5 Tips for Combining Realism and Abstraction

Donna Zagotta, Cruisin’

 “Any painter with a good eye and a thoroughly disciplined training in representation can learn to paint highly detailed realism, and any painter with a good eye and a thoroughly disciplined training in design can learn to paint handsome nonobjective compositions. But to reconcile these opposites in a way that successfully blends them on a single surface seems to be possibly the greatest achievement of all.”      Ed Betts

Random House Dictionary describes semi-abstraction as “a style of painting in which the subject remains recognizable although the forms are highly stylized in a manner derived from abstract art.”  In the semi-abstract approach the subject and design are integrated and balanced. I don’t know how important it is to attach labels of any kind to one’s work. No one wants to feel trapped, and we all want to be free to explore our world and our art on our own terms. However, when I find myself stalled or unhappy with my work, I know it’s time to search for new and fresh ways to see my subjects. With that in mind, here are 5 tips for combining subject matter with abstract thinking:

  1. Search out the natural abstraction in the subject
  2. Disregard detail, perspective, and the rendering of three-dimensional form
  3. Stylize shapes
  4. Use color to express a mood rather than describe objects
  5. Paint relationships and rhythms of shapes, values, colors, lines, textures, and patterns rather than things

Happy Painting!

12 thoughts on “5 Tips for Combining Realism and Abstraction

  1. Hal Wright

    Wow!! Your use of black and white in “Cruisin” takes abstraction to a whole new level. I love it. Can’t wait to see others like this.

    Also, thanks for including the Ed Betts quote which validates the effort/need to work between realism and abstraction. It’s where I feel most comfortable. And your 5 tips are quite helpful. I’ve posted them in my studio for refer to. Thanks.

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks for your kind words Hal – and for taking the time to comment! I’ve always been passionate about value patterns and value contrast. Cruisin’ is an earlier work in my figure series. These days I’m passionate about color, but value is still very much a part of my process. That Ed Betts quote is from his book Creative Seascape Painting – an old book but one of my all time favorites. It helped me define what the “semi-abstract” approach I was looking for looked like.

  2. Tammy Wiedenhaefer

    I just love your posts! They always seem so timely to my struggles. I have been so unhappy with the realistic way that I’ve been painting that I finally stopped painting altogether. Nothing would inspire me because I knew I wouldn’t express it the way I wanted. Your New Years post forced me to evaluate what I wanted out of my painting. So I dug deep and decided I had to go back to basics, stop painting and focus on the Elements and Principles of Design if I wanted to make any real change in the way I have been painting. I managed to find a local teacher who’s focus is on the Design and she is drumming it into my head, enough so that I can finally hear and begin to apply everything that you’ve been espousing without fear of failure. I have actually begun to get excited about painting again!! Thanks for the 5 tips- what a concise simple list. Now I just have to execute! I know- easier said than done. Please keep up your posts, we are out here listening. 🙂
    p.s. I just love, love, love “She Walks Alone”

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Tammy,
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. You are spot on with focusing on the elements and principles of design. Focusing on subject matter won’t get you “there” because it’s not about subjects, it’s about what you do with them. And the key is “doing something” with subjects in terms of the artist’s visual language – which brings us right back to the elements and principles of design! Keep on keeping on!

  3. Betty Pieper

    I’m happened to fall upon your astute remarks exactly when I feel the need forthat support to what I
    believe and do. I have always liked and felt satisfied with my overall art work, but it is not ‘popular’. People
    either urge me toward realism (been there, done that) or complete non objectivity (while almost
    always giving their works titles that tell you “what it is”). I love the Ed Betts quote…which is
    ever so much more polite than the way I usually put the same sentiment! I like your idea of
    the ‘scale’, too, and expect it to take permanent residency in my head.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Betty,
      Thanks for commenting! And keep on keeping on. Paint what you love and how you love to paint. I often remind myself that some people are going to love my work, and some people are not – and that that’s a fact of life that all artists must deal with.

  4. Mary Sheehan Winn

    Discovered your blog from Sand Hill Art (Sally Ann Baker) and I’m happy that I did.
    Looks like lots to see here so I’ll be back.
    Yes, value pattern is the holy grail of any painting.

  5. Gail Cohen

    Hi Donna, I was hoping you would share the FEELING related to this painting. Did you decide on a mood before after or during the painting process. How do your colors in this painting describe that mood?

    I am an acrylic painter (self taught but thank goodness for online artists)and in a struggle at this point, deciding how to meld my style(s) with more abstraction. I started my art path with collage and was very confident that I GOT IT very quickly. Ever since I have been trying to Draw and paint in a way where the figure is prominent….people love what they say is my style but I despise…yes, it is a big word, trying to paint realistic faces in particular and work way to hard on the figure in general.

    I am going to purchase your dvd and hopefully will find something new to add to my repetoire of art skills.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Gail,
      Great question! Yes – I most certainly had a mood in mind before I started this painting. I snapped the photo of this couple while on a cruise to the Bahamas with my hubby. This couple was having cocktails and looked and acted very elegant, a little bit uppity, and like they thought they looked pretty “hot” – and I wanted to express that in my painting.

      You mentioned what is probably the most difficult part of figure painting: how to handle the face and features when you want to express something ABOUT a figure in a painting, rather than simply paint a portrait of someone. A difficult endeavor for sure. I find that being very specific – before I begin painting – about WHAT my painting is REALLY about and HOW I want my painting to look – helps me stay on track during the painting process.

  6. Margaret Godfrey

    Donna, I really enjoyed this post, probably because my accepted challenge is also to combine reality with the abstract. I find that thinking about the background as the stage set that will tell the viewers more about the figures (in my case, herons, not humans) helps let my imagination take over.

    1. Donna Post author

      Great point about the background! Often a painting is successful not because of what the artist did with subject, but because of what he did with the background. Thanks!

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