Painting the Figure

Will Barnet, Great Grandmother

As a teacher, Will Barnet urged his students to consider the figure as a source of abstract inspiration, advising them not to copy the model, but to infuse the forms in their paintings with emotion through composition and the formal elements of design. His paintings reflected those aims as well. For example, in his painting Great Grandmother, he avoids naturalism, form modeling, and conventional perspective. He relied instead on flattened shapes, compressed space, and a pattern of light and dark shapes to structure his painting and make it come alive.       

As a figure painter, anatomy is very important to me. But painting anatomically correct figures isn’t. Like Will Barnet, I try to capture emotion and mood in my figure paintings. But regardless of subject matter, the excitement of seeing shapes, values, and colors come alive on the picture surface is the facet of painting that captivates me the most. 

To get the sense of aliveness that I’m after, here are some of the things I look for – both consciously and unconsciously when I put together my figure paintings………

Donna Zagotta, The Morning Commute

I begin with a search for an interesting “idea” to explore, and my ideas are usually found by closely observing the body language of the people I paint. I look for something that gives me a “been there, done that” feeling. Because I usually work from photos I’ve taken of strangers, that recognition factor tells me that very likely we’ve all “been there, done that”, and the feeling I’m experiencing is probably both personal and universal. The emotion or feeling that I’ve identified becomes the idea or concept for my painting. However, I keep everything loose and open until the very end and the painting is completed because my ideas and concepts very often evolve or change as I work on my paintings.   

Next comes the compositional stage. In numerous drawings and tracings, I translate my subject into flat, more or less stylized shapes. At this stage of the preliminary composition process, emphasizing or exaggerating body language, deciding on the figure’s size and placement on the picture surface, how much environment to include, and designing an exciting pattern of lights and darks are my most important considerations.  

And, finally, I play with color – sometimes in small preliminary studies, sometimes not. Either way, I find the colors for my paintings improvisationally, searching for the “right” hues, values, and intensities by putting colors down and responding. If I like what I see, the colors stay. If I don’t like what I see, I adjust, remove, repaint, or change them until I do. Along with color, I play with line, texture, and pattern to create a sense of rhythm and movement, working everything until I feel that my image is “sizzling” with emotion and feeling. This stage, along with the others I’ve just mentioned, may take many trial and error attempts over a long period of time before I deem my figure painting complete.    

Happy Painting!

Stage One of my Creative Process: Stalling

“Doubt is natural and healthy. It keeps us humble, but it needs to be partnered with strong affirming voices.”  Shaun McNiff

Lately I’ve noticed how beginning a new painting frequently brings up feelings of self-doubt and fear. Can I turn this subject into a satisfying painting? Do I have what it takes? Will it work or will I just be wasting my time? Because these questions can never be answered in advance, I often hesitate and start stalling.  My favorite stalling statics include shopping, reading, and spending time researching pet topics (happily, I can report that my stalling tactics rarely involve cleaning house!). 

I’ve noticed a few other things, too. Trying to resist doubt and fear doesn’t work, and trying to make them go away doesn’t work either. So, because stalling can lead to big-time procrastination and become a major obstacle to getting my work done, I’ve begun to anticipate that doubt and fear will definitely be showing up when I choose my next subject to paint. Rather than trying to resist or ignore them, I’ve decided to step out of the way, acknowledge their presence, accept them, and just let them be.  

Recently I had shelves installed on the wall across from my painting table so that I could display photos of some of my favorite completed paintings and paintings in progress. This has turned out to be a great source of support and encouragement when the inevitable happens and doubt and fear show up at my studio door. Now, when I start feeling anxious and want to abandon ship in favor of greener pastures, all I have to do is look up and I’m reminded that I’ve been there before and that these doubts and fears are natural and will probably always be stage one of my personal creative process. Looking at my wall of paintings instantly puts me in touch with the confident part of me who struggled, persisted, failed, recovered, and went on to create some paintings that I really do love. Of course, I have to actually be working at my painting table for all that to happen, and showing up and working on my work is the best way I know of to partner doubt and fear with self-confidence, because when I’m completely and passionately engaged with my painting, my paints, and the creative process itself, doubt and fear seem to disappear all on their own. 

Happy Painting!