Diane Ainsworth | Coming Home

Diane Ainsworth returns to Taos

by Elizabeth L. Delaney

Photos by Myron Gauger

Diane Ainsworth, Morning Light, oil, 36 x 48.

Diane Ainsworth, Morning Light, oil, 36 x 48.

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

As she settles into the fresh yet familiar surroundings of Taos, painter Diane Ainsworth recalls the winding road that has brought her back to this place she cherishes so deeply. She has spent her adult life in a variety of locations across the country, first as a corporate wife, and later to fulfill her own artistic passions. Ainsworth recently returned to Taos after 20 years in the Northwest, and it has been a true homecoming for the artist, who has long been enamored with New Mexico’s spirit and beauty.

Each place Ainsworth has lived (Oklahoma, Colorado, Georgia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington) has contributed to her aesthetic and artistic sensibility in its own way, but Taos has always held a special place in her heart—a muse calling her home time and again. She first traveled there with a group of fellow artists for a workshop in 1985 and quickly fell in love with its unique light, ambient warmth, and robust art community. She was so taken with the place that she continued to visit as often as she could, and in 1990, she pulled up stakes to relocate.

After a number of years in Taos, however, Ainsworth sought a new set of challenges. She decided to move once again, this time to Port Townsend, WA. There, among a welcoming colony of artists, she found inspiration in the harbors, boats, and reflections on the water. Though her painterly, impressionistic style remained virtually the same, she worked to master the area’s muted tones and luminosity. “Washington has cooler light,” she says. “It taught me to paint within the grays and midtones—something I didn’t do much of before. It helped me grow as an artist.”

After two decades, Ainsworth felt not only that her chapter in the Northwest was complete but also a strong drive to return to Taos. Now, she is excited to once again live among so many of the artists who have encouraged her over the years. “The artist colony in Taos is strong,” she remarks, noting the special camaraderie she feels throughout the community there. “It is wonderful to be inspired that way.” Ainsworth also looks forward to capturing New Mexico’s striking geography. “I am excited to paint the mountains and all the things I haven’t seen in a long time,” she says.

Growing up in the 1950s in Tulsa, where art was “part of the culture,” afforded her many opportunities. Oil companies and the wealth they brought to the community also brought noteworthy museum collections and public schools that provided advanced art instruction. Ainsworth’s family encouraged her at home as well. She was fortunate to take private art lessons from several local artists, including the nationally renowned Jay O’Meilia, who instilled in her a keen interest in drawing and gesture. “It was the best thing I ever learned from him,” she says.

Ainsworth attended Oklahoma University and then the University of Tulsa, majoring in fine arts at both. Soon she was married and raising two children while moving around the country. She nevertheless continued to paint, integrating her artwork into daily home life. Eventually she made that life-changing journey to Taos, where she took her first plein-air class with noted artist Bill Harrison. She met Taos Six founder Ray Vinella as well and subsequently took several workshops with him. “He wound up being a big influence on me,” she says.

Today Ainsworth paints in an impressionistic style that falls somewhere between realism and abstraction. Among the historic artists she admires are Toulouse-Lautrec, for his ability to create an effective composition and harness light; Van Gogh, for his visible passion; Turner, for his exploration of abstraction; and N.C. Wyeth, for his pioneering style, which she refers to as “realistic but not too realistic.”

Ainsworth’s canvases feature landscapes, waterscapes, and genre scenes, such as people gathering in bars. She incorporates plein-air sketches, photographs, and models as reference material, and she always creates a thumbnail sketch to determine design and values—what she calls the “thinking part” of her process. Once she puts paint to canvas, though, she tries to let go of the cerebral phase and move into a more intuitive realm. “I just let the artist in me take over,” she explains. “When you start thinking too hard, it ruins it every time.”

