A Place Between Realism and Abstraction

Donna Zagotta, She Walks Alone

I think it’s a good idea to periodically define where you currently are in you art journey, where you want to go next, and what skills and/or ideas you’ll need to acquire to get there.

All artists, whether realistic and abstract, use the same visual language to put together their paintings. The difference is that the realistic artist uses that visual language to describe his subject, whereas the abstract artist uses that visual language in conjunction with subject matter to express his feelings or ideas. 

If we understand the “style” of Realism to be a process of emphasizing subject matter and its descriptive qualities, and the “style” of Abstraction to be a process of emphasizing the formal elements of picture making and personal expression over explaining subject matter, then the “style” of Semi-abstraction would sit in right in the center – a perfect blend of Realism and Abstraction.

Exploring the area that lies between Realism and Abstraction, and finding that “perfect” blend that feels right for me has captivated my interest for a number of years. It’s exciting to observe how my ideas, approaches, and paintings have changed and evolved along the way. At one point I moved from Realism to Impressionism, but still felt “obligated” to faithfully render my subject and its environment. Slowly I’ve been able to let go of some of the details and explanation of my subject and its environment and move closer to the semi-abstract end of the scale. At this point, I’m focusing on adding more abstraction and personal expression to my work, and my “to do” list for getting there includes experimenting more thoughtfully and imaginatively with shape, line, color, value, texture, pattern, space, repetition, and rhythm.

Here is a good way to organize your thinking, determine your current painting “style”, and generate new ideas for where to go next and what it will take to get there:

Imagine a “Scale of Styles”, with Realism at one end, Abstraction at the opposite end, and Semi-abstraction half-way between them. Next, place Impressionism on the scale half-way between Realism and Semi-abstraction, and Abstract Expressionism half-way between Semi-abstraction and Abstraction. You can continue this process and place art history “styles” that you’re familiar with or that you’d like to explore on the proper place on the scale (for example, I would place Fauvism close to Abstract Expressionism on the scale). Next, gather new ideas to add to your work by researching those historical art styles that appeal to you. BTW – I don’t place the non-objective style on my imaginary “Scale of Styles” because it goes beyond abstraction and doesn’t use a subject as a starting point.

I hope this has been helpful – I’d love to hear what you think!

Happy Painting!

18 thoughts on “A Place Between Realism and Abstraction

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Hal, Great to hear from another Rohnert Park workshop participant! Hope all is well with you and that Bosc and D’Anjou are still inspiring you!

  1. Joanie Springer

    Good morning, Donna….great post, and so perfectly timed for my own current musings about abstraction and realism. I have no desire to abandon subject matter altogether (I seriously think that’s a different part of the brain and I’m missing a chip there, LOL) but I don’t want to merely “describe” a subject, either, as you say. I think it’s time to set goals as you suggest, and work toward those. And I mustn’t forget all those elements of design! Thanks for the reminder. : )

    Blessings and thanks for this v timely post!

    PS – Btw – i sooooo enjoyed the 5 day workshop with you and your excellent teaching in Rohnert Park.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Joanie! It’s great to hear from you! Like you, I have no desire to abandon subject matter. But because it’s so easy to fall into the trap that Cezanne called “the tyranny of the subject”, I like to be mindful of where I am and where I want to be going with my paintings. I can get really descriptive really fast!

      The Rohnert Park workshops were two of my favorites in 2013! I was very inspired by your work with gouache and your creative approaches to the figure. Hope all is well with you and that you’re still having a ball painting!

  2. susan kiedio

    Love the way you handled the painting..she wslks alone..i so enjoyed your workshop at Cuyahoga valley srt center last summer.your positioning betweem realism and abstraction is a struggle i too am dealing with..sometimes it helps me to draw/paint my retangle on the computer with my mouse so that i cant get to the details..somehow it allows to think differently. Thank you for sharing..it is very vold here in ohio thus making it a perfect timr to study as well as paint.Happy New Year

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Susan – Cuyahoga Valley was a fun workshop indeed! Do you remember how hot it was? We had heat advisories every day – temperatures in the 100 degree range – and then the air conditioning at the art center went out! So now we are experiencing the exact opposite weather here in Michigan where I live and in Ohio where you live – one of the coldest winters on record. You just can’t win! But as you said – it is a perfect time to study as well as paint. Happy New Year to you as well! Thanks so much for commenting!

