I think, which means to sort of think more about the storytelling aspect, what it is I have to say as an artist, what my voice is, and in a more technical way to sort of spend some quality studio time and and plein air painting on my own. Working out some compositional problems I thought I had and technical issues I wanted to work on. trying out new brushes, colors, paper, that sort of thing. When you live on an airplane and just fly from one teaching gig to the next, it’s great in one way but we lose the time to just stop and take a breath and think about what it is you’re doing. So that’s it’s given me the opportunity to do that.
Eric Rhoads 10:17
I think that’s fascinating because I think we tend to, we’re creatures of habit, we tend to get in this mode of – this is how I paint and you’ve been doing this for a very long time and I want to go into that in just a second but to be able to stop and say, am I doing it the way I want to do it? Should I try new ways, Should I try new approaches, is very brave.
Thomas W. Schaller 10:50
Well, thanks I don’t think of it as brave as much as kind of inevitable I I get very bored easily if I paint Same subjects are the same way over and over. So I’m always looking to try and new ideas. It’s just always sort of forced upon me or I have to make very, very quick decisions, which can be good. Yeah, but this has been a good opportunity to be a little more introspective. And think about where I’ve come and where I want to go and, plot it out a little more carefully if that helps. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. But yeah, so I’ve been plotting out a new book, I want to do online teaching, or, hopefully, thank God we could get back to real life teaching. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that. So I’ve been designing a new curriculum that I’d like to teach a little bit. Well, quite a bit different than what I did before. Much less technique based, more inspirational based, based on why you want to paint in the first place, as opposed to just how you slap paint on a canvas. So yeah, there’s been a lot of good that’s come out of this period.
Eric Rhoads 12:17
Well, it sounds like you’re going to be more selective about what kind of things you’re willing to get on the airplane for.
Thomas W. Schaller 12:26
Yeah, I don’t think I speak for myself one way there. But if I’m honest…is a little burned out of life out of a suitcase. I wanted to take a step back even a year or two ago, saying yes to absolutely everything. And yes, being a little more selective just as you say, I love doing it. But I want to I’d like to do it a little bit more on my terms. And yeah, I think I can do that. So that’s been good too.
Eric Rhoads 13:01
So why don’t we kind of wind back. You’ve talked about when you were a kid and you were drawing and your dad, your dad didn’t take well to the idea of art. Did your dad ever get an opportunity to understand that you became one of the most prominent well known watercolor artists in the world?
Thomas W. Schaller 13:22
Yes and No, my dad and I had a very contentious, early relationship. We had a family farm. He was a very, very focused guy, but and how at all has a happy ending. Turns out that he and I are very much alike. I mean, very much alike. He never wanted to have his own boss, he always wanted to have his own business. And, I couldn’t be more like that, but I’m just the same. He essentially wanted to design his own life. And that has been the cornerstone of everything that I do now. And I always wanted to do. I thank him for that. So when the family farm began to fail, with all the corporate farms buying up little farms all through the Midwest, he panicked a bit, didn’t know what to do. So he and I work together and we started our own design, build construction firm. I was still just a kid in high school, but I designed a lot of houses. Anyway, he and I worked together and we designed houses and additions and renovations and started the business together as one of the best things I ever did. And he and I became very close after that. A few years later, though, a number of years later on he came to visit me and in New York, a place he vowed he would never go. But he did. And we had a great time. And he got to be around when I published my first book, and was very, very proud. And we lost him shortly, about a year after that.
Eric Rhoads 15:18
So there was a wonderful opportunity, though for him to see that you were driven by something that you have picked up as a child and that you turned it into something. You turned it into a career he became a published author. That’s huge.
Thomas W. Schaller 15:38
Yeah, it was a big deal because it gave us the chance of time, I’ll always treasure and never forget, we were just sitting and him saying the words that he was proud of me and I mean, there was never any lack of love there. There was just a fundamental apparent difference, that really wasn’t a difference. It was a similarity. And it took us about 30 years to figure out that we were really the same person. So we just had different ways of expressing that.
Eric Rhoads 16:15
He may have wanted you to kind of grow up and take over the farm and maybe you weren’t interested. I don’t know. But that’s interesting. Yeah, we got there. That’s all that matters. And, I’m sure you’re thankful for that. So, you have this interest as a child. And then how did you take that to a career? What happened next?
