Category Archives: Creativity and the Creative Process

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



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

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. If you feel similar about your art and don’t have a starting point, you could try going for something from as a first starting point and then grow from there. Finishing a project at all is a great boost. I know that 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!    

Staying the Course When Painting Gets Hard


 Donna Zagotta, The Optimist

It’s all a struggle. I don’t know what should be there until it gets there.”  Susan Rothenberg

Back in December I wrote about my intention to continue painting through the holidays. That commitment was especially important for me because I was just getting back to painting after a long hiatus. I started and completed a small painting, and I was quite pleased with it – mostly I was amazed that I still remembered how to paint at all!

With my confidence restored, I decided to really go for it and began a large painting.  And then, as Picasso pointed out, “One never knows………one starts a painting and then it becomes something quite different.” In my case what started out as a beauty gradually turned into a beast. I found myself at “the edge of the precipice” needing to make a decision: do I stay the course or do I abandon ship? Which for me translated into: should I keep painting, or should I stop painting and soothe my disappointment and frustration by immersing myself in the joys of the holiday season?  I reminded myself that I had been there before and that the only way out is through. I also knew that I would be more disappointed in myself if I quit than if I stayed the course and failed. I am happy to report that I stayed the course and in the end I was thrilled with the results. But it was one of those paintings where I struggled from day one and continued to struggle for the entire 6 weeks that I painted, re-painted, revised, wiped off, edited, and became totally entangled with my painting. What an exhilarating adventure! Easy for me to say now – it was not so easy when I was in the trenches and wrestling with it all. 

For various reasons, many of us unconsciously believe that painting is or always should be “fun.” Additionally, many of us also hold these beliefs: art shouldn’t be hard, art shouldn’t be a struggle, and art isn’t hard for “real artists” – and by “real artists” we usually mean everyone else but us. So, when we make the decision to commit ourselves whole-heartedly to our art, and then find ourselves experiencing pain, frustration, disappointment and angst mixed in with varying amounts of joy and pleasure as we engage in the painting process, we often conclude that something must be wrong with us. Or that we aren’t talented enough…….or creative enough…….or good enough…….or smart enough – you know the drill. When thoughts like these take over, it’s very hard to stay put and continue working on our work.  

Here are 5 tips for staying the course when painting gets hard:    

•Remind yourself that there is only one thing that can guarantee your failure, and that’s quitting.

•Get real. Don’t engage in magical thinking and convince yourself that painting isn’t or shouldn’t be hard work. 

•Learn to really say YES! to the hard work, frustration, disappointments, and failed efforts and other obstacles that you will encounter on your path to success. As Sir Winston Churchill said, Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.”

•Eliminate negative thinking by reframing your thoughts in a positive way. For example, rather than beating yourself up with the thought that painting shouldn’t be so hard, remind yourself that painting is necessarily hard and that mistakes and failure is part of the package if you want to keep growing as an artist.   

•Acknowledge and celebrate each time you stay the course instead of abandoning ship. 

How about you? What do you do to keep on going when the going gets tough? I’d really like to hear from you!

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!