  3. Marilyn Schutzky

    Thanx Donna, for a visual way to keep track of where you are on the path. I have been working toward a more abstracted view of what I am doing, but find that critique groups that are a part of my necessary social network, are having a hard time accepting that I am changing from the realism that I have done in the past. I really do need a separate barometer that I can use to keep moving in that direction and stay on the path I have chosen. Also, defining or naming where you are seems to be an especially good way to mark your current place and not fly off in many directions at once.

    Your ideas are appreciated. Have a great year.

    Marilyn Schutzky

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Marilyn,
      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond! First of all – congratulations on having a winning piece in the current Artist’s Magazine! It is a beautiful painting!

      I know what you’re saying about critique groups – and when I was making that difficult and confusing transition from realism to a more abstracted view, I took a painting to the critique group I belonged to at the time and the painting was immediately dissed because I hadn’t rendered the form properly. Since flattening my shapes was precisely the whole point of my painting, in an instant I knew that critique group was not for me. I have since been very careful where I go for advice and have worked very hard at learning how to evaluate my work on my own.

  4. Ruth Armitage

    I love your description of the spectrum of choices between realism and abstraction. And your new paintings are gorgeous!
    I have been enjoying exploring a more abstract approach as I feel like I do have more freedom to experiment with design. My subject remains intact in my own mind, but might not be apparent to the viewer. I think of it as painting with metaphor rather than description.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Ruth,
      I’ve seen your abstract work and it’s fabulous! What a courageous move! Wondering what inspired you to take the risk? Thanks so much Ruth, for commenting.

  5. Ruth Armitage

    Hi Donna,
    I spent over a year searching for a way to paint the landscape that felt like ‘me.’ I tried different mediums (oil, encaustic, cold wax) plein air, semi-abstraction and really gave it a shot. Not one of those paintings expressed what I felt about my parents’ farm. I thought, well, I haven’t tried this… so I gave it a shot. I’m finding them very satisfying.

    1. Donna Post author

      Wow Ruth – that is amazing! To be able to find a process that exactly expresses who we are, what we think, and how we feel is exactly what we all search for in our art. Congratulations on this major breakthrough!!!! It’s very inspiring to hear your story! And we all need to be reminded that the only way to get THERE is to keep on experimenting, work hard, and keep on keeping on. Thanks again for sharing your inspirational story.

  6. Kathy

    Thanks for the information Donna. You always seem to know where your students struggles tend to be leaning. I always struggle with being too perfect with my paintings. I have gotten more free while painting and don’t worry about my little mistakes. I just accept them.

    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks for commenting Kathy! Yes – bring a sense of freedom, spontaneity, acceptance, and joy to our work is sooooooo important!

  7. Kristine Fretheim

    I’ve been calling my work “Abstract Realism” for awhile now. I push realistically rendered images toward abstraction by using design and composition. The resulting images teeter on the edge of “what IS this?” and “oh, it must be a…”.

    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Kristine,
      Thanks for commenting! Having a destination in mind – aka “Abstract Realism” – at the beginning, planning stages of a painting that contains a subject is a perfect way to stay out of the trap that Cezanne called, “the tyranny of the subject.”

  8. Ruth Ellen Hoag

    Hi Donna,

    I’ve been following your work for a long time, initially through Skip and Toph’s Palette Magazine. I’ve used examples of your work in my own teaching, and recently several of my students and friends, Jeri and her daughter, Ann, Joanie Springer and a few others, took your workshop in northern CA. I’m also good friends with Ruth Armitage who commented on your blog a bit ago. It’s a small world and I feel like I know you without ever meeting you!
    Thanks for a great blog!

    1. Donna Post author

      I’ve been following your work in the Palette Magazine, too! Wow, it IS a small world. I hope to meet you in person some day!

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