Design Stronger Paintings: Thomas W. Schaller Explains His Approach

by Paint Tube 4 Minutes

Design Stronger Paintings: Thomas W. Schaller Explains His Approach

Below Thomas W. Schaller walks us through how he approaches a painting. See the process first hand in his video "Watercolor: The Power of Design" 

I am inspired to paint by any number of influences. I may be inspired by some actual scene, by something or someone I observe in the world around me.  But like all of us, I have a great well of observations in my internal “library”. So while real time observation can be crucial, it is no less important than memories, dreams, or pure invention. 

So something I see may trigger the possible intent for a painting. But also something I remember, something I read, some piece of music I hear, or something I simply invent may do so as well. A common misconception is that artists always paint what is “beautiful”. I don’t disagree, but I have an expansive idea of beauty. Beauty is not always so pretty. Honesty is beautiful. Anger and sorrow can be as beautiful as are joy and laughter. No emotion should be off the table in the library of art.   

Once I have an idea of my intent – what I think the purpose of my painting is to be – I begin the process of design.

Most usually, I will do a small compositional/value study to hammer out the main questions to be answered before I begin the final work. My sketchbook is really a kind of visual diary that I use as a “battleground for ideas”. I see what might work, what might work better, and what might not work at all.   I try out concepts in quick small informal sketches – usually in simple black and while graphite pencil sketches – until some idea begins to click. 




I think of my sketchbook as a place where I record my emotional response to the world in an intellectual way. I get most of my thinking out of the way here. Then when I begin to paint, I can afford to be far more expressive and intuitive. Thinking is never a bad idea, but like many I suppose, too much thinking while I paint can become a roadblock. So I do all I can to clear the way beforehand before the painting begins. 

There is a fundamental way that I tend to organize my perceptions visually. I think of my paintings as an exercise in duality. To establish narrative and energy, I encourage opposite forces to collide and find resolution (or not) on the surface of the paper. So my work is a study in light and dark; warm and cool tones; the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal; the man-made and the natural worlds; the real and the imagined; and the past, present, and future.



Finally, with all this in mind, there are four main elements that I employ to design my paintings. In order of importance, they are:

1. Intent: The purpose, the story of the painting. How can I best translate my inspiration to a piece of paper? 

2. Composition: Once I have a direction , a purpose and a story for the painting that I hope to complete, I begin to choose the elements that will make it stronger. And I simultaneously begin to edit away details and elements that may dilute the final effect.

I begin to decide on format – vertical, horizontal, square, etc. for example. Then I begin to decide - in an abstract way - where the main elements of the painting  - horizontal, vertical, diagonal. etc. - are to be placed.

Some of the considerations are balance, the rule of thirds, kinetics, and directionality – all as a means to advance the narrative of the specific painting at hand. 

3. Values: Once the major shapes are composed, I begin thinking about the abstract arrangement and balance of the values of the final work.  I think of all my work as being composed of three major values – dark, light, and mid-tones.

Almost nothing is more important in my work than the presence of a dynamic range of values. I never forget that I am working on a flat, two-dimensional sheet of paper. Dynamic values help establish directionality and dimensionality – the implication of both three and four dimensions within the world of the painting.

4. Color: Last – but not least – in my hierarchy of design components is color. Like most all of us, I love color, but in my paintings I know that it is a less important concern than is value. No beautiful color can save a painting with a weak or disorganized value design.



Like all components of my work, I think of any color as being only as strong as its complement. So I think of all color is my work first as either light or dark and then as either warm or cool. Rarely will a warm tome exist in my work without its complementary cool tone somewhere else in the work. One should dominate - either warm or cool. But neither is as strong or expressive without its complement. 


So each of these design concerns must be in service to the one above on the list. That is, Color must be in service to Value. Value must be in service to the Composition. And the Composition must be in service to the overall Intent of the painting.

And I should point out that this list is my own. It is not intended as a “rule” for others - only a suggestion and an illustration of my own process. It works for me, and anyone is free to use it if they wish. But I urge every painter to make his or her own.  All of us -depending on our own unique process – should feel free to approach our own paintings however we wish.