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Keeping it surreal: Fargo artist Warren W. Kessler’s adventures in trompe l’oeil

Lonna Whiting of The Arts Partnership profiles Fargo artist Warren W. Kessler and his lifelike trompe l'oeil paintings.

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"Game Board" is a 12 inches by 14 inches oil on panel trompe l'oeil painting by artist Warren W. Kessler. Contributed / Warren W. Kessler
Contributed / Warren W. Kessler
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Local artist and 2022 TAP Individual Artist Partner grantee Warren W. Kessler’s obsession with detail is in many ways the epitome of art imitating life.

The trompe l’oeil painter’s recent projects have him creating realistic renderings of common every-day objects — photos, notes, people, places, game boards, paperclips, cards, stamps and other minutiae — that are nothing but ordinary.

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Fargo trompe l'oeil artist Warren W. Kessler.
Contributed / Warren W. Kessler

Trompe l’oeil means “to fool the eye,” and artists like Kessler working in the genre study shadow, texture, expression, light and mood in painstaking detail.

The fruits of his labor often result in jaw-dropping optical illusions so real they’re almost surreal.

For Kessler, though, it’s not so much a labor of love as it is a multitude of expressions using the simplest objects.

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“Trompe l’oeil is all about painting a piece to the degree of what is real, what is there. A lot of my work will have photographs that will look like they’re taped to a piece of wood, and everything is actually painted. People will say, ‘Oh, big deal, it’s just a photo taped to a piece of wood,’ but no, it’s all painting. Even the wood.”

The philosophy is part of why he paints in the first place painting as “a visual compilation of thousands of thoughts, each brush mark is a record of a deliberate decision,” according to an artist statement .

Kessler received a $2,450 Individual Arts Partnership grant in 2022 to study with trompe l'oeil artist Anthony Waichulis at a workshop at the Ani Art Academy in Pennsylvania.

“Waichulis did the workshop for artists who are well-established but still don’t know what they don’t know,” Kessler said. “It was amazing to watch him and how he made the style look so easy, and then walk away with a ton of knowledge. It was wonderful.”


GALLERY: View more of Warren W. Kessler's trompe l'oeil pieces

The artform is a departure from Kessler’s earlier work, which was largely influenced by realism, a testament to the ways in which artists evolve over time to the benefit of the rest of us.

“I wanted to figure out how to do stuff like Waichulis,” he said. “At one point, I gave it a shot and found out it was a lot of fun. The detail and the intricate nature of it, I really like that. It just seems like a really good fit for me, my personality and how I like to work.”

When asked whether or not he’s quickly rising to the ranks of a prominent American trompe l’oeil artist, Kessler becomes sheepish.

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“I’m in there,” he said. “There’s always those that are better and that’s great because then there’s always something else to strive towards.”

Coming up with compositions and finding things he’s interested in using is part of the challenge. “I often think, ‘How am I going to render this?’ to the degree that somebody thinks the image is really in front of them and not a painting of something. That is what I really like about it. To paint it and then have to push it that much further into reality.”

Dealing with such intricacy and detail can be frustrating, Kessler admits.

“When that happens, you just set it aside, walk away and work on something else for a bit,” he said. “And think about what you did that didn’t work? What’s the most logical thing that might make it work? Is it a shadow or a texture from a balcony or the lighting? Is it not lit properly? To really pull off a good trompe l’oeil you need to have good shadows.”

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Artist Warren Kessler practices plein air, a French technique that translates to “open air” and literally means painting in open air. This piece, "No Direction Home," is a 4 inch by 13-1/2 in oil on panel painting, one of many among Kessler’s collection.
Contributed / Warren W. Kessler

Kessler still works with landscapes but has placed most of his attention on trompe l’oeil for the past few years. He said he enjoys plein air (painting in open air), “Just to kind of mix things up. Sometimes you need to get away from what you’re doing. So I like to spend some time outside and frame life and nature. I’ll continue to do the landscapes and trompe l’oeil,” Kessler said.

He added that he’s thankful for the Individual Arts Partnership grant he received from The Arts Partnership because it afforded him the trip to study with prominent trompe l’oeil painters. A full list of 2021 recipients can be found on TAP’s website . IAP grants open once a year to TAP partner artists who live and work in the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo metro.

Art lovers can find Kessler’s work for sale on his website, warrenwkesslerart.com , and follow him on Instagram .

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.

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This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit theartspartnership.net.
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