Herald JournalHerald Journal, May 5, 2003

Artist Warner Zabel, swishing brushes for 35 years

By Julie Yurek

Mountains with shades of purple and grey, skies bathed in reds and yellows for sunsets, and pink and red flowers and deep green evergreen trees reflected in rivers and lakes take life under the brushes and knife of artist Warner Zabel.

"When I get an idea, I just go with it," he said.

Zabel, 76, is a self-taught artist. He began oil painting about 35 years ago when he was in his early 40s.

He and his wife, Lucille, live in New Germany and farmed south of town between New Germany and Norwood Young America. They retired from farming about 25 years ago, she said.

Zabel's painting career began rather unusually. He attended a meeting at Redwood Falls for Archer Oil. For entertainment, there was an painter there, who in a matter of hours, painted an entire painting, Zabel said.

"I thought, 'I could do that,'" he said. He has never had lessons, he said.

So he went home, bought some supplies in Excelsior, and began painting.

"The first ones were lousy," he said with a chuckle. "I threw them away."

He painted on the dining room table on the farm, which meant having to pack up at supper time, Lucille said. When they moved into New Germany, Zabel got his own room for painting, much like some women get for their sewing.

With time and experience came better and better paintings.

Zabel may get an idea for a painting from a calendar or photo, but he never replicates it exactly, he said. He adds details to make it different, such as an ax in a woodpile, he said. "You'd have to get a magnifying glass to see all the little details."

A lot of his inspiration for his paintings is a trip he and Lucille took to Alaska when he retired from a company in Johnathon called Crown Excursions about 14 years ago. He worked at Crown after retiring from farming.

They drove through Canada and Alaska with their camper, spending three-and-a-half weeks seeing the state and the country.

Many of his paintings reflect mountains and lakes that they saw, he said. They have also traveled to California, Texas, Mexico, and Florida. They haven't been in the northeastern part of the country yet, he said.

Other scenes for paintings he just comes up with, he said.

He's not afraid to use color, he said.

Zabel's paintings are not focused on a specific genre; he's doesn't paint just wildlife or lakes and mountains.

He has paintings of fall and winter scenes, a moonlit night scene, a duck sitting on the water, a relative's cabin, and one of the farmstead where Lucille grew up.

For the farmstead painting, he modeled it after the original photo, taken more than 100 years ago, Zabel said.

They want to get prints made of the farm painting to give to Lucille's two sisters, she said.

The Zabels have had prints made of his paintings. Their four boys and their families each have two or three prints, he said. He keeps the originals for now.

The Zabels are hoping to get some of his paintings made into prints so they can go to various events and sell them, Zabel said.

The Renaissance Festival in Shakopee and Stifftungfest in Norwood Young America are two locations they may try, she said.

They haven't tried selling his prints before now because of the cost to make them. It costs $20 to make one print, he said.

They have a friend, Gerald Thomas of Mayer, who does photography and helps them get the prints made, Zabel said.

They are hoping to get some prints made this fall and begin selling, he said.

Most of Zabel's paintings take about a week for him to complete. The longest it's taken him to finish a painting is about two weeks, he said.

A few times he has started and completed a painting in a single day.

One painting, that he later gave a cousin of his, he started in the morning and had it nearly finished by supper. After supper, he went to finish it and ended up wiping all the paint off to start over. He finished the new painting at 2:30 a.m.

"When it flows, it flows," he said. "Sometimes you have to start, stop, and start again."

When the scene's just not working, he wipes the paint off with a rag, and starts over he said.

His main tools are paintbrushes, but for his mountains, he likes to use a knife to get the nice sharp edges, he said.

Zabel described how distance in a painting is important. "It's got to look right," he said.

Everything he has learned about painting is through doing it, Lucille said.

Artistry runs in the family. Many of the Zabel's 11 grandchildren draw or paint, Lucille said.

Charity Zabel, one of their granddaughters, draws portraits with charcoal, she said.

Zabel recently completed a painting for a friend, Harlan Dobratz. Zabel painted a 50-year- old picture of Dobratz' farm on a large circular saw, Zabel said.

He did it this winter and it took him one and a half weeks, he said.

He doesn't paint every day, he said. Weeks can go by between paintings, he said.

Zabel has other hobbies besides painting, he said.

Both he and Lucille like to summer and winter fish, she said, although they haven't gone much in the winter the last few years. "Either the ice isn't good, or it's too cold," she said.

The couple also likes to garden together. They used to have a large garden, but it's a little smaller now, she said.

Anyone interested in viewing Zabel's paintings may call him at (952) 353-2408.

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