By Chris Gargan

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”


Hermann Hesse,
Wandering: Notes and Sketches



Slow Down Old World
12 x 16 oil on linen

In contemporary landscape painting, especially for plein air painters, there is a near constant tension between the pull towards the visually descriptive—dependent on visual acuity and fidelity to the reproduction of what is observed—and the abstract—an art that recognizes and honors its dependency on observable reality but subsumes that urgency of description to a greater acknowledgment of formal considerations, allowing design and interaction of form to take precedence.

Many casual viewers of art will assume that the term “abstract” is synonymous with “nonobjective.” Abstract art is thought to be existing in a realm divorced from perceived reality, but, in fact, much of abstract art is more true to the functional definition of the term, meaning to extract or take from, to withdraw that which is essential. Diane Washa is an artist who has successfully transited that journey from recording visual experience to using that experience in order to privilege an emotional or expressive response.

In the very best of her work, she has also dipped into the narrow stream of landscape painting known as Tonalism. Tonalism was championed by artists, predominantly American, such as James McNeill Whistler and George Inness. Their paintings are often characterized by a sublimation of detail in favor of tonal masses and veils of atmospheric interaction. Typically, tonalist paintings are lower in key, utilizing subtle variations of value with few jarring elements of chromatic intensity. The paintings tend to be subtle in surface quality as well, eschewing thick impasto build up, as is so often seen in plein air work, in favor of a more uniform and restrained surface—a surface Whistler described as “like breathing on glass.” Done poorly, tonalist attempts can look like inchoate soups of muddy color seasoned with indecision. Done well, this approach to landscape can be transcendent, containing a spiritual or almost ethereal quiet that moves the viewer in an ineffable way. It is in this latter realm that Diane practices her craft.


Photograph by Diane Washa

Diane’s pursuit of a life in the arts began not in the visual arena, but rather in music. She entered Milton College in the ’70s but soon changed her academic focus to become an art major. She graduated in 1975 with a BA in studio art. Faced with the exigencies of supporting herself, she moved to Milwaukee to work in the design department of Harley-Davidson, subsequently shifting into parts and rider accessories product development and finally settling into business development working with new dealers forecasting growth potential and orders.

Concurrent to her business life, Diane was pursuing an MBA at UW–Whitewater. Upon leaving Harley-Davidson in 1989, Diane came to Madison to work as a project manager for Datex Ohmeda, a leading manufacturer of high-end medical equipment. She worked in this field until her retirement in 2020.

As a consequence of her 40-plus years in the business and manufacturing community, Diane developed extraordinary discipline, organizational skills, and planning capability that have resulted in a turbocharged entry to, and success in, the art world. Beginning in the early 2000s, she studied plein air painting with Jonathan Wilde, the dean of contemporary Wisconsin wildlife painting, and Diane Rath, a prominent Chicago area artist and teacher. Although she had continued her photography pursuits since college, she began to feel a reemergence of the urge to paint. She was introduced to the work of the California Impressionists, especially the paintings of Edgar Payne. At the same time, she became more familiar with and intrigued by the work of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko, celebrated for his color field paintings.



Photograph by Diane Washa

In 2009, Diane was recommended by Wilde to Theresa Abel of Abel Contemporary Gallery for inclusion in an emerging artists exhibition. She has been showing at Abel since that time, with her last one-person exhibit in 2023, entitled Steadfast. Over the last 20 years, culminating in this group of paintings, Diane has progressed towards an increasingly subtle merging of observational on-site painting with a more deeply evocative abstract sensibility. She continues to participate in plein air events, especially those that offer her opportunities to react to geographical and geological locations that provide fresh stimuli for her art. In Northern Michigan and Door County, she is drawn to evidence of the Niagara Escarpment, a topographical occurrence due to unequal erosion which led to dramatic cliffs and presents opportunities for creating paintings from high eye levels that stretch out dramatically to the raised horizon.



Photograph by Jim Escalante



Other landscapes that attract her attention include the Driftless Region, the area left undisturbed by glacial activity in the last ice age, here in southwest Wisconsin. This area is characterized by dramatic valleys and steep hills and bluffs. She is especially drawn to the striking views afforded along the Mississippi River on the Iowa side below Dubuque. Recently, she participated in Bluff Strokes, a Dubuque area painting event where she was voted the Artists’ Choice Award, a confirmation of the respect she earns from her peers. Her painting, Temptation, was inspired by the Tom Waits song of the same name as interpreted by Diana Krall. A small squarish piece, 14 by 18 inches, it resonates with the tonal exquisiteness and generosity of a Rothko. It’s gently suggestive of landscape rather than persuasively insistent. As she worked, inspired by a distant thunderstorm, she was struck upon completion by a thought: “and then there was silence.”

Diane’s discipline and growth are paradigmatic for developing artists. Driven by intention and goal setting, she settles upon a word that will drive her artistic aspirations for the coming year. “Build” and “explore,” along with other commands, help her unravel her year and forecast her aspirational goals for the next. Diane has taken the lessons of her business world experience and applied them to the world of creative impulse. As she quotes her friend and fellow painter Bethann Moran-Handzlik, “Painters should paint with their nature intact.” 

Chris Gargan is a landscape artist and freelance writer working from his farm southwest of Verona. You can find his work at Abel Contemporary Gallery in Stoughton. He is seen here with his dog Tycho Brahe.



Published in the January - February issue of Madison Locally Sourced madisonlocallysourced.com


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