ART INSPIRATION Articles 4 min read

Imagined Landscapes

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As artists, we often draw inspiration from the world around us. Our “inner landscapes,” however, can also ignite a creative spark.

Splash 25 is here, featuring Thomas Schaller as Awards Juror!

Artist Network and Watercolor Magazine’s premier watercolor art competition is turning 25! Splash: The Best of Watercolor features an international palette of watercolorists from all over the world. With more than 100 finalists selected for publication in the special issue, The Best of Watercolor, plus cash prizes for top award winners, this is THE watercolor event of the year.

As a young art student, I often heard the phrase, “Mother nature is the best teacher.” The implication from instructors was that an aspiring painter could hope to do no more than to honor and reflect—as honestly as possible—the world that we see around us every day.  Naturally, any painter’s work will improve through ardent study of light and atmosphere, and the people, places and things that compose the observable environment in which we live. Yet even when I was an inexperienced painter, I knew that if I had any hope of one day developing a unique style—an artistic voice of my own—I had to channel what it was that inspired me to paint in the first place. In time I realized that, although I love to study what I see “out there” as I move through the world, I also gain equally from studying what I see on the inside—within my own internal world of dreams, memories and imagination.

Images of Ideas (watercolor, 22×15) was inspired from my sketchbook doodles. This abstract composition consists of rectilinear shapes colliding with diagonal light. Each image represents a part of the creative process—from blank paper to finished painting.

Many years have passed since I was that young student, and I consider myself fortunate to have achieved my dream of becoming a professional artist. Even now, though, I meet many fellow artists and art students who believe that they must produce lifelike replicas of their subjects. This breaks my heart a bit. I’m grateful for the many compliments my work has received over the years, but to be honest, the one comment that unfailingly makes me wince is, “Oh, it looks just like a photograph!” I know this comment is always meant with the best of intentions, but it’s not my goal as an artist to create an exact replica of a scene. I’m not an abstract painter—my work often looks like something quite recognizable, but it rarely looks “real.”

The imagined scene for End of Day (watercolor, 15×22) was inspired by the Venice Canals in California, near where I live.
The imagined scene for Inside (watercolor, 15×22) was inspired by themes of juxtaposition—warm/cool, dark/light, inside/outside.

Interpret What You See

I’ve come to believe that my job as an artist is not to try to replicate exactly what I see but rather to interpret what I’m seeing and convey that to the viewer. In other words, I don’t paint what I see; I paint how I feel about what I see. And what I see is just as likely to be found in the internal as much as the external world.

Imaginary City View (watercolor, 22×15) began as a bedside sketchbook doodle —an abstract compositional dream of dark and light shapes. The finished painting conveys a fictional urban landscape and explores the ideas of distance, scale, time and connection.

Teaching has been a large part of my life over the years, and I’ve been fortunate to travel all over the world to paint in some of the most wondrous places imaginable. Painting on site, en plein air, has been an integral component of my teaching. Naturally, if you find yourself in some amazing place like Shanghai, Moscow, London, Rome or the Catalonian coast, for example, painting the beauty of actual scenes is an undeniably compelling thing to do. So often, though, I see students struggle with the demon of “accuracy” and duplication. It’s such a revelation when you finally learn that any scene, no matter how gorgeous, is just a starting point for a painting. It’s one reality only. Your reaction to it is another, and your interpretation is yet another reality still. This is the one that most matters, for it is the stuff of art. 

Imaginary City View (watercolor, 22×15)

Stay Local

Of course, there will be times in all our lives when we can’t travel. Any number of constraints—physical, familial, financial or professional—can keep us closer to home than we might wish. For some, myself included, constant travel became a way of life. The downside is that it can begin to fool us into thinking that traveling to some far-flung place is the only way to find inspiration for paintings. This is wrong. Great paintings are everywhere—wherever we are—just waiting to be found. They’re in our backyards, on our kitchen counters, inside our own minds. A wise painter once told me, “There are no bad subjects to paint, only bad paintings.” Another great artist, Chuck Close, famously said, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just get to work.” These may sound like harsh words, but there’s truth in them. If you want to paint, if you need to paint, you will paint. I think the genesis of all art is found not in what we see, but rather in how we choose to look at what’s around us—and within us.

Gone (watercolor, 22×15) is an imagined scene based on the universal themes of absence and loss.

Consult Your Mental Library

Lately, I’ve found enormous joy in investigating my sketchbooks and in rummaging through my memory, as well as paying close attention to my dreams. I keep a sketchbook by my bed and jot down anything that pops into my mind. I’m constantly amazed by what can be made of the simplest, most abstract idea. We all have deep wells of creativity, so make an effort to have a closer look inward. We hold vast sources of material inside, a kind of visual library that we can tap into whenever and wherever we choose. Everything we’ve seen, heard, felt or thought is all there just waiting to be interpreted into the next painting.

Washing Up (watercolor, 20×20) is an imagined scene, loosely based on my memories of my grandparents. It explores the theme of the contentment of solitude found in the unspoken connection of enduring love.

I have the utmost respect for Mother Nature, but I think the external landscapes she provides for our inspection are just the beginning of her lessons. She also has gifted us with a vast internal landscape that can amaze and inspire us no matter where we happen to find ourselves. Don’t hesitate to explore those cities and shores, but be sure to look within yourself as well.

Meet the Artist

Thomas W Schaller is an award-winning artist, architect and author based in Los Angeles. His work is widely collected and has been featured in scores of exhibitions across the world. He’s a Signature Member of many arts organizations including the American Watercolor Society, National Watercolor Society and Transparent Watercolor Society of America. He’s also a member of the International Masters of Watercolor Alliance, the California Watercolor Association, the California Art Club and the Salmagundi Art Club, NYC. He sits on the advisory board of American Watercolor Weekly, is president emeritus of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators, and a founding member of North American Watercolor Artists. We are pleased to have him serve as Juror of Awards in the upcoming Splash 25: The Best of Watercolor competition.

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