June 24th, 2020

By Veronica Vale

Michael Kessler’s abstract work is renowned for its abundance of bold, dynamic texture and its hints of ethereal landscape, on an often larger-than-life scale. So how do these elements translate to a far smaller scale — like that of the pages of a sketchbook? For our next installment of our ongoing series, “The Sketchbook Diaries,” we intend to find out by exploring the sketchbook pages and process of Michael Kessler.

Currently, Michael Kessler has temporarily put his large-scale painting process on hold, and is instead focusing his efforts on exploring all that the practice of keeping a sketchbook or two has to offer. “What I’m doing now by working in all of these sketchbooks is I’m mining, mining for some rich veins of inspiration,” Kessler muses, “When I find them, I’ll return to large-scale work with all these new discoveries, compositions, mark making techniques, and tonations and dive right into these large paintings. I anticipate this next group of large paintings will be of a different, higher quality.” 

We look forward to seeing the freshly inspired new series that comes out of this practice, but for the time being, we’ve been enjoying witnessing the process of discovery through the sketchbook page entries Kessler has been posting on his social media accounts. Currently, Kessler works in a cabin in Utah with a dining room table as his studio, a sheet of plastic underneath cups of wash and brushes and four sketchbooks. “My process is to work on several sketchbooks at once, so I can account for drying time.” After all, he posits, “I work with gray washes, so ideas come faster than they dry.” 

At the moment, he has four active sketchbooks. Cycling through these sketchbooks in the manner he does has its advantages. Kessler explains, “Inevitably, things that are discovered in one sketchbook will be applicable in another with different approaches working on multiple pages.” The fluidity and spontaneity of this process allows for exciting new discoveries and leaves room for sudden bursts of inspiration, much of which Kessler finds in nature.

“What I’m doing now by working in all of these sketchbooks is I’m mining, mining for some rich veins of inspiration.”

When working in these sketchbooks, Kessler never tries to render any specific scene, but finds great inspiration in the landscape, especially that of the Colorado Plateau. Kessler traverses this land in his pop-up camper, traveling from Southwest Utah to Santa Fe, New Mexico and back, roaming the 600 square miles of the Southwest Colorado Plateau, all the while camping, fishing, traveling, and watercolor sketching. “My camper becomes my studio on wheels, whether I’m on top of a cliff, overlooking a lake, or in the middle of the desert.”

This beautifully nomadic experience of the landscape is a constant source of inspiration for Kessler’s work, although while he sketches, his focus is entirely on the instinctive creation process, honing in on just the sketch and accompanying materials. Then, Kessler will put down his sketch and take a walk. While wandering, he allows himself to be enveloped by nature, unencumbered by supplies or the pressure to create. There in the peaceful wilderness, he will start to take greater notice of things, slow down and become more observant of the “phenomena, branch configurations, combinations of textures, lighting, etc.” He’ll then bring back the fresh memories of these observations to his studio on wheels where “it all becomes material to be consumed, devoured, digested, and reconfigured.” This back and forth process of studio creation to natural inspiration feeds the constant evolution and growth of Kessler’s work and helps him to accomplish what he refers to as “one of the greatest things about making art: achieving union with the outside world.”

Most of Kessler’s current sketchbook entries, and much of his large-scale work, prioritizes other elements of design above that of color. “I love grayscale and feel completely and utterly comfortable in grayscale,” Kessler explains, “I do feel that I will gradually move to colors, perhaps warm grays, green and brown combinations, slightly tinted grounds… but I don’t feel any pressure. To not have to think about color is a real relief to me.” Kessler argues that people can become overly concerned with color, at the expense of other intriguing aspects like texture, gradation, dramatic lighting effects, chiaroscuro, etc. “If I can achieve all of this interest in grayscale,” he concludes, “why would I complicate it?”

“One of the greatest things about making art is achieving union with the outside world.”

Kessler’s comfort with and adoration for grayscale and neutral colors began early on in his career. Since he was a teenager, Kessler has been sketching predominantly in charcoal grays and graphite pencil, citing the influence of his early artistic heroes, fellow grayscale enthusiasts, Andrew Wyeth, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, and Gerhard Richter. These artists and their “incredible, indescribably beautiful grayscale work” fed his passion for finding interest and beauty outside of the sometimes confining bounds of color. 

This early understanding of his artistic interests has enabled Kessler to create pieces of true passion and authenticity, undoubtedly galvanizing his long and successful career. Kessler credits sketchbooks for their ability to help artists find those pure, genuine artistic interests. “As artists,” he expounds, “you have to have the courage to be creative — a tremendous amount of courage — and sketching is the most honest way to get at what’s on your mind and to discover what your artistic contribution is. ‘What are you honestly most interested in dealing with as an artist?’ You’re going to discover that sketching.”

“Sketching is the most honest way to get at what’s on your mind and to discover what your artistic contribution is.”

As we’ve heard argued by several of our artists, sketchbooks are one of the most honest, pure forms of artistic creation. Kessler concurs, maintaining that “part of the beauty of a sketchbook is the freedom to take risks. You don’t have to live up to anyone else’s standards or expectations. It’s about having fun and playing and doing your own individual thing.” In contrast, Kessler observes how, although he loves creating his signature large-scale formal works, their creation is accompanied by greater pressure and expectations, but with sketchbooks, “they’re more private and personal and mine, I can make mistakes, I can play.”

While we look forward to the refined beauty of Kessler’s future formal large-scale works, we delight in the playful spontaneity of his current sketchbook process and are grateful for the insight into this personal experience. After all, as Kessler puts it, “a sketchbook is a beautiful place to be an artist.”

We would like to extend a special thank you to Michael Kessler for offering his time and insights for this interview.