FORWARD: A Conversation with Madison Artist Diane Washa

The Forward exhibition may have closed, but we have one more interview to share with you! Diane sat down with Kelsey over Zoom, and the conversation wandered from painting to knitting, from childhood family life to her career in the business world. Diane is candid and honest about her struggles and successes with painting in a refreshing, down-to-earth way. Below is a condensed version of the conversation; scroll down to read more!

Diane Washa on painting trip in Newport, RI.

Kelsey: The title of the exhibition forward is taken from the Wisconsin State motto. How does this relate to your art practice, if it does?

Diane: Well, for the last two years I’ve set out with this “unravel your year” idea. First, you start with a word for the year, and my word for last year was “build.” I was building back my health after hip surgery, building up my inventory for shows, and then building community. This year, my word was “explore,” and I was going to “go, grow, and glow.” I think part of “Forward Wisconsin” is the continuous pursuit of growing, progressively growing forward. That’s how my art relates to the story behind “Forward Wisconsin.” I’m exploring everything from nature, to people, to communities to—you know—myself, and to the process of creating art.

K: How’d you get your start and painting?

D: I have an undergraduate degree in art from Milton College, which closed back in the early eighties, and I never really applied that discipline to my career. I went on for my master’s in business administration, and that’s how I made my living, through the business world. Little did I know that the skills that I learned in college and even as a young kid would lend themselves to creating art and to a successful business career.

I took no art classes when I was in high school. I was a mathematician; I was into music. I performed, I played the flute, I sang, and I played guitar. As a kid growing up, my father was a General 4-H Leader. He was a renaissance kind of guy and he showed me how to live life and build things. I also learned how to sew, embroider, knit, crochet, bake, and cook from the other 4-H leaders. In my business career I was responsible for managing projects and product development. I was always making or building things.

But then my father, toward the beginning of the early 2000s, said “Diane, you ought to fill up your condo with paintings.” And I said “Yeah, but I don’t paint, Dad!”

I also inherited a love of photography through my father. I’ve been photographing throughout my life. After my dad died, I was still recovering a year after his death, just moping around, and missing him terribly. Then I heard him whisper… “go out and paint.” So I did, and I haven’t stopped since. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’re so talented!” and I go, “Oh God, no, no, no, it’s just practice.” I look back at what I did at the beginning of my painting career and it’s hilarious. I could barely stand next to that art now. So that’s how I got into making art. Through my father.

K: That’s a good story. It’s really touching.

D: Thank you. For me, painting is a very emotional experience.

Diane Washa - Perfectly Lonely
Perfectly Lonely | Diane Washa | 12 x 12 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: Do you have any artists that you look to for inspiration?

D: Well, I knew you were gonna ask that, and there are just so many.

I mean, I love John Singer Sargent, Andrew Wyeth, Van Gogh, Monet. Winslow Homer…and who else? Rothko! Did I mention William Merritt Chase? And all of the California impressionist painters like Edgar Payne and Percy Gray, to name a few. So I’m kind of all over the board. I love anything, any style in any genre, as long as it’s good. And I also loved photographers: Stieglitz, Leibowitz, Edwards, Adams, etc.

"Gondoliers' Siesta," c. 1904, a watercolor painting by John Singer Sargent. The painting shows gondolas tied to the posts along the canal while their drivers rest.
Gondoliers’ Siesta, c. 1904
John Singer Sargent
14 x 20 in | Watercolor | Private Collection
"Moonlight, Wood Island Light," 1894. Oil painting on canvas by Winslow Homer of waves hitting a rocky coast, lit only by the moon struggling through a clouded sky.
Moonlight, Wood Island Light, 1894
Winslow Homer
31 x 40 in | Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art
"White Field with Cypresses," 1889, oil painting on canvas by Vincent van Gogh. A golden wheat field beneath a daytime cloudy sky and a deep green cypress on the right side of the painting.
Wheat Field with Cypresses, 1889
Vincent van Gogh
29 x 37 in | Oil on canvas
Metropolitan Museum of Art
"Effet de Brouillard," 1872, oil painting on canvas by Claude Monet. The painting shows a farm field with a farm house in the distance, obscured by fog.
Effet de Brouillard, 1872 | Claude Monet
19 x 30 in | Oil on canvas | Private Collection
"An Afternoon Stroll," 1895, oil painting on canvas by William Merritt Chase. A woman in a white lace dress and matching parasol walks along the grassy bank of a stream.
An Afternoon Stroll, c. 1895
William Merritt Chase
47 x 50 in | Oil on canvas
San Diego Museum of Art
Where Eagles Fly, 2022 | Diane Washa
12 x 24 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: What do you enjoy most about your work? 

