Minimal Means, Maximum Impact

Using subtle washes and minimal detail, Keiko Tanabe creates a powerful sense of time and place.

by John A. Parks

Paris, North Station 
2008, watercolor, 14 x 21. Collection
the artist.

Keiko Tanabe uses little more than open washes of watercolor to suggest the deep, moody shadows of a street in Naples or the broad, wet grayness of a rain-washed Scottish thoroughfare. Buildings, cars, and figures dissolve into the air and light around them, subsumed into a continuum of space and atmosphere. In Paris, North Station, the artist conjures up the thick dampness of the morning air as it hangs over the old buildings, and in Coronado Sunset VII, the warm depths of a Californian twilight are built out of nothing more than a patchwork of suggestions and a rich layering of paint. In Andalusia, Spain I, the heat and dryness of the scene come to life as the green of the trees floods upward into the landscape and sky, re-creating the experience of shimmering, overcooked air and the blasting light of a Mediterranean noon. It’s hard to imagine paintings that have a stronger sense of place and time, and the images remain in the mind’s eye like privileged glimpses or treasured memories. “I’d like my audience to feel a sense of connection, of belonging, when they look at my paintings,” says Tanabe, who was raised in Japan and now lives in San Diego, “and also a feeling of joy and peace.”

The artist bases much of her work on images she collects while traveling. “I look for scenes that have a strong mood and atmosphere, good light-and-dark contrast, as well as exciting shapes, forms, and perspective,” she says. “I am also interested in subjects that tell the story of a people—their culture and traditions.” 

Although she enjoys plein air painting, Tanabe is a strong proponent of using photography as reference. She takes her camera wherever she goes, in fact, and considers it a kind of sketchbook where she can capture the essence of a place for paintings she makes in the studio. Tanabe admits that photographs do not entirely replace doing sketches by hand, but they have enormous advantages when it comes to collecting new imagery. “When I am traveling, I take 200 or more photos a day on average,” she says. “I can’t possibly achieve so much if I physically draw everything that inspires me.”

Coronado Sunset VII 
2008, watercolor, 8 1/4 x 11 1/2.
Collection the artist.

The artist is not interested in photo-realism, however. “When I make a painting, I use one or more photos principally for design and atmosphere,” she says. “I’m not so much interested in the details or accurate rendering. I find that sometimes good paintings come from out-of-focus photos if they capture the mood just the way I remember it.” Tanabe also points out that using photography allows her to work largely from her home studio, which she values because it allows her to be available for her 13-year-old son.

Tanabe begins a painting by taping a sheet of Arches rough or cold-pressed watercolor paper onto her drawing board and then stapling over the tape to prevent buckling. She then begins drawing lightly with a soft pencil, 4B to 6B. “My pencil drawing is usually very quick and simple with no intricate details,” she says. “Pencil lines serve mostly as guidelines. I mark clearly where I want to keep the white of the paper so that I can paint around it. I never use masking fluid.” 

Once painting begins, Tanabe relies on a wet-in-wet technique. “I basically wet the entire surface of the paper, except the areas where I want to keep white highlights,” she explains. “I then go on dropping and pushing paints here and there in order to lay down base colors. I also attempt as much as possible to establish the full range of tonal values that will appear in the finished painting.” Tanabe usually allows this first wash stage to dry completely. “I then keep laying down as many glazes as needed to strengthen the middle and dark values while refining and defining shapes by creating hard edges,” she says.

Andalusia, Spain I 
2007, watercolor, 14 x 21. Collection
the artist.

The dazzling results of this technique are much in evidence in Procida, Italy IV, in which a hazy light envelops a waterfront scene. By carefully leaving the white of the paper open in the bottom left, the artist created a dazzling reflection of sun on water. The sustained closeness of the blue-gray washes throughout the painting secures a highly convincing continuum of shadowy space pitched against the glinting warmth of the sunlight. The artist achieved enormous depth and scope with minimal means.
Asked if she feels there is any influence of her Japanese heritage in her work, the artist is thoughtful. “I never consciously connected my art to my Japanese heritage,” she says. “If my art should reflect who I am, my visual expression may be influenced, to some degree, by my being Japanese. Technically, I think my brushwork, dry brushstrokes in particular, reflect several years of my training in Japanese calligraphy that uses a brush and ink on paper. I took calligraphy lessons for about five years when I was around 10. I learned how to handle a brush to make a variety of marks. The lessons also taught me something about balance, form, harmony in space, and how to concentrate.”

Perhaps some of this early training is evident in the deliberate way she prepares to paint, making the most of the time. “I always stand up to paint,” Tanabe explains, “and I buy the best-quality materials that I can afford. Before I start painting I organize my work area, prepare my paper, squeeze more than enough paints onto the palette, and throw away hardened paints. I make sure that I have plenty of water in a bucket for washing brushes.” The artist paints every day and allows no interruptions. Working on a number of paintings at the same time, she listens to music while she paints.

