A Journey to Art

"Petanque, Paris" (watercolor, 14 x 20 in.)

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.

“Florence Morning, Italy I”
(watercolor, 14 x 20 in.)

Kane: What was it about the medium that appealed
to you?
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.

Paint with Keiko Tanabe at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in San Francisco and Wine Country, April 24-28, 2019.

“Light in the Canyon”
(watercolor, 14 x 14 in.)

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.

“Summer in San Diego” (watercolor, 14 x 20 in.)

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.

“Before the Storm, Venasque, France”
(watercolor, 20 x 14 in.)

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.

Born in Kyoto, Japan, Keiko Tanabe always enjoyed drawing and painting and won many awards in children’s art contests. Mostly self-taught, Keiko embarked on a professional art career in 2005 and started exhibiting publicly. Her work has been purchased by private and corporate collectors from all around the world. She also had her paintings published in leading art magazines in the U.S., Europe and Japan. Keiko currently lives in San Diego, California.

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