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John Lamb, Published August 13 2013

Making a scene: Painter moves outdoors for new inspiration

FARGO - Summer is a time to play outside.

For Warren Kessler, it’s a time to work outside.

The Fargo artist has been packing up his acrylic and oil paints and easel and hiking into fields and down along rivers to find scenes to capture, plein-air style.

Kessler has been most recognized for moody, interior scenes displayed in the Annual National Juried Water Media Exhibitions at the Hjemkomst Center, which closed late last month. This year he became the first person to earn top honors at the show for the third time.

Kessler, a 1999 graduate from Minnesota State University Moorhead’s art program, now has works in juried shows in San Diego and another in Colorado Springs, Colo. He has been talking to Fargo glass artist Jon Offutt about a joint show pairing each artist’s landscapes for the fall.

Until then, you can find Kessler painting in the fields.

What’s prompted you to work more on rural landscapes instead of urban landscapes or your figure paintings recently?

I like working from life. It really does loosen me up, especially working outside like that. You have a limited amount of time you can actually spend on a painting due to lighting and conditions. You have to work quick.

If you look at my urban landscapes, everything is man-made, hard edges. Working from a photograph, you can always come back to it. When you’re working from life outside, you’ve got to decide what’s important.

I haven’t done it in a few years, but I’ve really enjoyed it and I’ll do it as much as I can as our weather affords us.

Dimensionally, the landscapes are much more horizontal. Obviously, you’re looking at the horizon, but was that an aesthetic decision to go so narrow?

Here we’ve got such a wide-open expanse. The interest lies in a great swath of your vision. But in Portland (Ore.) or some other places, you could work vertical. But everything here goes side-to-side. Your long drive on the highway is what you see. A lot of time people will comment that it reminds them of where they grew up or their grandfather’s place or people who have moved away from home.

The paintings you won awards for in the National Juried Water Media Exhibitions were acrylic paintings, while most of the artists submit watercolors. Do you get dirty looks from purist watercolor painters who think that you’re cheating or not really like them?

I don’t think there’s a watercolor mafia looking to knock anyone off. Even when I work in acrylic, I work with a lot of transparent layers. My acrylic work can fall more into watercolor label than some artists who use acrylic. The one that I just had at the Hjemkomst (“Anxiously Awaiting”), her skin is made of 25 or 30 layers of transparent color to build up skin color.

What does it mean to you to have won the top prize for the third year?

It’s quite an honor really. You enter some of these and hope to get in. Then you get in and hope you do the best you can. To win it was pretty great.

Your people pieces tend to be more moody, there is more tension. The landscapes are lighter, understandably because they’re outdoors, but there’s also looseness in the motion. Is the difference in how they’re created or is it a thematic difference?

My portraits are a little moodier. Those are all composed intentionally. I want the viewer to look at it and wonder what’s going on with the stuff I’ve incorporated into the picture. It can tell a story, which may be a different story from the other person looking at it.

The landscapes are looser and just capturing what you see. The interior ones with people maybe tell more of a story.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533