Edinburgh, Scotland II 
2007, watercolor, 14 x 21. Collection
the artist.

No doubt the artist’s previous experiences contribute to her discipline and organization. Before dedicating herself to fine art some five years ago, Tanabe pursued a career in international relations, working for several large organizations, first in Japan and then in the United States. The artist observes that this background brings an unusual perspective to the business of art. “I believe there are some business principles that are universal and essential for success,” she says. “I think good businesses place importance on the high quality of products and services, marketing, communication, customer service, and philanthropy. I try to remember these things as I do business as an artist. Some people may have no clue to what an artist’s life is and don’t treat you seriously if you say you are an artist. They will eventually understand, though, if you always mean business.”

Tanabe’s study and work in the field of international relations has led her to especially value communication. “I still remember in my first communications class at a university, a professor tossed a ball to a student sitting in the first row, and asked him to pass it back to her,” she recalls. “As they continued passing it back and forth, the professor said, ‘This is what communication is all about.’ I make art to be shared. I complete a painting, but that is only one part of the process. When I share it like ‘the ball,’ the viewer receives it, interprets it, and brings a new meaning to my painting. Then a communication cycle is complete.”

Tanabe is just as serious about marketing. Although she is represented by several galleries, she sells directly from her website as well. Having a presence on the internet also allows her to establish closer contact with her collectors. “I use my website, blog, and social-networking sites to enjoy conversations with my viewers and other artist friends,” she says. “I also publish a quarterly, free e-newsletter to people who subscribe online. And I am on Facebook, too.” In addition, the artist is represented by the website and posts a new painting almost every day. Doing this provides not only income but also the discipline of producing a new painting each day, as well as contact and encouragement from other painters in the group.

Journey Home VI 
2008, watercolor, 14 x 21. Collection
the artist.

Asked what advice she would give young painters, Tanabe responds with a long list: “Be truthful to your dream; make painting a top priority; make a serious commitment; take a step at a time; make good friends who support your dream; lose time-wasters; be thick-skinned; don’t take rejections, criticism, and negative comments personally but learn from them; have a mentor or colleague who can advise you; set goals; visualize your dream; prioritize daily activities in order to treat art seriously; prepare to spend a lot of time in the studio, alone; don’t be a workshop junkie; make a lot of mistakes in your studio—there’s no shortcut and that’s the only way to find your own voice or develop your style; and enjoy the journey.”

Tanabe has clearly taken her own advice, producing a large body of high-quality artwork in a surprisingly short time. Recent pieces such as Journey Home VI show a sure command and control of space and light, as well as an uncanny ability to suggest a wealth of detail and texture while allowing the air and light of the painting to dominate. Her travels have also allowed her to make paintings that show great warmth and interest for other cultures. In Marisqueira, Portugal, for instance, she presents an intimate glimpse of two ordinary women talking casually on the sidewalk in the early morning. And in Market Day, Venice, Italy II, a man pushing a cart and various passersby are integrated seamlessly into the light and air of the scene, giving the viewer the sense that he or she is participating in the life and work of the place. “Years of working in international fields taught me to be open-minded and respectful to people and cultures outside my own,” says the artist. “The experience also helped me to learn my own culture for real, maybe for the first time. Because I always wanted to work to enhance cross-cultural understanding, I like to do a small part in my art today by delivering an underlying message that the world is one; despite many differences, we are all the same as human beings.”

About the Artist
Keiko Tanabe was born in Kyoto, Japan. She worked in international relations in Japan and in the United States before devoting herself to painting. Tanabe started taking classes in San Diego with Kate Fitzsimmons and eventually joined the San Diego Watercolor Society. She is also a member of Watercolor West and the American Watercolor Society. She has won many awards for her work, most recently the David Gale Memorial Award in the 34th Annual Western Federation of Watercolor Societies Annual Exhibition. Learn more about the artist at

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About BrianRiley

Brian Riley is the managing editor for the American Artist family of titles (American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing & Workshop) and has been part of the AA team since 2003. He first became interested in art as a child, specifically drawing, but drifted away from the visual arts as he grew older, gravitating towards writing while in college. His position at AA has offered him the opportunity to reinvigorate his early passion and continue his education.  

10 thoughts on “Minimal Means, Maximum Impact

  1. Very inspiring. I immediately began considering how I can use washes and glazes more with oils. I confess, I’ve never done it before. Now I’m inspired to try it out.

  2. I like the misty feel. It gives a very unique feeling to your paintings. I usually try to avoid this visual I guess I have been missing something. Nice work.

  3. In the Summer 2009 issue of Watercolor , we presented artwork by Keiko Tanabe that featured subtle washes and minimal detail. Here we present additional artwork from the artist.