Category Archives: Figure Painting

How I Approach my Figure Paintings

Donna Zagotta Paintings

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer

 “The more abstract the painting, the more the painting becomes about the artist who painted it rather than the subject that inspired it.”

In my current figure work I’ve been experimenting with new ideas for adding more abstraction and personal voice to my paintings. My intention is not to accurately render the figure, but to use it as a jumping off place for expressing my inner responses –  both emotional and intellectual – and for experimenting with arbitrary environments that emphasize flat shapes and patterns, color and value relationships, personal mark making, random lines and textures, and expressive brushwork.

Each new painting is a new journey of self-discovery and a search for new and creative ways to use the formal elements of design. My approach is a combination of intellect, curiosity, and improvisation. Currently I’m working from photo references taken in modeling sessions with my granddaughter, Amelia. I usually begin by brainstorming for ideas in Photoshop, which immediately helps me see the photo in terms of patterns, values, shapes and other creative possibilities. In the past I’ve had a hard time getting beyond the “realness” of my subject matter and being able see my subject abstractly at the very beginning of my painting process has proven to be a real benefit. 

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer, drawing of the pattern of lights and darks

My next step is to do a simplified drawing that focuses on compositional issues such as figure placement and value relationships. If I feel that I need more information about the figure’s gesture and body language or to see the shapes of the features and/or how they are placed, I’ll do additional drawings to gather that information. In order to feel free to stylize, abstract, and experiment in my painting, I need to be thoroughly familiar with the figure before I begin painting. I learned that lesson the hard way!  The times when I was in a hurry and skipped the intellectual, information gathering part usually resulted in a tight and realistic painting rather than the creative and expressive one I had in mind.     

Next, I do a small (8×8) color study to work out the painting’s colors, intensity range, and value key. This is the place where I feel I can totally let loose and improvise and experiment. I freely, spontaneously, and fearlessly apply colors, marks, lines, and brushstrokes and respond. If I like what I see it stays, if I don’t, I keep adjusting everything until I’m excited with what I’m seeing. I’m searching for a creative and poetic expression, a personal connection to the figure’s body language, and a painting that comes alive with mood and feeling.   

Donna Zagotta, Picasso Summer, underpainting in transparent watercolor

I begin the final painting with a transparent watercolor underpainting of arbitrary full intensity colors mixed from three or four transparent staining primaries. I started this practice in order to approach my paintings looser and more abstractly. It’s really hard to create a traditional realistic figure painting over those wild and bright colors! The underpainting also reinforces my abstract and expressive intentions for my painting. Once the underpainting is dry, I use my small study to guide me in placing and painting the big relationships of color and value. I paint layer after layer of thin and/or thick “catawampus” brushstrokes of opaque paint mixtures of watercolor and gouache with the goal of further emphasizing the poetry, personal connection and mood I responded to in my color study.

How do I know my painting is done? When I love it!

Bye for now…..


Donna Zagotta, Susie’s World

In today’s post I thought I’d demonstrate my approach to painting a figure in opaque watercolor.  

While anatomy is important to me, drawing and painting anatomically correct figures isn’t. In my paintings, I’m much more interested in realizing these two intentions: 1). Going beyond the obviousness of a subject to create a world that is at once both personal and universal, and 2). Creating a rich picture surface that is alive with emotion and enchantment. My subject is the jumping off place for achieving my two intentions.  

Working from a photo I took in Hawaii, I began with observation, aiming to understand the figures, their gestures, and their body language. Then I looked for the natural abstraction present in the subject, working hard to see everything as simple masses of shapes and values.

In putting together my compositions, my aim is to put together a design that consists of a few large interlocking masses of light and dark. That design provides the abstract structure for my painting. The composition process begins the moment I choose my subject, and doesn’t end until I place the last brushstroke on my painting.

Because I like to let everything unfold in an intuitive, spontaneous, improvisational way in my paintings, my medium of choice is opaque watercolor (watercolor combined with gouache), which allows me to change my mind, make corrections, and try out any ideas that occur to me in the process of painting without worrying about ruining my picture surface.

Here are some process photos for my painting, Susie’s World:

Happy Painting!


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!