Although Ainsworth likes strict privacy while she works, she considers her husband, Robert Spillers, a valuable addition to her creative process. He provides frequent logistical and emotional support for each project, from inception to completion. As her “art wrangler,” Spillers stretches her canvases and applies gesso. He then takes the finished paintings to the photographer and framer, and crates and ships them to their new homes. He also assists Ainsworth in her teaching, setting up the studio and helping students prepare for each class. He contributes to the aesthetics of a piece on occasion as well, discussing and critiquing Ainsworth’s work as she goes along. “He has heard me demo and teach for so long that he is very knowledgeable about painting,” she explains. “We are a team, and when we sell a painting, it definitely is a joint accomplishment.”

Ainsworth began her painting journey with watercolors and didn’t experiment with oils until she visited Taos for the first time. “The colors, texture, and richness of the oils were a wonderful combination to express the vivid hues and glorious light of New Mexico,” she remarks. As someone who likes to draw directly on the canvas with her brush before using a palette knife, she appreciates the ways she can manipulate the medium to produce intricate variations across the surface. “I want to maintain the feeling in the paint,” she says, and she strives to do that by varying the thick and thin areas and with exposed gestural drawing. Such visual complexities add a gentle push and pull to Ainsworth’s compositions, while also preserving line integrity and movement.

Ainsworth has always been a loose painter, and her pigment application reflects a kind of restrained freedom that serves to compartmentalize the segments of a piece even as they flow together. She thinks of her compositions first and foremost as shapes and colors that morph into recognizable images as patterns and details emerge. “Abstraction is automatic to me,” she explains. “It happens subconsciously and unintentionally.” As a result, she creates a dynamic conversation among the realistic and abstracted elements within each painting and, subsequently, with viewers. “I like the contrast of viewing my work closely or far away. Up close the painting becomes abstract forms of strokes and texture. From across the room it’s impressionistic, and the shapes fall into place.”

Ainsworth chooses her subject matter thoughtfully and seeks scenes that appeal to her sense of design as well as that penchant for abstraction. In the end, though, she paints only what speaks to her both visually and emotionally. “The hardest thing for me is deciding what I’m going to paint,” she says. “Many subjects inspire me, including landscapes, harbors, interiors, street scenes, and figures. The most important element that I need is a personal emotional reaction to the subject. That is my goal as a painter: not to be literal, but to express and share my impressions and emotions. I’m communicating the feeling I get when I see it, what makes me want to paint it.”

Over time, Ainsworth has become more expressionistic in her work, and as she expands her creative endeavors, she is exploring making abstraction and gesture even more evident in her paintings. She is working on a tighter editing process as well, as she tries to veer away from “over-painting” a scene. In doing so, she seeks to develop the uninhibited facets within her work. “I want to be consciously aware of letting go,” she says. “I think you get a lot of emotion out of it that you didn’t know about that way.”

Ainsworth remains active in art organizations across the country and helped found the Oklahoma Society of Impressionists in 1987. She is also a member of the American Impressionist Society, the Oil Painters of America, the Northwest Watercolor Society, the Washington Visual Arts Registry, and the Taos Art Association. She teaches regularly, in both plein-air and studio settings, and plans to quickly reinstitute her classes in Taos. To maintain ties to her friends and students in the Northwest, she will hold an annual workshop in Taos specifically for them. Conversely, she will hold another one in Port Townsend for her students from New Mexico.

As Ainsworth prepares for new creative challenges in her physical and spiritual home, she reflects on the artist’s life. “The painting process is both thrilling and frustrating, but I feel very fortunate to be a painter and grateful for the challenges and the pleasure it brings me. Painting is something I have loved my whole life, and I am grateful I actually get to make a living from it. Creating is what it’s all about.”

Dana Gallery, Missoula, MT; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Roby King Galleries, Bainbridge Island, WA; The Howell Gallery, Oklahoma City, OK; Anne Irwin Fine Art, Atlanta, GA.

This story was featured in the October 2016 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art  October 2016 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.

Subscribe to Southwest Art magazine
Learn how to paint & how to draw with downloads, books, videos & more from North Light Shop
Sign up for your Southwest Art email newsletter & download a FREE ebook