Warren W Kessler could spend an hour answering one question. He’s passionate and dedicated, known for his realistic portrayal of everyday objects, as well as impressionistic landscapes. He doesn’t let technique diminish the magic, but rather uses it to give his art a quality you can’t quite pinpoint, but can’t stop attempting to do just that either. It was fun to chat with him about how he creates such unique pieces.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
My name is Warren W Kessler and I am a fine art painter. I have to clarify that because if you just say ‘I am a painter’ the next question will be ‘So do you like paint houses?’ (laughs) and then I have to explain further.
What kind of things do you paint?
Right now I’m doing a lot of what’s called trompe l'oeil, which is French for ‘to fool the eye’. It’s still life painted to a degree of reality that you think what you’re looking at, the object, is actually there. Like the photograph taped to the board would make you think that it is indeed a photograph taped to a wooden board, when no, the wood grain is painted, the photograph obviously painted, the tape… everything starts out as a white panel and everything’s painted on there. Sometimes it gets dismissed as a good painting of a photograph on an old piece of plywood, but the plywood’s painted, too. You have to go back and look.
I also do landscapes en plein air, which is another French term for ‘in the plain air’, which is the traditional guy standing out in a field painting -- painting from life, which is a lot more fun than painting from a photograph in a studio.
I like working from life. That’s why I like working outside because I have to make those decisions now. There’s no sitting around, there’s no time to have coffee and come back, (chuckles) you have to do it, do it, do it. And when you come back into the studio, your mind is trained to make those quicker decisions. When people look at the two types of work I do, [landscapes and still lifes], they’ll say it looks like two different artists, but that’s because it really is. Your mind is in two different places.
Why are you drawn to realism?
There aren’t a lot of people doing it around here and it incorporated my ability to render a photograph realistically. I guess I’ve always just been detail oriented and drawn to really well done paintings, like the Dutch paintings that are tiny but you can just walk right into them. There’s a luminosity to them that you’re not going to get with a photograph; there’s a magical look to them, and you just want to reach into them. I would love to get anywhere near that (laughs) but yeah, the trompe l’oeil encompasses all the stuff I like to do.
Honestly, I had seen Anthony Waichulis, who is a master of trompe l’oeil right now, in magazines for years, and thought it was so cool, I had to try it. But I was honestly kind of afraid. I eventually gave it a shot, and it kind of worked out, so I tried it again. It’s fun having people second guess what they’re looking at. It’s why people go see magicians. But there’s no performance in painting, and I wanted to interact with people a bit, so this gives me that opportunity. From ten feet away, it looks like a still life and so you have to get up there before you realize it’s a painting… it’s a 2D surface.
What is the hardest part of painting a trompe l’oeil?
Getting proportions correct… because your mind knows what size a penny is, or a light switch. When I did the painting of the penny, I was working on it for eight hours one day, thinking it was looking great, but when I came back to it at the end of the day, it was just *that* much off. So the next day I went back into it and had to shrink it. And it worked, but we’re talking minute amounts of change.
Size, colors. You deal with money every day. You know what the correct color of money is, just instinctively. It’s got to be the right color. You’ve got to portray the texture just right. I use a little bit of texture in my work whereas some people in the genre don't want any texture, they want to erase any trace of the painter. There’s so many things to do with it, but I enjoy the technical side of trying to pull it off. I like the challenge of figuring it out.
I was working on one, that was a Monopoly card taped to a board, and for some reason I had to get something off of it and I wiped my fingers through the painting and I was like ‘dammit!’ so when I start tricking myself like that as I’m looking at the painting, I know it’s a good sign.
Did you grow up in a creative household?
Not fine art wise, but my mom painted precast ceramics and did really beautiful work with those. My dad could build anything. He was a good woodworker and restored old furniture. He would come home from an auction with a monstrosity and my mom would be so mad, but by the time we got done with it, it would be beautiful. Creativity that way, yeah. Honestly it’s helped me with the painting parts when I don’t know how to do it to have had a dad who if he needed something, he built it or fixed it.
Did you study art in school?
I did. I started at Bismarck State College, which is where I got my feet wet, and then I transferred down to MSUM and finished with a BFA in Drawing and Painting in ‘99 I believe.
How did you become a professional artist?
I hope it’s better. (laughs) I was doing a lot of figure work, portraits, and I worked a lot in oil at that time. Unfortunately I floundered a lot in that time. I really didn’t know what I wanted to paint, which kills me because when you’re in school, you’ve got all this time and space to do good work but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But after I got out of school, I took a year of classes in 3D animation at MSUM was getting really into loving that, but exhausted resources MSUM had in the early 00’s and realized I could move and go to school for this again or paint again. While I was deciding, I had moved into acrylics because I didn’t want to subject my roommates to the smells of oil paints and I was also working at a bar. One of the regulars asked me, ‘What’d you do last night?’ and I was like ‘Oh I was working on a painting?’. She ended up telling me about Red River Valley Watercolor Society national art show and so I entered a piece on the last day and got in and won it. (laughs) So I thought, ‘Maybe I should try more of those…’ I got into a few, didn’t win anything, kept entering, won a couple. It was totally feast or famine. I’d think, ‘Oh I should give this up’ but then I’d win something and get pulled back in… (chuckles)
Does where you work influence your art?
