Diane Washa | Artist of the Week

Diane Washa is an award-winning painter who takes inspiration from the changing landscapes she has had in view since road trips with her family as a child. Washa creates paintings in an intriguingly abstract style that is rich in detail. She most often works en plein air.

Painting in sight of the prairies, streams, rivers, and bluffs of Wisconsin’s countryside – and the sweep of dramatic skies overhead – Washa’s brush captures the movement of color and light, time and place. In still life studies, the artist sometimes extracts a single intimate element of the landscape that catches her eye.

Washa came late to her now-productive life as an artist. A business executive by day, she got more serious about her life-long passion for painting in 2005. Several years later, Washa was exhibiting in galleries and at art exhibitions. Over the past nine years, she has exhibited dozens of art shows, including as a featured artist.

Washa has a degree in fine art from Milton College and an MBA from the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. She continues her quest to learn and grow in her art through studies with a number of admired painters and is part of a network of artists dedicated to the en plein air approach.

Experimentation excites Washa’s art. Her continuing education in painting includes working side-by-side artists doing nonrepresentational images in oil.

An Interview with Diane Washa

Who are you and what do you do? What is your background?

I am Diane Washa, a professional oil painter and recently retired business executive with 40 years of management experience in the fields of medical and automotive industries, including companies like GE and Harley-Davidson. My educational background includes a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the University of Wisconsin and an undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from Milton College.

It wasn’t until the end of my business career when I came to understand the link between my degree in Fine Arts with my creative problem-solving skills I used in the business world. It was in the Arts where I was challenged to come up with a creative vision, figure out how to execute it, and produce and market it. In business terms, the process of making art taught me how to successfully manage business projects and/or develop new products; talents I exhibited as a young child but didn’t apply to a vocation until graduate school.

Why do you do what you do?

While pursuing my business career, I never lost my passion for photography and oil painting but didn’t pursue the latter until the early 2000s when I honed my skills studying with several nationally known oil painters. Mastering painting, like many other disciplines, takes time, practice, patience, and dedication. 

I paint in plein air because I love being outdoors even in the dead of winter. The process wakes up my spirit and connects me to a higher power. Watching the sunrise or set on a landscape. Listening to the calls of birds or leaves or grasses rustling in the wind. Observing the gorgeous topography of southern Wisconsin or any other part of our vast planet. Simply said, painting gives my life meaning. 

How do you work?

There are days when all the stars are aligned … I’m in the field doing a plein air study or in my studio working on a still life and out of nowhere I create this beautiful little gem. I nail the composition, placement, perspective, light, shadows, color harmony, brush strokes, edges, etc., and wonder ‘Where did that come from?’ That is the exception, however, not the rule. Those are the days when I’m inadvertently at my very best game mentally and emotionally.

What’s integral to the work of an artist? 

Integral to my work as an artist, is when I:          

Eliminate the pressure of time … When working I was always jazzed when I could set aside an entire day or better yet, a week to paint which is why I’m thrilled to be retired now. I can paint for as long as I want whenever I want to. 

Create a quiet and peaceful environment … When I’m in that state of mind I am one with nature and nothing else matters other than interpreting what I’m experiencing and expressing it two-dimensionally. 

Paint alone … I’m so focused on what I’m doing when I paint chatting with others can be a distraction. However, the artists I do paint with from time to time share that mindset so their company is always welcomed.

Avoid perfection, experiment, make mistakes … I constantly remind myself to view painting sessions as music lessons, where the end game is not always a finished, salable product. Some of the renowned artists I admire most claimed they never stopped learning how to paint which I now understand.

Know when to stop … Many people who have observed my painting process mention afterward they thought I had created several different paintings in that one session. That feedback doesn’t surprise me because when you paint outdoors you are constantly chasing the light which is why you lay down your darks and lights as quickly as possible. But at times the new light can actually be more interesting. So how do you know when to stop? Your paintings will tell you when they’re done and so may colleagues.

How has your practice changed over time? 

My practice hasn’t changed that much over time. My intention was to branch out once I retired but due to the timing of that and the 2020 pandemic my plans temporally stalled out. The good news is that I see light at the end of the tunnel and I’m getting ready to release my inner child soon … whatever that means! My subject matter will continue to be grounded in nature, it’s who I am, but I also plan to infuse more abstraction into my work.

What is your favorite artwork? 