D: I love being outdoors and capturing what I’m seeing, and then translating it while in that moment. The whole purpose of painting outdoors is to learn how to capture light and do it quickly—spontaneously—and it’s quite interesting, because some days you go out and all the conditions are right. I’ve done this now since at least 2006 or 2007, where I’ve been going outside and painting, and I still keep making some of the same mistakes and having some of the same outcomes. Some are good; some are bad.

What I’m struggling with right now are field studies. There’s a spontaneity about that work and a quality that you cannot get in a studio. So, should I take that work and refine it in my studio or should I leave it alone? The answer is probably to do both! Sometimes, I do that and it’s successful. Sometimes…last week or two weeks ago at a Mineral Point plein air event, I had a beautiful painting done, but it wasn’t quite right. I didn’t get some of the perspective correct. The day that I did it was real overcast and moody. It was early in the morning and I didn’t finish it, and I knew that certain parts were working, but not everything. Then, the next day it was, of course, a sunny day, but I had to finish it.

I thought I would keep that same feel that I had the day before but it morphed into a sunny picture. I had taken a picture of what it looked like the day before, and then what I did at the end. They’re two different paintings, and honestly, the first one, even with all of its flaws, looked more evocative. There was more information in it. It reflected the nuance of that early morning, even though the shapes weren’t quite right. So what I’m trying to figure out is: when do I stop?

So, what do I like most about painting? I guess it’s just the challenge of it all. That was a long answer to the question, but I guess it’s the challenge. It is really one of the most difficult things to do and to explain to other people because there are no rules. You can make anything work.

K: So, what do you find the most challenging?

D: Oh God, there’s so many things. I used to be able to crank out three paintings in a day: one in the morning, maybe one midday, one in the evening. I find as I’m getting older, it’s challenging to know when you’re physically and mentally exhausted and should stop painting. When you’re tired, you’re no longer making good decisions about mixing colors, using the right brushes, applying the right brush stroke, and so on. 

Diane Washa - Crossroads
Crossroads | Diane Washa | 12 x 16 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: Are there parts about painting that you don’t enjoy?

D: Sure. I’ve created more than 30 paintings so far this year, and some have already gone on to their respective homes. The remaining, however, are sitting in my studio waiting to be finished.  Going back and finishing a painting that you started a month or two months, or three months, or six months earlier can be difficult because you need to recall what you were feeling at the time you created it. Then there’s the business of making art; the back end … pricing, titling, varnishing, framing, photographing, transporting, shipping, etc. I’m good at that stuff but I’d rather be painting.

K: Yeah, that kind of reminds me of—I knit—and when you get to the end, you’ve been working on this thing for who knows how long and you’ve got to sew these little pieces together. That could sit in my project bag for two years unsewn together because I don’t want to do that. 

D: And why is that, Kelsey?

K:  It’s just not as satisfying as the knitting part, I think. Yeah, it’s putzy and it’s easy to screw up.

D: And that’s the part, it’s easy to screw up!

Diana Washa - The Distance We Keep
The Distance We Keep | Diane Washa | 24 x 25 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: Can you describe your process of creating a work of art? Where does it start? Where does it go after you start?

D: Because I’m so project-oriented—that’s how I spent my entire career—I’m always thinking, “Oh, an exhibit, I’m going to have a solo show. I have to make a body of work.”  Right now, I have a show for your gallery next year and that will probably be about twelve pieces. You’ll recall my word for this year is “explore,” so I’ve been traveling all over the United States, mostly in the Midwest, piecing together a narrative. I don’t know what the story is yet or how it’s going to hold together but it’s going to be a good one!

K: So it kind of sounds like your process starts with a bigger picture and how each work fits into that. That’s interesting.

D: I think so! Yes, that. Thank you, Kelsey!

Diana Washa - Cherokee
Cherokee | Diane Washa | 9 x 12 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

Kelsey: Do you have a favorite artwork of yours or somebody else’s?

D: Well, most recently, when I was out east, I went to the Florence Griswold Museum That museum was this old boarding house where artists would come every summer to paint, and it was an art colony that has since turned into a museum. And it’s a really cool place.

K: Sounds, like yeah.

D: There was a painting there, “Thawing Brook,” by Willard Metcalf, who I had never heard of before. It just stopped me in my tracks. Oh my god, there was so much detail in the painting. Every square inch of it was a painting within a painting. It’s just stunning. It’s how I want to paint. So anyways, that’s one of my favorite paintings right now, as of today.

