Category Archives: Combining Realism with Abstraction

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



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!

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!

Nathan Oliveira

“Visual art is a vehicle for creating worlds that are non-existent.”       Nathan Oliveira

Nathan Oliveira


I recently learned that one of my favorite contemporary artists, Nathan Oliveira, passed away in November. I was first drawn to Oliveira’s work because he is often associated with the Bay Area Figurative Painters, an art movement that has greatly impacted my work and thinking. Oliveira attended the California College of Arts and Crafts at the same time that David Park, Elmer Bishoff, and Richard Diebenkorn were teaching at the California School of Fine arts in San Francisco. At that time, Abstract Expressionism was the prevailing art movement and Park, Bishoff, and Diebenkorn were respected abstract expressionist painters. But in 1950, David Park painted Rehearsal, a representational painting of members of the school’s jazz band. Both Park and Bishoff had come to feel that abstraction had become formulaic and little more than “paint for paint’s sake.” Diebenkorn also began to question his own abstract style and slowly moved to more realistic landscapes and figure paintings. Thus began an art movement called the Bay Area Figurative Painters.

Oliveira was pleased when he was asked to join Park, Bishoff, Diebenkorn and other Bay Area artists who met regularly to draw from the model. However, he soon realized that his response to the model differed greatly from the rest of the group. For Diebenkorn, the figure primarily functioned as a jumping off place to focus on his chief concerns, which were light, space and color. Indeed, the Bay Area Figurative Painters as a whole were indebted to Impressionism in the way they organized their compositions and in their use of light. But light and Impressionism were not Oliveira’s agenda. His was a more emotional and sensual response to the model. Oliveira said, “Figures must have their own light, it wasn’t light that struck the figure in a certain way – the light itself, the luminosity – was in the figure. It emanated from the paint itself.”  He left the drawing group after a short period of time and never considered himself to part of the Bay Area Figurative Painters.    

Nathan Oliveria, Standing Figure 1

Oliveira found that he had stronger ties to European painters like Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, Jean Dubuffet, Edvard Munch, and Max Beckman. He earnestly studied Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings of lonely and tormented figures. All of these artists, with their existential view of human beings – “battered, tragic, but enduring” – became his model. He also had the opportunity to study with Max Beckman, whose paintings he admired for their drama, weight and emotional substance. He marveled at Beckman’s ability to transform a three-dimensional figure into a two-dimensional form that exists in two-dimensional space. From Beckman Oliveira also learned about the power of black. 
Oliveira’s search was for an expressive relationship between form and space which he eventually found in his signature paintings of solitary and isolated figures bound to their abstracted environment by his unique brushstokes. 
For me, Nathan Oliveira, Richard Diebenkorn, and certain other Bay Area Figurative Painters represent a vision, an image and a language I’ m searching for. Things like:
The joy of working and reworking the picture surface with many layers of paint where each new layer is infused with and colored by previous layers.
The joy of painting variations on a theme. Oliveira painted endless variations on the theme of a single figure in an abstract space, saying, “Each painting took me to a different place.” 
The power of pure black paint.
The power of dramatization.
The expression of melancholy, longing, solitude, contemplation and mystery.
The search for a unique personal vision and language.
Combining a recognizable figure with abstract surroundings.
The use of the figure as a jumping off place for personal discovery and working out formal painting issues.
“Every artist deals with his own sense of reality; this reality is for him to determine, and involves a broad and varied range of expressive symbols. The image of the human figure is the vehicle with which I can most positively relate. My concern for the figure is a formal one, growing out of the problems of painting itself. The implications are unconscious, for I have no desire to illustrate stories.”   Nathan Oliveira
To learn more about Nathan Oliveira and his work, I recommend the book Nathan Oliveira by Peter Selz.
Happy Painting!