Takao Tanabe is one of Canada's leading landscapists—primarily focusing on west coast British Columbia but also the Canadian prairies. His style of work expanded to include printmaking and abstract art. Born in a small fishing village near Prince Rupert, British Columbia, to a Japanese family who were interned during the Second World War, Tanabe later relocated to join his brother in Winnipeg. He studied at the Winnipeg School of Art, run by artist Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. Tanabe was taught by Joseph Plaskett who made an immense impact on Tanabe, not so much in his art but in the way he lived his life. The two became lifelong friends. Plasket stressed the importance of being artist first and teacher second. Tanabe became an influential teacher himself, notably at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, but he always made art his primary focus.
"In his landscapes he eliminates non-essential details, creating serene compositions which reward long contemplation. A distinguished art teacher and arts advocate, Tanabe was long associated with the Banff School of Fine Arts, Alberta." - National Gallery of Canada
After his time in Winnipeg, Tanabe went on to study at the Brooklyn Museum School of Art from 1951-1952 under Hans Hofmann. Tanabe was awarded an Emily Carr scholarship, which enabled him to study at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, UK from 1953-1954. He also travelled extensively through Europe at this time. Later, he received a Canada Council Scholarship, which allowed him to study Sumi-e and calligraphy in Tokyo, Japan from 1959-1960. He studied with Ikuo Hirayama and Yanagida Taiun, a practitioner of large scale, single-stroke Zen calligraphy. Tanabe also admired the quietly powerful art of Caspar David Friedrich and Albert Bierstadt.
Tanabe's style and range of his work is as vast as Canada is wide. The National Gallery of Canada explains that Tanabe's "abstract paintings of the 1950s were succeeded in the early 1960s by Japanese-influenced ink drawings. From 1961 to 1968, Tanabe taught at the Vancouver Art School, painting murals. In 1968 he worked in Philadelphia, moving in 1969 to New York City. Based there until 1972, he painted hard-edge geometric abstracts in strong colours. These evolved in the 1970s into semi-abstract landscapes dominated by wide horizons, influenced by Tanabe's encounters with northern Pennsylvania, the Hudson River Valley, and the Canadian prairie and foothills. From 1973, Tanabe headed the Art Department and was Artist-in-Residence at Banff School of Fine Arts. He moved to Vancouver Island in 1980. Tanabe's quiet, light-bathed landscapes capture the essence of time and place, and reflect his interest in Zen Buddhism. He has exhibited since 1950, earning an international reputation."
Tanabe is a Member of the Order of Canada. He has received the Order of British Columbia, two honorary doctorates, the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts and Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Visual Arts, received in 2013. Tanabe is a Member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.