Category Archives: Choosing Subject Matter

Painting the Figure

Will-Barnet-Great-Grandmother

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………

Zagotta, The Morning Commute large

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!