Thomas W. Schaller 16:42
Well, again, very much like my dad, I just never wanted to work for anybody else. I always wanted to devise a way forward or work for myself. I had this pretty naive notion about moving to New York and becoming a famous artist. And getting to New York is fairly easy if you really want to, but staying there is fairly hard. So I did go I thought it would take about two weeks to become a famous artist. All people would have to do is my portfolio. My child has paintings. Now it was a little harder of a mock. So I finished that, I finished architecture school. I went through all the rigorous tests to get my official grades registration to become an official architect, which I have to admit I wasn’t going to do. My dad was a little instrumental and talking me into doing that. I’m also thankful for him for doing that. So then I went back to New York and circuitous route, but I ended up back in New York. Figuring I would work as an architect. But what I did do instead was work up a portfolio of drawings that I had done. Because I also had a four year stint in art school. And I thought if I’m going to be an architect, if I’m honest, what I’m really interested in ideas about cities, ideas about the built environment, drawings and paintings of the built environment. I wasn’t really all that interested in working up blueprints. So I sat in my little apartment, I did about a dozen pretty bad watercolors and architectural subjects. I walked around the streets of New York and ended up getting getting work and one thing led to another and yeah, I made myself a career doing architectural watercolors, which was in the 1980s and even in those There’s mostly that kind of work was being done on computer digital renderings and that sort of thing. So it helped me kind of stand out in the crowd and bring a little of the handcrafted a little bit more of the expressive traditions of architectural drawing and painting to the modernism in the design world going on in those days. So when did say I had it? When did plein air enter into all of this? I always was fascinated with plein air. I did a lot of an art school as well as architecture school, sitting on your butt in front of a beautiful building or city square, touring Europe and sketching. Sketching was a big, big deal for me. Live sketching and I was not unlike many of my friends. I’m really addicted to hand drawing, not painting so much in those days, but sketching and so yeah, I would sit on buses and airplanes and classrooms and I became a really, really habitual, addicted to sketching. In architecture school we were introduced to the watercolor techniques of …days just have sort of a historical interest. Most most of my class mates laughed at off as a waste of time, but something about that clicked. And I did a lot of study on my own and learned that all the hands on drawing that all of my classmates and I were doing many years ago, was supplemented with watercolor sketching So I began to travel with a cheap little watercolor sketch kit. And, I didn’t have ambitions of doing great art. I just liked the process of painting on site to try to get down quickly in my sketchbook, the character of people, places and things not I then drew my attention. The world of actual plein air painting came later but was built on that early interest and at least comfort with the idea of doing that was a great, it was a great foundation. And I think what I’m really trying to say with too many words is when I started teaching, and I teach a lot of plein air, a lot of my people in my groups are horrified. They’re terrified of painting plein air. They’re scared And I understand that but, I’m not a psychologist but I, I understand a little of the psychology of fear based resistance to plein air painting. And I think in general, what it often is is like people are just afraid of not being able to create standing on a street corner for what you’re able to create in your studio. So what I always counseled them is that don’t worry about it. It’s a different animal, not the same thing. And I do know plenty of artists that can produce beautiful finished work on site. But if I’m honest, that’s not the kind of plein air work that really excites me. I admire it. But what I think’s great about painting on site, is the fact that you’re not in your studio. You can’t control the weather. Changing in the light. You can’t control the sounds and the noise around you. I don’t know for some reason I’m always painting and in Europe and Italy, mostly when I’m teaching plein air painting. And people say how do you do it? It’s so chaotic. And that’s part of it. It’s the ability to sort of experience all that. Work that energy into your painting that you want, don’t fight against, but to accept it to bring it all in to make that part of your expression. The light changes so quickly, but there too, it’s a lesson that teaches you how to how to choose a subject quickly how to make really fast decisions, and get those ideas down on paper very, very quickly. I also say that I still love studio painting, but my plein air work my Studio painting I think would be crap without my experience in plein air painting. Because of those lessons and teaching you how to make a quick decision. Decide on the fly how you want the composition feels right? Not overthinking things. A lot of us myself, I can say, overthink our compositions too much sometimes. Generally, with a lot of experience comes the ability to know almost instinctively where you should stand, how you should look at something, how to edit it, when to zoom in and when to pull back. And there’s just no other way that I know of how to teach yourself those lessons. Learn to just get over it. Grab your sketchbook, go, go outside, draw and paint. It’s not only fun, but it’s just an amazing classroom. So, yeah, and it’s also a great way to interact with other artists. going out with a group of artists. Painting is one of the great joys of life and I feel badly for other artists that don’t avail themselves of that privilege because it is a privilege, it’s great fun and always leads to something better.
Eric Rhoads 25:28
Well, it really is a privilege and you really develop great relationships with people when you paint with other people. The other thing that I find is that I’m in touch with people that I never would be in touch with otherwise, because people stop and talk to you. And in the beginning days that would intimidate me because I was afraid they would judge my painting or judge me. But I found it to be, kind of a memory stimulator because I would remember the people that I would meet in the streets. Do you find that you’re also interacting with the community that’s in the area?