Images taken by Diane Washa.

K: What time of day do you like painting most?

D: Early morning, especially if I’m going outdoors. It’s quiet. I get my cup of coffee, set up my easel, watch the sun rise and paint away. It’s divine. 

If you’re talking about what I find most challenging, going outside anytime between eleven and three when the sun is so bright and intense during summer, you can’t see anything! You can’t see the color on your canvas. You can’t see the color on your palette. It’s really, really challenging, unless you’re standing under some beautiful shaded area. Then, it’s more doable. But that’s always a challenge.

K: Okay. How about recurring themes? Do you have any in your work? 

I’m known for my landscapes which are typically rich with clouds and water. I’m also known for my bird paintings and still-lives. However, I’d like to do more abstract work, where it kind of looks like a landscape but could also be interpreted as fields of color. 

For a while, I was immobile because I was recovering from a hip replacement, the pandemic was raging, etc. However, this year I’m painting a lot again outdoors and that’s a good thing. In my mind, I’m envisioning what I want the finished piece to look like and having a lot of practice mixing and applying paint this year, provides me with the means to make that vision a reality. That’s part of the appeal of making art. Those ideas are in our bodies and souls just waiting to be released. And when they finally appear it’s like, ‘Whoa, how did that happen?’ That’s fun!

Diane Washa - Wind River Crossing
Wind River Crossing | Diane Washa | 14 x 20 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: Is there anything in your personal life that influences your work? 

D: Initially making art was a way to overcome deep feelings of sadness and grief. Painting became my medicine; my drug of choice. 

K: Interesting, so it’s almost like a therapy or a catharsis when you paint? 

D: Yeah, I lost my mom when I was 10 and I think…I’m gonna get emotional about it, but I stopped being a kid. I had to become an adult at a very young age and I stopped playing. So for me, painting connects me with my inner child.

K: What kind of changes have you seen in your artwork and the time you’ve been painting?

D: There’s more sophistication. My designs are better, my color palette is more harmonious and richer, and there’s a bit more freedom or whimsy in my brush strokes.  

K:Are there any techniques or subjects you want to tackle in the future? 

Diane Washa - Moonchild
Moonchild | Diane Washa | 12 x 12 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

D: Yes. Learning how to let go and create some really cool abstract stuff. I don’t know how to do that yet but it’s part of my exploration initiative for 2023!

That said, I still absolutely love trying to do something really well, like a representational piece of art. This year, going out to Watch Hill for the artist in residence program, I wanted to practice rocks and splashing water. That’s a pretty traditional subject to paint, but I really wanted to understand. It was fun, trying to perfect that, and I’m getting so much better at it. When I was out east I was looking at those beautiful waves, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and listening to the earth. It was heaven. I was in heaven. I’ve been in heaven all summer long, just experiencing the planet!

K: Yeah. Okay. Here’s my silly. Question. What color do you always run out of? 

D: Here’s my silly answer. Muck.

K: Muck.

D:  Yes! M-U-C-K. So the woman I studied most with was Diane Rath. She was a couple years younger than me and she unfortunately passed away in 2011.

I have a very basic palette: warm and cool blue, yellow and reds, raw and burnt sienna and raw and burnt umber, white and black—but after a painting session, you end up with all of these threads of colors that you’ve been using to paint with. And when you mix them all together and you end up with a “muck.” You can’t describe it because it’s a little bit of everything that you’ve been using, and it’s usually the most delicious color. It could be greenish, it could be grey, it could be absolutely anything, but it’s a combination and there’s no way you could recreate it. So, muck!

K: So when it’s gone, it’s gone. 

D: Yep, until your next painting session!

Diane Washa - Edge of Desire
Edge of Desire | Diane Washa | 12 x 16 in | Oil on panel | Milwaukee

K: All right. That’s a new one. I haven’t heard that one yet! What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

D: For art?

K: Either art, or for life, or anything in between.

D: I don’t know, I guess with painting, just stick with it. Don’t give up.  Sometimes, it’s just a lost cause and there’s no point in trying to make it work. But there are other times when you keep working, keep plugging away, all of a sudden it flips and it works. I don’t know if anyone gave me that advice or if I observed it. And keep experimenting, keep taking risks and don’t worry about outcomes. That’s the kiss of death. And finally, leave your ego at the door.

Everyone at Lily Pad | West would like to thank Diane and all the artists who took the time to chat with us and shared their work, and to everyone who came to the show, read the interviews, and talked with our artists.

You can still view the works from the exhibition on our Artsy page, including Diane Washa’s. Thanks again to everyone who made the exhibition a success!