In this exclusive Q+A with Keiko Tanabe, we talk about her decision to give up a successful marketing career to paint full-time and what makes her cranky these days.
Kelly Kane: You started your career in international communication and marketing, but eventually gave all that up to paint. What put you on the path to becoming a full-time artist?
Keiko Tanabe: From the time I was little, I can remember drawing. I didn’t really know any working artists around me growing up, so I never considered being an artist myself. When I contemplated my future and a career, I always had the thought in the back of my mind that someday I’d take a class and learn how to paint. Maybe when I retire, I thought.
When I had a child (he’s 22 now, so that was quite some time ago), I wanted him to learn how to draw, because I had loved it so much when I was young. Every weekend we would go to the zoo or the park; I always carried a sketchbook with me, and we would doodle together. I was reminded of how much I enjoyed drawing and sketching. So while at first, I was doing it for him, I started doing it more for myself. Eventually, I decided to get serious about it, and I took a drawing course — not at an art school, just a community class. The teacher said I was really talented, which took me by surprise. I had only intended to take one semester, as my job was really demanding.
I told her that my real desire was to learn how to paint. She said the first step was to pick a medium, and since I had virtually no experience with painting media, I tried everything. In the end, I settled on watercolor.
Kane: What was it about the medium that appealed
Tanabe: I chose watercolor not because I liked it; in fact, I thought it was very, very difficult. With oil or colored pencil, I wasn’t very good, but I sort of had the idea; I would have an image in my head that I wanted to create, and I could at least get that image across. With watercolor, I just made a mess; the image did not appear on the paper. I wanted to stick with watercolor to see if I could get the hang of it.
Kane: So it presented a challenge, and you liked that?
Tanabe: I have that sort of personality. I don’t like to be defeated.
Kane: What came next?
Tanabe: I stuck with my local teacher and started to learn the basics of watercolor. At the time, I still considered it all just a hobby. This would have been a couple of years before 2005, because 2005 was the year I quit my job to paint full-time. I had come to a crossroads in my career, and it was either continue in international marketing or get serious about my art. I chose the latter.
Kane: You still travel quite a bit. Do you always take your paints with you?
Tanabe: I’m on the road about half the year. No matter where I go or the reason for the trip, I always take everything I need to paint outdoors. In fact, my plein air gear is always the first thing I pack, because if I don’t get to paint for maybe two days, I get really cranky.
Kane: What do you look for in a subject?
Tanabe: What often triggers me to paint is not really the subject itself; it’s an interesting pattern of light and dark, a subtle contrast, a reflection. As a landscape artist, I also strive to capture a sense of time and place. Especially when I’m on location, I feel the place in all of my senses. I feel connected, as if I’m part of the scene. I don’t think I choose a subject; rather, it chooses me. I just have to be paying attention when it does. I think my painting is a mere response to that.