Thomas W. Schaller 26:05
I do. Yeah, very much. Around here. It happens a lot. I paid outside here in Venice, California down by the canals. And yeah, I actually quite like it. It’s the thing I thought I would hate, that a stranger would walk up and judge my work. And I won’t say they don’t I mean, you get all the common questions. Oh, are you an artist? Or my grandmother used to paint watercolors? Yeah. And, the dumb questions. Why did you use that color? Why did you do this? But over time? I’ve come to kind of like that. It causes me to ask myself that question. Oh, I don’t know. Why did I choose that color? Why did I choose to paint this and not that it’s Europe I find that happens more often. Maybe that’s because I paint a lot more urban scenes probably in Europe than I do here in California. But people are just very curious what it is you’re painting often you’re painting their house or their grandfather’s house and, yeah, I’ve made friends and that I’ve stayed in touch with my whole life because I never would have happened otherwise. It’s a unique and amazing way to interact with the world around you, but other people just don’t have so I feel very blessed.
Eric Rhoads 27:40
You have a different technical approach when you’re painting indoors versus when you’re painting outdoors.
Thomas W. Schaller 27:48
I do I try not to but I think what you said earlier sort of rang a bell with me, we all have habits. Some of them are good. Some of them are bad. I’m very fascinated with people’s habits and my own too. I always think they’re worth looking at and investigating your habit is working well for you. So, obviously there are bad habits for reading or whatever. But in painting, we might do something that works for us once and it gets stuck in the back of our brains subliminally and we do it over and over. We might always grab the same color or the same brush or the same paper. So we need to do a lot of studio work. I think you fall into habits that generally don’t necessarily serve you very well when you’re painting on site. Different kinds of paperwork to need better outdoors than they might indoors. different sorts of brushes. Obviously if you’re painting watercolor, your paint drying time, changes radically if you’re painting outdoors in a warm climate, so you begin to apply paint very differently. And, that’s good. There is never one right way to do anything. So how I paint plein air doesn’t form how I paint in the studio and vice versa. But I don’t always expect the same result. It’s kind of a different way of telling a story.
Eric Rhoads 29:36
That was it. Was there a particular reason that you were drawn to watercolor? And have you ever experimented with other other mediums whether they’re water mediums like wash or or casein or acrylic or water based oils? And have you ever moved into oils? Just kind of curious because you’re obviously known as a great watercolorist.
Thomas W. Schaller 30:02
Well I have tried I’ve tried the regular oil based oils. I’d be lying if I didn’t say how much I admire people who have great facility about medium. It’s obviously classic. There are effects that you cannot achieve in any other way I believe outside the world of oil painting. I’ve tried water based oils great work I see done with them, but not by me. I was all problems. sort of similar with acrylic. I go through periods where I use acrylics to sort of play around with casual ideas of composition and bigger ideas. But nothing really ever tugs at my heartstrings or makes me feel as expressive as I can with watercolor and for me, it’s simply the fact that I like to work quickly. Generally always, I may be just very impatient, I want to see the result very quickly. And in watercolor, you have the white of the paper. So with my groups, I always joke around, I hold up a blank sheet of white paper and say, Look, you’re already halfway done. And in a sense you are because one of the powers of watercolor is the fact that the strength of what you don’t paint is just as much as the strength of what you do paint. It’s saving up the white paper or using the white of the paper to shine through and illuminate some way, the layers of wash and, and color. So you’re using the actual surface of the paper much more than you do in any other medium. And just that fact alone is has always been enough to pull me back over and over to watercolor. I love drawing I love playing drawing, but it’s really watercolor. That does it for me.
Eric Rhoads 32:14
Well, I don’t want to insult anybody. But I think that people who can do watercolor are a very special breed of people. And the reason I say that is because you have to think backwards; an oil painting, it’s additive, right? We can add a white brushstroke with a white roof on top of a barn after we’ve laid something else down and still make it work. But, watercolor is subtractive. And it seems to me that you have to be willing to think 300 steps in advance, you know, the minute you start painting.
Thomas W. Schaller 32:55
Well, I think you’re right in that I always say, that watercolor subtractive technique you start with 100% of light, and then you begin to carefully or not so carefully subtract away. People ask me a lot, how do you paint the light and watercolor? And the answer is, of course you don’t. It’s already there. What you paint are the shades and the shadows that give white the identity about life, the luminosity that you want to have. Light can’t exist without dark. So you paint the darker areas to give light, light. Looking back in art school, I studied sculpture was my first major. Because of my interest in the built environment and architecture, I somehow thought maybe that was the path for me, that I’d be a 3d artist and sculpture. And I was reading a book on the great sculptures Bernini, and Nikoleta, etc. They talked a lot about taking a large, untouched block of stone and marble and subtracting away the the unnecessary parts to reveal them. The amazing art within that’s always stuck with me. In no way do I compare myself to those guys, but I’m just saying, in a somewhat similar way, watercolor reminds me of that. You start with something you carve away. You carve away the light to reveal the painting that’s just waiting there to be found. And I just don’t get that same rush with acrylic or, or what oil I’m sorry to say. I wish I did. I just think it’s something very, very different. It’s very special.
Eric Rhoads 34:53
Well, you’re fortunate that you have that passion. So one of the things that I think I said to you the other day when you were on one of my live broadcasts is that I think that you are one of the best designers that I know as a painter and, there are lots of painters in my life. But you have such great design skills, what does it take to develop good design skills as a painter?
