|FROZEN TERRAIN, OIL, 24 X 30|
By Virginia Campbell
All successful paintings are animated by an idea, but the nature of that underlying idea can range from arcane artistic concepts to a more mundane concern with the specific subject matter at hand. Arizona painter Douglas Diehl prefers to base his paintings on medium ground between the two ends of the spectrum, on straightforward ideas that often take a conceptual approach. “I enjoy having things sturdy,” he says, and his painting STANDING STRONG backs him up. Occupying nearly half of the canvas is a large bluff of red rock, a blunt formation that towers immutably above a foreground of shadowed pines. There is enough detail in the painting to invest the scene with solid reality—and not a stroke more. The brushwork carries on no distracting sideshow. “It’s about rock, about strength,” says the artist simply.
Bold rock formations are an ideal subject for Diehl, and he’s got plenty on which to set his sights in Arizona. “The West is full of landscapes that show the bones of the earth and the earth’s absolute power,” says Diehl. About his painting of a massive, tiered rock ledge halting abruptly in a bank of sand, he says, “I liked the feeling of this mountain slamming its foot into the dessert.” But Diehl’s notion of strength also finds expression in less obvious features of the landscape—a distant mesa, ascending ridge lines, a grove of trees marching toward the horizon.
|HIGH PLAINS MESA, OIL, 36 X 48|
He claims to have the same enthusiasm for the way light wraps around a coffee cup on a tablecloth that he does for a giant sky full of cumulus clouds, and in terms of technical challenges, he no doubt means it. But to hear him talk about his lifelong involvement with the landscape—usually in the same breath in which he describes his lifelong passion for art—it’s hard to believe that he can express himself as fully in a still life as he does when rendering the outdoors.
Diehl grew up in the 1960s outside Madison, WI, in what’s called “the driftless area,” some 200 square miles missed by all three glaciers that carved their way through the region during the Ice Age. His family owned acreage with streams and plenty of hills where he rode his horses, a quarter horse and a Tennessee Walker that stood 16 hands high. “I got up at four in the morning, seven days a week, and rode up into the hills to watch the sunrise,” says Diehl. “The world I grew up in gave me a natural creative drive. It also built common sense, survival skills, and problem-solving abilities.”
Diehl was interested in art, particularly painting, from an early age, but it didn’t become an abiding passion until a trip to Europe he took after graduating from high school. Hitchhiking alone through England, Scotland, and Wales, he had the kind of solo adventure that leaves the mind wide open to life-changing revelations. The biggest revelation came at the Tate Museum in London, where he had his first live look at J.M.W. Turner’s landscapes. “Those paintings have to be seen in real life,” he says. “There are color vibrations in them that just can’t be duplicated in print.”
|GREER ASPEN, OIL, 11 X 14|
Diehl didn’t launch into a painting career in college, but he did meet his future wife there. They had both signed up for the same cultural anthropology class. “Susan was the most sane, most sensible woman I’d ever met,” he says. And she was a painter. They were married before he graduated, and they soon started a family that would include three children. Faced with the attendant responsibilities, Diehl became a builder. “I spent everything I had to buy a set of plans and build a house,” he recalls. “I sold the house and was in business. It was really the same maverick state of mind in which you set off to paint.” Eventually Diehl’s work took the family to the Northwest.
It was Susan who first became the successful painter. Diehl didn’t have the time or focus to forge his own style and career, but he painted whenever he could. He also thought about painting, all the time, and, thanks to his wife, was surrounded by art and artists in his day-to-day life.
“A lot of painting is mental exercise,” he observes. “Even when I wasn’t painting, I was ‘active looking,’ analyzing things like value contrasts and color harmonies. I was very interested in the great Russian painters, especially Ilya Repin. The Russian painters had powerful drawing, solid forms, and strong, harmonized colors. And they had so many different harmonies going. They didn’t just keep pulling off the same ones. I learned a lot looking at how they managed to use very intense colors and balance them without ever getting garish.”
|STANDING STRONG, OIL, 36 X 48|
With the children grown, he and Susan moved from the Northwest to the Southwest, and he finally had the time to turn his attention to painting full time. That’s when he found out that while a lot of painting is mental exercise, a lot of it isn’t. “My hand-eye coordination was way behind my mind,” he laughs. “In the beginning I felt total revulsion at what my hand was doing. I knew intrinsically what I was after, but that’s not what was happening on the canvas. I found you have to subjugate your pride and stay in awe of your own ignorance.”
At roughly the same time that Diehl became a full-time artist, he and Susan started a fresco painting business, using historical techniques to paint classical murals for a high-end clientele. Diehl says he mostly took charge of the technical aspects of the job, the plaster and glazes, but the fresco business also helped refine his eye-hand coordination and hone his composition skills. Another important influence on his art were the painters with whom he’d long been friends, chief among them being his wife. “Our life forces us to wear many hats in our relationship,” says Diehl. “We’re husband and wife, parents, business partners, friends, and fellow artists. She’s like living with a stick of dynamite. She has more passion for painting than the whole neighborhood.” With Susan’s encouragement and his own love for painting and the landscape, Diehl was positioned to leap quickly along the learning curve.
Often the most basic difficulties of painting don’t become evident until one is standing in front of a canvas, and then they become fascinating mysteries to solve. “The limitations of oil painting force you to be creative,” says Diehl. “It took me about a year and a half to start selling paintings.” Which added a whole new layer to being an artist. “It’s amazing when another person responds to your art,” he says. “It makes it an honor and a privilege to pick up a brush.”
One of his newer paintings, FROZEN TERRAIN, seems to be almost an ideal, dynamic demonstration of what Diehl’s fast rise has made possible. In the kind of simple compositional strategy that actually makes a picture harder to complete successfully, the powerful diagonal lines of forested ridges set up the challenge of balancing the weight of earth and sky. Spires of green pines off to one side keep the eye attuned to verticality. In the distance, snow-covered mountains hunker beneath an unlikely yellow sky that turns snow into an opportunity to pass off a host of different colors as white. Making sense of this, the eye moves in a dance over unmoving earth, and the result is a wintry exhilaration probably not far from the sensation of being there. “The mind likes to fill in what it doesn’t see,” says Diehl. “It’s a matter of knowing how the mind sees and patching together reality from that.”
To be hitting his stride at age 52 pleases and reassures Diehl, who remembers from his boyhood in Wisconsin talk of “the farmer’s disease.” This affliction is known to affect people who have owned and run farms their whole lives, then they cash in their equity and buy a big new house on the hill with their profits. “Two or three years later they just die. Farming had been what kept them alive,” remembers Diehl. “I’m going to enter old age with a passion and a reason for living. I have more purpose than I have hours in the day. I wish I could clone myself. I need more Dougs to do all the painting I have in me.”
He is represented by Scottsdale Fine Art, Scottsdale, AZ; Sanders Galleries, Tucson, AZ; Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Cole Gallery, Edmonds, WA.
Featured in September 2008