I don’t really think the space influences my work per se. I would paint the same subjects in a beautiful north lit studio as I do in my basement. It’s a double edged sword, though, because I would like more natural light, but I do like the constant kind of light. By getting the correct bulbs, it doesn’t matter if I’m working at noon or one in the morning, I always have consistent lighting.
I love working from home. The proximity is good. Ideally I’d like to have a studio not in the house but rather in a garage or outside within 40 feet of the house so I could do all the family stuff but still be close enough to head out there and work anytime. I will say working from home can be a problem because there is so much else to do - the dishes are there, the laundry’s there (chuckles) - whereas having a separate studio space allows you to be dedicated to the work when you’re there. But now when I can’t sleep, I can just go downstairs and spend a long time staring at the work (chuckles) so I can figure out what’s working and not working. If there was anyone watching, they’d probably think, ‘what’s this lunatic doing?!” (laughs).
What inspires you?
You mean, ‘what inspires me to do my work?’ I just want to try to outdo myself. After I finish a piece, when I come back to it a month later, I’m always like, ‘oh this could be different and that would be way better!’ I’m inspired by how people could respond to my piece. Like besides that’s a nice rendition of that, I want them to also ask what else is going on - to find something in the composition beyond what I thought when I made it up.
Seeing other people’s work and thinking ‘oh man that’s awesome!’ It pushes me to go back into the studio.
Who are your favorite artists?
Currently, Anthony Waichulis, master of the trompe l’oeil, and I still love looking at Richard Estes; his street scenes are beautiful. I love Hopper -- I just love his colors and the loneliness of some of the stuff he does. There’s really something going on in the setting.
What’s the process of starting a new painting look like?
I collect lots of odds and ends, little toys, and things like old letters, stamps, old tobacco tins from my great uncle, and a Seven Up bottle that was found in my grandpa’s shop from back in the 50’s. So usually there’s a photograph, and I do a rough sketch and think, ‘What else could relate to this?’ Like right now there’s a piece up at Ecce, a painting with a child’s handprints as the flames of a fire. The inspiration for it was my son’s craft project from school. When he brought it home I knew I’d like to use it at some point. So I began the composition around a little kid’s handprint of a fire... and what do you do around a fire? Roast marshmallows. A marshmallow needs a stick and the stick needs someone holding it so I drew a stick figure of a person to hold it. The painting ended up being a drawing of stickman taped to a board, holding a real stick and marshmallow taped to the board, roasting over a child’s painting of a bonfire taped to a board.
I find an object, think about what else I have could relate to it or what I’d need to find that would relate to it, and assemble sketches of what I’d want to do. Then they evolve until I figure out what I want to do and then mock up a still life, sketch out something on the board and start painting.
What’s the hardest part of being an artist?
Uff. Man. (laughs) There are so many. The painting part of it is the best part, but then you’ve got to worry about marketing, sales, taxes, pricing, finding galleries… I love talking to people about the work. I don’t like being a salesman for the work.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I like when they interact with it, when they’re looking all around it. I’ve found with the trompe l’oeil pieces especially, I put more of my personality into it. Someone recently said, ‘When I see your work, it makes me smile’ and I thought that was just really cool. If my work can create any kind of emotion for the viewer… I love when I hear that my landscapes have reminded people of where they grew up. I had a lady start crying and tell me that my drawing of an old man reminded her of her grandfather, specifically of his eyes, and that, that was really cool.
I had ten works of Jon Offut in my studio and he had ten of mine when we did a show together, so I had these ten awesome Jon Offut glass pieces in my house. Eventually I was like, ‘Alright, we should probably give each other’s stuff back.’ But I was so used to seeing his work when I came downstairs, I was bummed and felt like there was something missing. It brightened my day. People wonder why they should have original art? That’s what it is. It elicits some kind of feeling out of you.
What’s the last good book you read?
I should read more. Well, the last book I have read because of the strange political season we’re in is 1984. I knew bits about it but never had actually read it. And so I read that and was blown away by some of the weird similarities with what’s going on in the world right now. It’s kind of bizarre.
What’s on your music playlist?
Is this where I’m supposed to list like ten bands that you’ve never heard of before? (laughs)
I guess I always revert back to Bob Dylan. I listen to a lot of NPR. I’ve found if I need something done, if I put on London Calling by the Clash, for some bizarre reason I can paint anything. Anything by Jack White. Willie Nelson. I love Willie.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you were getting started in art?
Man there’s a lot of stuff that you need to know… the business side of stuff. You’re probably going to have to take care of taxes and sales. While they’re starting to teach more of that in college, but I think it’s one of those things you aren’t going to appreciate until you get thrown into it. Go out and see as much stuff as you can. Show up and work. Honestly, I hate hearing, ‘You’re so talented!’ No, I have put in so many hours to get to this point. People that are doing really good work are always working on it. They’re not talking about it; they’re doing it. And sometimes I need to take my own advice (laughs).