Thomas W. Schaller 35:22
That is a great question, and I hope I can come up with a great answer. I do agree with you that for me, it is always about design, whether you paint in a very realistic manner or completely abstract. It’s always designed and when I sit around with my painter friends, somehow or the other, the conversation always ends up with that. It’s that abstract collision of lights and darks, big and small shapes that make a painting either good or bad, effective or ineffective or communicate or not. So all I can say is that it’s always on my mind. I don’t think there’s any right way to do it. I try not to repeat myself, I try to always find new ways of arranging those shapes on a piece of paper, but my method, and it’s not a lesson. It’s just an anecdote. If it works for anybody, please feel free to steal it. I didn’t invent the sketchbook. But I sit and doodle constantly. I do abstract shapes of dark and light and mid tone. And I just design I even dream about shapes of light and dark. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll just sketch them in a sketchbook by my bed. And it’s amazing how many of these things is really informals abstract scribbles ended up becoming paintings. At some point down the road, I really think it’s all about design. The artist has the ability to orchestrate the viewers experience. And the only way to do that is to pull them inside your painting. And sort of gently suggest a way that they can move around inside your work to have an experience that you might want them to have, or maybe one that you you never planned. But it’s really all about the design of the darks and lights and the shapes. Make that that even make that possible. Again, I always say if I live long enough, I’ll be an abstract painter, but I think I need about 100 more years, but that’s the direction I’m headed in that direction.
Eric Rhoads 37:53
That’s I think the hardest thing to develop is to understand that there’s abstract shapes in everything.
Thomas W. Schaller 38:01
There is my admiration for abstract painters is boundless because it’s a naive thing when people say, Oh, it’s so easy to do an abstract painting. No, it’s easy to do, but it’s not easy to do a good one. That’s probably the hardest thing. My among my favorite artists and whenever I’m in New York City, I go immediately to the Museum of Modern Art. And I stand in front of the abstract expression of slots goes on. Robert Mahler walls and froms clients and I’m just shocked a new every single time at the power of their ability to edit away everything unnecessary and just give you a completely emotional experience with shapes of light and dark and warm and cool colors. Just amazing to me. I aspire to be that effective as an artist.
Eric Rhoads 39:08
How do you do that in your in your own work? How do you get that kind of clarity of vision, that editing to take the unnecessary out? Because it’s a temptation that’s there for all of us. There’s so much detail.
Thomas W. Schaller 39:22
Yeah, and for my background, a background of drawing, which is, expressing things with line. And then all of my architectural training, I don’t regret it, but I sometimes resent it. I mean, I was taught – driven into my head that the more detail the better. And you know, as a painter, that whole idea is just turned on a 10. The more detail in a painting, I mean, it depends on what kind of painter you are, but for me, I look back at my paintings, even in to go on, I think, oh God, If only I’d use 10 or 20% fewer brush marks or three or four fewer colors, and it would have been a much better painting. So that’s the path I’m on. As I say, I do generally be for every painting, I do an abstract sketch, just a tonal sketch of darks and lights and shapes, so that I know more or less before I start painting, where I want the darks to be placed where I want to save the lights, and more or less why I want the mid tones. That’s the story. That’s the whole thing right there. So even if I’m painting something that’s fairly realistic or recognizable, I’m cognizant that the more lines or details I put in, the more I might dilute the original idea or impact. About abstract composition. Every painting isn’t the same and it’s a delicate balance that I just I actually love walking that line and and trying to see how little I can get away with how few details I can put in to an otherwise fairly realistic looking scene. So yeah, I’m still very interested in painting things that look like they might be real even if they’re completely imaginary or I’ve used a great deal of license but I’m equally interested in how much I can get away from that and the viewers, I can fill in a lot of detail that’s not there. And that’s another fun game to play is that you can set up this unspoken communion communication with viewers, people that you may never meet, that you can imagine looking at your painting, filling in details that you didn’t draw or paint and having this whole conversation that you’re not even aware of. I don’t know it’s very exciting to me to, to play around with that and see how little I can paint and still imply a lot. The great teachers I’ve had, it’s been a few but Joseph Zbukvic was my, one of my first and, he said that a lot. Before I can understand that, really. It’s better to imply than it is to state some of the time. So if you just imply detail, rather than expressing it all completely, you end up with a much more poetic, a much more expressive, much more inclusive painting. And I still look at his paintings and I’m shocked at how much how much he seems to imply just with a shape of Telemark color.
