Category Archives: Creativity and the Creative Process

Content in Painting

“While working, it is helpful not to be all that smart.”    Wolf Kahn

Donna Zagotta, Looking Back Series

“In order to realize our creative powers, we have to believe that we have the ability to make something significant. As I reflect on this attitude, I realize that I am not really talking about self-confidence. I am describing a commitment to “the process” and its ability to generate worthwhile results. I learn over and over again that the creative process is an intelligence that knows where it has to go. Somehow it always finds the way to the place where I need to be, and it is always a destination that never could have been known by me in advance.”   Shaun McNiff  

In his book on pastels, Wolf Kahn talks about using trees reaching up to the sky as symbols of aspiration. He describes his thoughts on this idea using his paintings as an example – but then he says, “These are after the fact readings; had I thought of it at the time I made the pictures, it might have ruined the whole enterprise. While working it is helpful not to be all that smart.”

I had a similar experience while working on a series of paintings I did based on a photo I took of a gal sitting at an outdoor cafe on California’s Catalina Island. The series came to symbolize so many things for me – from my love for Catalina Island to my love of trying to read a person’s body language. As the series grew however, it became more and more autobiographical – it became a meditation on my life. Through it I was “Looking Back” (the title of the series) on my life and my art. The last painting in the series to date, Shattered, was painted right after my mom passed away and perfectly expressed my feelings at the time. 

Looking back on my Looking Back Series (sorry, couldn’t resist!) , I know that if I had insisted on the specific “content” I had determined in advance for each of these paintings, I never would have discovered the deeper, more personal meaning that this subject/figure/pose/body language held for me. By allowing myself to trust the process and to dig deeper into my inquiry of my subject, I found what I was looking for when I first viewed my subject. And, to repeat Wolf Kahn’s brilliant observation, “These are after the fact readings; had I thought of it at the time, it might have ruined the whole enterprise.”   

When I thought about it, I realized that this has happened to me many times. While I may start out with my “content” identified – the story I want to tell in my painting – I often end up in a totally different place with a totally different story.  I’m learning that that’s a very good thing!

Happy Painting!