One of my most favorite works was a 36” x 36” painting titled ‘The Path Home’. It started as an abstract painting at a Terrence Coffman workshop. It was full of bold, bright, out-of-the-tube primary colors and unlike anything, I was currently producing. When I brought it home though I knew I wouldn’t be able to market it under the Diane Washa brand so I set out to rework it. With the same enthusiasm and abandonment I had in Terrence’s workshop I transformed it into something that looked and felt more like me. It sold immediately and to this day collectors continue to ask if I have more pieces like it. So when I release my inner child I’ll start with replicating that process and see where it takes me. 

What work do you most enjoy doing? What themes do you pursue? 

According to some of my patrons, they are attracted to my work because of the serenity and calmness it solicits. I never thought about that aspect but as I reflect on my painting process, my first step is finding a beautiful scene to paint and yes, it is serene and calm.

Every year, I drive thousands of miles around Wisconsin looking for ideal locations to paint while taking into consideration other factors such as seasonal changes, time of day, weather conditions, accessibility, and personal safety. The military term for that type of exploration is called reconnoitering and it’s something you want to do when you have a lot of time on your hands. You don’t want to do it when you have a limited number of hours to paint.

What’s your favorite or most inspirational place? 

My most inspirational places to paint are Wisconsin’s driftless region; the backwaters of the Mississippi River near Trempealeau, La Cross, Prairie du Chien; Horicon Marsh; Sugar, Black Earth, and Kickapoo river watersheds; Northern and Southern Kettle Moraines; Wisconsin River Valley; the Bark, Rock and Fox Rivers; Blackhawk Island; Wisconsin’s designated Rustic Roads … the list goes on.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given? 

Twenty years ago, I mentioned to the Vice President I reported to at the time my aspiration to become a painter when I retired. His glib comment was, ‘Well if that’s your plan then you better start practicing now?’ I listened to his advice and started painting in earnest a few years later.

Professionally, what’s your goal?

Releasing my inner child is consistent with my professional goal to deconstruct my current style of painting so I can figure out how to take it to the next level. That discovery process will include recognizing when a painting is done or done enough and acknowledging when I should leave it alone and start a new one. Achieving that will require more trust and confidence on my part and acknowledging the acuity of sophisticated collectors who want to find the meaning of my art on their own. 

A Studio Tour with Diane Washa

My preferred studio is outdoors even in winter, but when I paint at home, my studio is just about anywhere – my basement, garage, living room, den, outdoor decks, backyard – it depends on the time of day and weather conditions.

A Painting’s Story with Diane Washa

Two of my favorite pieces at Lily Pad are Fall – Migrates to Mud Lake and Tributary

Fall – Migrates to Mud Lake was started and completed in a 12-hour painting session. The day before I had completed a 32” x 60” commission for a former colleague at Harley-Davidson that I had been working on for months so I was ready to tackle a new challenge. It was done in my studio from a photo taken on the Lower-Yahara River Trail in McFarland, WI. The photo had all the necessary elements for a good painting … simple, large, poster-like flatness shapes including the clouds, dramatic lights and shadows, and beautiful color harmony.

At the end of the day-long painting session, applying the last strokes of paint, I had one of those ‘Wow, where did this come from?’ moments. As previously mentioned, those moments are the exception, not the rule, so when they happen you never forget them.

Tributary unlike Fall – Migrates to Mud Lake was started outdoors, which given the 36” x 36” size of the panel, required multiple, long trips to and from my vehicle for setup. It’s a morning painting in early Spring on an overcast day of a Sugar River tributary in the city limits of Verona, WI. The overcast weather conditions were perfect for a long painting session as was the lack of Wisconsin’s inescapable green foliage that would be appearing in a few weeks.

At the end of the painting session, I had blocked in enough detail to the point where I could finish the rest in my studio. But unlike Fall – Migrates to Mud Lake where I finished it in one sitting, Tributary lingered in my “garagio” (alias for painting in my garage) for weeks before I tackled it again.

I try to avoid long gaps between starting and finishing artwork because it can be difficult finding my original vision again and create a compatible palette and mood to complete the piece. I slugged away at this piece for weeks applying glazes of paint until it looked and felt more finished. And it was then that I sent a photo to Allan and Emma from Lily Pad Gallery for their review. Months later when they were visiting and viewing ‘Tributary’ in my studio, I suggested that the piece still needed more paint when Allan interrupted and enthusiastically said with a smile, ‘No it’s done, Diane! It’s finished!’