Altered Sensibility; Marrying Representational Figures With Abstraction

Avalon, Donna Zagotta 17×17 Opaque Watercolor

A great way to breathe new life into representational figure paintings is to focus on seeing the figures and their environments with the eyes of an abstract artist. With figure painting it’s especially easy to get all caught up in rendering details and descriptive elements, making it easy to loose sight of the big picture and forget that (excluding the genres of portrait and illustration) a fine art painting – even the ones that feature a figure or figures as its subject – is above all a visual art form with its own visual language – and that language is based on the visual elements: shape, value, color, line, texture and pattern along with the visual principles that govern them.

My reference photo for Avalon – my husband snapped this photo of me on our visit to Catalina Island, CA.

I have no interest in being a portrait painter. I am simply a painter trying to discover more and more creative and imaginative ways to express my vision and personal voice in my paintings. The figure is just my current jumping off place to achieve those intentions. Previously, interiors and city scenes were my chosen jumping off places. So, before I ever started working with the figure, I already had an established working process: I use the elements of shape and value to structure my paintings, and I use the elements of color, line, texture and pattern to embellish my paintings. 

A preliminary study for Avalon; distilling the subject down to simple, flat, and stylized shapes.

The key to combining or marrying realistic subject matter with abstraction is to see that subject matter through the lens of abstraction – or as an abstract artist would see it. In their book Encounter with Art, Reid Hastie and Christian Schmidt liken the process of abstraction to the distillation process that takes place in the production of a perfume – saying, “It takes a lot of original material to obtain a product which bears little physical resemblance to the source material. The result is also more intense than the original raw materials. In the process of abstraction in art an abundance of visual experience is compressed into the product. The physical end product has a different look about it from its original sources, giving the observer a more intensified visual experience.”

A preliminary study for Avalon; distilling values down to a pattern of one dark and four light shapes.

The process of abstracting a subject begins with seeing a subject first and foremost as plastic – as  a group of shapes that can be changed, manipulated, distorted, stylized, and embellished in unlimited ways – the only limit is the artist’s imagination. This concept also holds true for the rest of the visual elements as well. Value and color can be totally freed from representational duties as can the elements of line, texture, and pattern. 

A preliminary study for Avalon; experimenting with ideas for embellishing my painting with line, texture and pattern.


Crossing that line that separates representation from abstraction presents exciting new ways to see and experience the figure. Paying equal attention to figure and abstract qualities in a painting allows the artist’s imagination to soar, allowing his personal voice to enter the picture – literally!   


Bye for now…..Donna



Many Thanks to You


“The soul of autumn is introspection, maturity, and transformation. This is the time of the year when we find ourselves examining the past, discovering our unfolding maturity and realizing that change is the champion of freedom.”   John Ashbrook

Happy Thanksgiving!

I am grateful and thankful to have so many wonderful things in my life that bring me joy; family, friends, home, studio, and my love of art and everything art has to offer. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that after so many years I’m still a curious and enthusiastic artist who loves to learn and experiment with new ways to express myself in my paintings.

I’m also grateful to my students – you inspire me to be a better teacher! And a heartfelt thanks goes out to you, my loyal and encouraging readers who have supported my blogging efforts for the past ten years!

Again – Happy Thanksgiving from my studio to yours! I hope that you’re surrounded by love and joy on this special day. 

Bye for now…..Donna


How I Approach my Figure Paintings

Donna Zagotta Paintings

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer

 “The more abstract the painting, the more the painting becomes about the artist who painted it rather than the subject that inspired it.”

In my current figure work I’ve been experimenting with new ideas for adding more abstraction and personal voice to my paintings. My intention is not to accurately render the figure, but to use it as a jumping off place for expressing my inner responses –  both emotional and intellectual – and for experimenting with arbitrary environments that emphasize flat shapes and patterns, color and value relationships, personal mark making, random lines and textures, and expressive brushwork.

Each new painting is a new journey of self-discovery and a search for new and creative ways to use the formal elements of design. My approach is a combination of intellect, curiosity, and improvisation. Currently I’m working from photo references taken in modeling sessions with my granddaughter, Amelia. I usually begin by brainstorming for ideas in Photoshop, which immediately helps me see the photo in terms of patterns, values, shapes and other creative possibilities. In the past I’ve had a hard time getting beyond the “realness” of my subject matter and being able see my subject abstractly at the very beginning of my painting process has proven to be a real benefit. 