Eric Rhoads 43:18
Well, probably a good moment to bring up the fact that we’re going to be doing an all watercolor event. It’s first time we’ve ever done it. We had been confidentially, well, I guess it’s not confidential anymore. But we had been working on developing a watercolor convention as you know, we do a figurative and a plein air painting. Oh, yeah. And so we had been working on a live in person watercolor convention and then of course COVID hits. So we were going to be doing a January conference online just for watercolor and, you and Joseph Zbukvic are headliners in that event, so we’ll have to watch for more information on that they can, they can go to watercolorlive.com to learn about it. I want to ask you about career. You know, I hear I interview a lot of watercolor painters and I hear from a lot of watercolor painters and a common question is this sometimes a belief that watercolor is not as accepted, maybe you know among collectors or gallerist or is not at the considered as important as oil paintings for instance. And, I think that’s just complete nonsense, but I may be completely wrong, what kind of things have you had to battle or have you and does that gap really exist?
Thomas W. Schaller 44:55
It’s a great question. I I think there’s probably something there but I think it has changed over time. I think we’re entering an era where it might be more smoke than fire. I think the perception among collectors is changing. But I also think there’s a new, maybe a new population out there collectors let them appreciate watercolor in a way that may not have been true. If the 50 or 100 years ago. There’s a perception not entirely wrong that watercolors have to be displayed behind glass or plexiglass. And so therefore, more difficult to show and exhibits, more difficult for museums to buy and exhibit. More difficult to collectors to get because they’re difficult to see in a photograph. Maybe that’s a different discussion. There are coatings, a lot of artists use in watercolor now to be able to show their work without having it to be glazed. I don’t do that, I still show my work, blazed and uncoded. But yeah, I may not be the expert in this. I’m not an expert marketer. I do what I do. I know what I know. I have a very small group of very dedicated collectors and I’m always looking out and reaching for new ones. I have been lucky to have my work and collected by a few museums and galleries. But I do think that the knowledge about watercolor and the scholarship of watercolor has changed enough that collectors are looking at a new And I’ve been very gratified or maybe just very fortunate.
Eric Rhoads 47:05
Well, and I would argue that you’ve been very successful as well and that, those things don’t appear to have have affected your career. And I was going to ask you, because, you seem to have a pretty good feel for marketing. You clearly have become a very top brand, using the term brand as an artist of course, but you’ve become a very well known artists very top brand very sought after, as a teacher, very sought after, as someone, who paints and people want to collect. How does that happen for you? Is it just kind of where you’re the person sitting at the diner? Somebody walked in and discovered you? You actually worked hard at it that making it happen?
Thomas W. Schaller 47:57
This is a great question. I don’t talk a lot about it. But I think it’s something that ought to be talked about is that I think it might be fair to say that many artists aren’t especially adept at marketing themselves, or sales or just the simple mechanics of running their own business. So all my years in New York working, having my own business or working as an architectural watercolors, I don’t regret at all, but one reason I don’t, was it taught me or I taught myself just the very basics of how to balance books, how to how to take care of myself, how to look out for myself and look out for others and how to work with clients. I’m not a really social person, but I like people and one on one. I’m pretty good with talking to people about art and about what I do and about what they do. So what I’m trying to say is I think I’m not complaining, I’m very lucky, but it hasn’t just been luck. I think visibility is it all comes down to, visibility. Getting your work in front in front of as many eyeballs as possible is key for young artists starting out. And even for more established artists, you can fall off the radar very quickly. You cannot always out there and showing your work and and I’ve always made it a point of talking to people online or in the, in the real world, just engaging them about art and about my art about their art about life in general. And that human connection is invaluable. It pays off in one way or another. They don’t always buy the art. But somehow it always works out that it pays off…
Eric Rhoads 50:12
Well, there’s this misperception that marketing is a crass or classless act. And of course, some people do that, you can watch car dealer ads all day long that make you want to sit back may be sick. But it really is just kind of, like you said, it’s about raising your hand. It’s about just, hey, make sure you pay attention to me too. And it’s nothing inappropriate about that yet that there are artists who are resistant to the very idea. Their idea is I should just be able to paint. And if I’m good, then I’ll be discovered.
Thomas W. Schaller 50:56
Well, yeah, and I hear you, I hear them I would just say, it’s a very big world. There are a lot of amazing painters out there a lot of voices. Yes, you have to stick your hand up and say, Look at me, and you have to be willing or able to have the hand slapped down. You’ll have to enter competitions, which I didn’t for many years. You have to be willing to get rejection letters, which I have a mountain of and say, Is that why you paint? No, but that is one irreplaceable way of having your work seen, noticed? and gotten out there. There are artists who are very good at exhibiting, like very bad marketing. And that’s a bit mysterious, but I think getting all that alphabet soup of letters on Your name is not everything. I do not ever suggest that people paint to get into big competitions. But on the other hand, and written down and just having the the backbone to do that and to put yourself out there and know that at least half the time you’re going to get slapped down, doesn’t take any shine away from 10, 20, 30% of times you don’t, you don’t. But more importantly, along the way, you meet people that stick with you and you stick with one on the map. And lifelong friends. I don’t mean people that you can use. I just mean I think a rising tide raises all boats. I do whatever I can to help out other artists and that comes back to me Because they do whatever they can to help me out. So one hand washes the other. And ultimately, it all comes down to people. Which was very different than my old career, which was not really like that at all. So, that’s the one thing I love about the art world. It’s very, very people oriented. It’s quite different than the corporate world of advertising. And I’m all about ultimately, that’s people to whether it’s people hiding behind a corporate logo, so, it’s quite different. So, I don’t really think I’m any expert at all. I’m finding my way through the dark like everybody else. But I am, but I am. But I enjoy it. There’s always room to learn and do things better. I’m not very good at marketing. I would disagree with you there. I just know it’s important, nobody’s gonna see you if you don’t show up. Showing up is half the battle.
