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Written By Diana Hartel.

Posted on May 15th, 2017.

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Our guest blog series by students from Columbia University’s Earth Institute concludes with an interview of Diana Hartel. Diana is an artist, author, and former environmental epidemiologist for Columbia University.


Diana Hartel spoke over the phone with us from her home in Phoenicia, New York on a drizzly October morning. Art has always been an essential aspect of her life, even while she worked as an environmental epidemiologist for Columbia University. However, recently she has had more time to devote to plein air painting in addition to a book she is writing and illustrating about watershed activists across the nation.


Pacific Coast Graveyard of the Giants, oil on board, 18x24”

What value do you see in painting?

I think it’s worth it to do artwork of all kinds. It slows you down, for one. You observe and see more. And then you can create conversation around it with other people. Often the reaction is, “It’s so pretty.” Well it’s not; it’s something important I want to say! It’s not just to be pretty. Ultimately art really does lift people, change people. It points a way to something greater, something that we need to do as a species.

How does painting a landscape influence your relationship to that place?

You experience the place in a different way. I used to go out painting in the moonlight. In the West I’d go to a specific high mountain lake to see the moon. The scene changes fast, and by the end you can’t keep up, you don’t even know what color you’re using. I love the fact that you can’t control it anymore. You’re not like, “Oh, it’s a great big romantic moon.” No, you’re going, “OH MY GOD I can’t do this!” I could see the moon and that lake in a whole new way in the end.

Different places hit people in different ways, don’t they?

Yes, it’s really interesting to me as an artist to pick something that’s off beat. I don’t choose it because it’s off-beat, I choose it because it resonates. There’s a message that resonates. It calls me, and that’s where I go. Sometimes it is a picture-perfect place, and other times it’s not.

So your feelings and identity as an artist manifest in your work one way or another?

They do, and it goes beyond it as well, almost always. I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, you’re just painting yourself.” That’s not true. Is there something about you? Yeah, usually. But there’s also something beyond. If you’re deeply immersed, and you’re in touch, your paintbrush is totally connected. So your experience in the land is not just about you. Something that is more mysterious happens when you’re really, truly, deeply involved in it. Something shifts, something that isn’t about the ego. Something that is mysterious and profoundly true.

Do you have any advice for new plein air painters?

Don’t be afraid, number one. All paintings are bad paintings anyway. And just keep doing it. Do it, do it, do it. And every once in awhile you’ll go, “Oh, I did that?” And you don’t have to be realistic in your work. If you tighten up too much you won’t feel it. Feel it. What are you feeling? You don’t have to have an intellectual dialogue in yourself about it. Just drop in and feel it. Take time! Go out in the land and take time! Walk around. Sit still. Draw without thinking of painting. It helps you to know a place. Don’t lift a brush! Maybe do that three times—go out for three painting sessions where you don’t even lift a brush. And get to know the places. Get to know what calls you, and what those places are all about. Learn their history. Find out about them, and then just paint with abandon.



This is the fourth and last in a series of guest blogs on painting or drawing outside—also called plein air art—created through a partnership with students at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Our thanks go out to the students who put these interviews together: Barbara Hickam Pressman, Alina Kharisova, Annie Mesa, Sophia Rhee, and Kristina Tougas. For more information on plein air painting, check out these MyWoodlot resources.

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