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer, drawing of the pattern of lights and darks

My next step is to do a simplified drawing that focuses on compositional issues such as figure placement and value relationships. If I feel that I need more information about the figure’s gesture and body language or to see the shapes of the features and/or how they are placed, I’ll do additional drawings to gather that information. In order to feel free to stylize, abstract, and experiment in my painting, I need to be thoroughly familiar with the figure before I begin painting. I learned that lesson the hard way!  The times when I was in a hurry and skipped the intellectual, information gathering part usually resulted in a tight and realistic painting rather than the creative and expressive one I had in mind.     

Next, I do a small (8×8) color study to work out the painting’s colors, intensity range, and value key. This is the place where I feel I can totally let loose and improvise and experiment. I freely, spontaneously, and fearlessly apply colors, marks, lines, and brushstrokes and respond. If I like what I see it stays, if I don’t, I keep adjusting everything until I’m excited with what I’m seeing. I’m searching for a creative and poetic expression, a personal connection to the figure’s body language, and a painting that comes alive with mood and feeling.   

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer, underpainting in transparent watercolor

I begin the final painting with a transparent watercolor underpainting of arbitrary full intensity colors mixed from three or four transparent staining primaries. I started this practice in order to approach my paintings looser and more abstractly. It’s really hard to create a traditional realistic figure painting over those wild and bright colors! The underpainting also reinforces my abstract and expressive intentions for my painting. Once the underpainting is dry, I use my small study to guide me in placing and painting the big relationships of color and value. I paint layer after layer of thin and/or thick “catawampus” brushstrokes of opaque paint mixtures of watercolor and gouache with the goal of further emphasizing the poetry, personal connection and mood I responded to in my color study.

How do I know my painting is done? When I love it!

Bye for now…..

Donna Zagotta Painting Workshops 2019

Donna Zagotta Workshop, Ann Arbor, Michigan

I’m excited to announce that registration is now open for the two workshops I will be teaching in 2019! Both workshops are titled “Adding the You Factor to Paintings 2.”

If you want to increase your confidence in expressing your personal voice in your paintings, this workshop is for you. Each day we will look at concepts, tools, and techniques that will encourage students to create and rely on a personal rather than rule-based approach to composition, color, and the formal elements. Our workshop goal is to use subject matter as a jumping off place to create imaginative and personally expressive paintings.    

Here is the registration information:

March 27-29, 2019
Adding the You Factor to Paintings 2
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Contact: Debra Zamperla 

July18-20, 2019
Adding the You Factor to Paintings 2
Lowell, Michigan
Franciscan Life Process Center

Bye for now…..Donna

Are You Creative? How Creative are You? How Creative can You Get?

You’re always believing ahead of your evidence. What was the evidence that I could write a poem? I just believed it. The most creative thing in us is to believe. Robert Frost

When beginning a new painting I often ask myself, "how creative can I make it?"

Donna Zagotta, Avery Tracy

I’m really interested in how our unconscious beliefs, assumptions, and what we tell ourselves impacts our creativity. For years I told myself that I was not creative. And of course, I proved myself right. However, at one point, I decided to find out if my assumption was indeed true, so I did some research on creativity and what it means to be creative.

What I discovered changed my thinking, my attitude, and my self-image. It turns out that we are all innately creative and that we all have more creativity within us than we can ever use in a lifetime. 

Over and over again, I read that the major obstacle to feeling and being creative is our belief that we are not creative. And the best way to feel and to be more creative is to simply tell yourself that you are creative; to exchange the negative words, I’m not creative for the more powerful and positive words, I am creative. One researcher suggested that a good place to start is to look into the mirror each morning and tell yourself, I am creative. I was pretty skeptical that a lifetime of beliefs and assumptions concerning my creativity could be changed that easily, but I tried it anyway (and that was over 10 years ago). I am happy to report that it absolutely works! I began by telling myself that I am creative, which gradually led to my believing that I was creative (I was also bolstered by the research stating that most of us, because we believe that we aren’t creative, never get in touch with our creativity at all). Pretty soon I found myself acting “as if” I was creative, and eventually I saw myself feeling more and more creative. These days, I’m totally comfortable with the idea that I’m a pretty creative gal! 

Challenging my automatic beliefs and assumptions about myself and my creativity totally changed my life and my relationship to my painting. Often, at the start of a new painting, I’ll ask myself, “How creative can I make this?”

Bye for now…..Donna