Eric Rhoads 54:07
I would say the other half the battle is just understanding what you just said. And that is that just knowing that you have to do something that you can’t just do nothing because doing nothing, you can be the greatest artist in the world and never be noticed. Doing something. I want to ask you before we wrap up here. You have had a huge opportunity to be present in China. China has this massive plein air movement, probably bigger than our plein air movement in America. And of course, it’s a bigger country in terms of population, but talk to me a little bit about what’s going on over there.
Thomas W. Schaller 54:50
I would agree and it’s mind blowing every time I’m there and I’m shocked at the quality the amount of work the popularity of watercolor art in general, is stunning. And not to get too off topic, but also Russia. I know you’ve just been there too. But I’ve been to Russia quite a number of times. And I would say the difference there is the level of education starting with kids at a very early age. Teaching them art and art history is very different than you find in the US.
Eric Rhoads 55:31
Well the appreciation for art in Russia, and Europe in general, but especially Russia is much higher than we find it here. The average man or the average woman knows about art and artists and art history as part of their regular education.
Thomas W. Schaller 55:52
Absolutely, I mean, I got into literal conversations on the subway in Moscow with complete strangers. I don’t speak Russian. But they spoke English enough to talk to me very in depth about art, and architecture and music and the arts in general. It was gratifying but a little depressing as that doesn’t happen here very often, if ever. But in China, I’m very exposed to the watercolor world then. That it’s, breathtaking. We visited a few schools and kids 14, 15 years old, are doing work in watercolor that makes me want to burn all my brushes. They’re so good. And I know part of its cultural, but part of it is just constant study and practice. And part of it is what you said it’s just the general cultural appreciation, understanding of the importance of art. I really wish Americans in general thoughts obviously those of us in the art world do but yeah, you don’t have to get it into their heads. It’s just there waiting.
Eric Rhoads 57:16
Yeah, I wonder how much it has to do with calligraphy you know the idea of using ink and brush as part of a calligraphy system and and the calligraphy and watercolor.
Thomas W. Schaller 57:31
I think that’s huge. I took a couple of calligraphy courses one as well too in Japan and another in China and the skill required you know, it takes a lifetime to get really good at that. But I think stepping back from that or widening the lens, it’s just older, older people and artisans there and and always are respected and appreciate. To them in Asian culture, I think a little bit more than is typical in Western culture. Your grandfather’s sitting there and nobody’s laughing at him and just amazing like calligraphy and the kids appreciate that, and learn from that even if they don’t do it. They understand the importance of it that calligraphy, specifically is. Yeah, it’s so informative and instrumental in the formation I think of classical and modern day Chinese watercolors. It’s a handling of the brush and just the ability to apply a wet medium to to dry surfaces. Like nothing else I’ve seen anywhere on Earth. It’s amazing. I didn’t burn my brushes, but I have wanted to a number of times. That’s okay.
Eric Rhoads 58:57
I can only hope that things continue to go well so that we can get back over there. I was I was due there as you know, in April that thing didn’t go but I was going to be speaking in seven cities and visiting universities and doing lectures and to plein air events and I was so looking forward to it so I’m hoping to be able to get back there. I know you are as well. And then and I’m also hopeful that a lot of the people who are in China who who are big plein air, watercolor fanatics will join us on watercolor live I think that’d be fun.
Thomas W. Schaller 59:40
I would love that. I think that would be phenomenal. That can happen. Well. I just wanted to thank you not just for this, Eric. But for all you do for for the arts and for us, for artists, your newsletters, your energy, all of your different projects. I just hope you know how, how grateful we all are and how much it helps, especially now when we can’t get out of our houses as much as we’d like. But anyway, I’m just very grateful for you and for all you do. It means a lot.
Eric Rhoads 1:00:24
That’s very sweet. Thank you. I love doing it and, it needed to be done. Well, Thomas, your website is ThomasSchaller.com. And so that’s where they can find out all about you and visit you. This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for doing it.
Thomas W. Schaller 1:00:48
It’s a real pleasure for me to I admire you, I just I like you. I like being around you. And again, I’m really grateful for this and for all you do. So thanks for us.
Eric Rhoads 1:01:01
Well thanks again to Thomas W. Schaller, what a brilliant artist and really some good deep thinking there. I really appreciate that. So you guys ready for some marketing ideas?
This is the marketing minute with Eric Rhoads, author of the number one Amazon bestseller “Make More Money Selling Your Art: Proven Techniques to Turn Your Passion Into Profit.”
Eric Rhoads 1:01:22
In the marketing minute I try to answer your art marketing questions and you can email yours to [email protected] Here’s a question from Kelly Johnson in Omaha, Nebraska who asks, If you’re the only one doing your marketing, what are some suggestions you have on doing market research to find out what really matters to your buyers? What do you think about sending surveys for example? Well, that’s a great question Kelly. And the number one thing that most marketers miss is understanding that they need to listen to their customers, your customers have all the answers that you need. Now in selling art, it’s a little bit more difficult in that because it’s not real cut and dry, because it’s an emotional response someone’s having to a painting typically. So surveys can be great, but most of us aren’t very good at surveys, most of us are not trained in how to do them properly. And if you don’t do them properly, you get biased answers. And if you get bad information, you get bad. you respond badly, you don’t do things properly. I’m trained, I was trained in research years and years and years ago, I used to do a lot of research and I’m still not very good at it. And I don’t rely on it a lot. I do ask survey questions from time to time and I do get some answers. But I’m looking for things that are, more like what artists would you like us to do a video of or what artists would you like us to bring into a convention versus understanding the psychology of things a little bit more? You’re really looking for the things that people say that might help you in your marketing to get attention from others who are like them, like how do they talk about your work or what it means To them or why they wanted to own it, or maybe why they bought it or something, if somebody can articulate that some of those are difficult. Surveys are usually only valid with big big samples too. So usually a very small number of people participate in a survey, you know, like 1% 2%. And so you’ve got to have a big sample for it to have any meaning. Right? So, if you’ve got 1000 people, yeah, and you probably don’t, then you’ve got to have you know, 1% of 1000 people which is 100 people and or I mean, 10 people. Man, don’t ask me to do math, but that the idea is that you you want to have a decent enough survey size, most people don’t get the answers that they need. So one of the best ways to do it and I learned this a long, long time ago from a buddy of mine is that he hired somebody who called his buyers and asked them to just talk to them about their their work. Now you don’t have to do that. You can do it yourself. But people are not going to tell you the complete truth. Because they don’t want to hurt your feelings if there’s anything that would hurt your feelings. But having somebody else call for you, you know, it’s like saying, Hey, you know, I’ve got this friend, her name is Kelly Johnson from Omaha, Nebraska. And she said that you bought one of her paintings. I’m doing a little bit of market research for her. Would you be willing to spend a couple minutes on the phone with me? And I want to ask you some questions to understand it because I’m trying to help her with their marketing. Some people would say yes, some people would say no, and you’re being perfectly transparent about that. And then you can just ask them questions… I’m just kind of curious, what was it about that painting that you liked? And how are you feeling about it? And did you feel like it was a good experience and you know, things like that, but what you want to do is try to have permission to record it because you want that’s a great tool because you’re looking for terms. You’re looking for things that people say, you know, so I was doing some marketing for our real Islam live conference and I did a thing where I asked people to, to record some testimonials for me and I was listening to things they said and how they said them. And then I’m able to use that kind of language when I’m marketing it that because they’re very similar to the people I’m trying to attract. Right. So this is all very difficult, but art is you know, art is again, a little different animals. So typical research if I’m doing a widget, you know, I’m trying to sell the easel brush clipper. The value specs are something that I can do some research about, you know that a little bit more and I can I can apply that in mass marketing, but if I’m selling a painting, because it’s so personal, so a little bit more difficult. So, anyway, give it a try. See what happens.
Eric Rhoads 1:05:42
Now here’s a question from Ryan Davis in Cape Coral, Florida who says, when you look at the great contemporary master artists, it seems to me that that time is the only way to build a big brand. What advice do you have for those of us who don’t have so many years of experience? Well, first off years of experience are invaluable. Of course, and big brands are built over time, of course, but it’s not always just time you see, I can tell you I could probably name a lot of people I know, who have got a lot of time but don’t have a lot of success, and, they’re good artists. And so why is that? Well, it’s because they’re not combining time with repetition of message and they’re not doing the right things that are going to get them noticed and known the one thing that the people who are contemporary masters who are well known understand is that these are that you have to do certain things on a regular basis you got to be doing shows on a regular basis got to be doing books or articles you got to get exposure you got to do advertising got to do things that draw attention to you and and it’s never just one thing. You know, the tendency today is to make it about well, I’ll just do social media. Well, social media is the most misunderstood advertising medium around, it can be very effective. I use it, but I don’t use it for all things. Because first off, I would never do only social media, because you don’t want to have everything reliant on one particular thing. Because if that one thing changes, or there’s laws passed or whatever, then it’s no longer going to work for you. But also, because there’s a lot of different things that you would that we as artists have to do. And so look for the things that are going to move the needle forward, and that’s marketing in different ways. Remember, also social media on a typical Facebook account. For instance, I’ve got my max which is 5000 on my Facebook account. I know that every time I tweet something out or post something as it is in Facebook’s world, I know that only 2% of my audience is going to see it now. That means only 2% of that 5000 are ever going to see what I post now, I have some tricks that I have learned about and employ that get me actually pushed out there to a higher percentage, but it’s probably still only six to 8%. And that’s because I work very hard at that. But, you’re not necessarily going to accomplish your marketing with social media. The other thing was social media. And again, I’m not anti social media, I use it a lot. But most of us as artists don’t have most of our followers are not collectors, most of them are fellow artists. And that’s so you’re kind of preaching to the choir, the people who may or may not be buying art from you. And so there’s a lot of things that you’ve just got to do. So, Ryan, I think the answer to your question is, it’s not time, it’s time plus time plus repetition of advertising of messages. You know, I just had a situation where a an artist had been advertising with us decided to move all of the the advertising dollars out and move the advertising dollars into social media because that artists didn’t feel that the results were there. But the artist got into several galleries as a result of the advertising, the artist got invited into several shows as a result of the advertising. And as a result, the artist is feeling well, I haven’t been able to track direct sales. Well, the direct sales may not be happening. And usually if something isn’t happening, it’s because you’re doing something wrong. I can have two advertisers. And I can have them do the same amount of advertising. And one advertiser will get really brilliant results, another advertiser won’t get results. And it’s because of what they say in their ads, how they structure their ads, what the call to action is, what are the things they’re trying to motivate people to do. Of course, it also has to do with the art Is the art any good? And we all believe our arts good, but not everybody else believes that. And so, we kind of have to fight that battle. But the idea is that when you’re when you’re in a group of let’s say, you’re in a cluster of the right kind of people, so I’m in a cluster Fine Art Connoisseur magazine last month went out to 500,000 people, big audience, very unusual. We normally don’t have that big audience, but we did it for that one issue. And, but the people we typically are going to if somebody came to us and said, We want to send this magazine to, you know, a bunch of school art teachers, you know, we might, we might say, yeah, that’s nice. Maybe we’d like for them to have it but they’re not going to do any good for advertisers, because advertisers know that those people are not likely to have the income. No offense to anybody just being practical here might not likely have the income to buy a you know, a five or $10,000 painting. So you know, when you You look for targeted clusters, you know, like Fine Art Connoisseur, for instance, has a targeted cluster of people who are known to spend a lot of money on paintings are known to be collectors they known, they are known as a concentrated group of collectors, it’s very desirable. So it’s not about big numbers as much as it is about the right people who can buy the right thing from you. And that’s what you always want to be focusing on. So I’m not sure I answered your question. I probably got to it in a roundabout way, Ryan. But if you’re seeing great contemporary masters. And they’re succeeding. Yes, they have been around a long time and time is one thing that, you can cheat time a little bit, you can speed things up a little bit. But, time is on your side, but if you’re not doing the right things that time isn’t going to help. So I hope that helps. Anyway, that has been the marketing minute.
This has been a marketing minute with Eric Rhoads. You can learn more at art marketing.com
Eric Rhoads 1:12:00
All right, well, reminder to check out the plein air salon awards show that’s going to take place on the 25th of September. You can learn more about it at pleinairsalon.com. Don’t forget to enter while you’re there. Also consider joining me at fall color week the first and only live in person event we’re able to do this year we had to cut all the others out. And if you feel like you’re up to it and you feel like you’d love to go paint with some friends outdoors, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. It’s fallcolorweek.com also check out realism live our virtual online conference. It’s got a stellar lineup and remember, the price goes up 200 bucks as of the end of the month and so you want to save the money and get in now. If you’ve not seen my blog where I talk about art life and philosophy mostly philosophy on on kind of thoughts. It was it was created to give my past some wisdom onto my kids anyway, it’s up to about a quarter million readers. Check it out. It’s called Sunday coffee and it comes free to you every week. If you go to coffeewitheric.com. Well, this is always fun. We’ll do it again sometime like next week, I will see you then. My name is Eric Rhoads. I’m the publisher and founder of Plein Air Magazine. You can find us online at outdoorpainter.com. Remember, it’s a big world out there. Make sure you go paint it, paint some full color. I’ll see you. Bye bye.
This has been the plein air podcast with Plein Air Magazine’s Eric Rhoads. You can help spread the word about plein air painting by sharing this podcast with your friends. And you can leave a review or subscribe on iTunes. So it comes to you every week. And you can even reach Eric by email [email protected] Be sure to pick up our free ebook 240 plein air painting tips by some of America’s top painters. It’s free at pleinairtips.com. Tune in next week for more great interviews. Thanks for listening.
- Click here to subscribe to the free newsletter, Plein Air Today
- And click here to subscribe to PleinAir Magazine so you never miss an issue!
[…] his home studio, Thomas Schaller led us through a watercolor demonstration of an imaginary city view. He typically builds his […]