Category Archives: Will Barnet

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!

Will Barnet’s Shapes

           “One painting can have over one hundred drawings for it.”   Will Barnet

Will Barnet, Mother and Child


Comments from Peggy and Diane on my last post about Will Barnet got me thinking about how deeply ingrained some things are within each of us. I was so envious when Peggy said that her dad showed her books of Russian Icons when she was a little girl and that those paintings continue to influence her current work. As a little girl, I believed that good drawing meant accurate drawing and coloring within the lines. Consequently it has taken me many years to get past that kind of thinking and to understand that a drawing doesn’t have to explain a subject, it can also be a spontaneous and imaginative response to a subject.  

These days my creative process still begins with an accurate drawing. That step satisfies the part of me that still holds the belief that a drawing’s quality depends largely on how accurately a subject is rendered. But then I go one step further and put a sheet of tracing paper over my initial drawing and work hard to stylize and personalize the shapes in that drawing. I keep doing tracing on top of tracing until I find the kind of creative and imaginative shapes that I’m looking for. Many tracings are usually generated before I feel ready to begin my painting.      

Will Barnet, Study for Mother and Child

One of the things that fascinated me about Will Barnet was discovering that in preparation for his painting, Mother and Child (a painting of his wife and daughter,shown above), he generated over a hundred drawings over the course of an entire year before he began his painting. In early drawings, he concentrated on abstracting the shapes of the figures into “angular components within a design.” In a second group of drawings, he eliminated much of the environment surrounding the figures and concentrated on softening shapes and finding more fluidity in the compositions. Later drawings in the series are so abstract that no longer do we recognize any reference to the two figures. And I was most fascinated to discover that these drawings were done on tracing paper! And, like me – he did tracing over tracing until he found the drawing that satisfied him (three of those tracings are shown above). I love discovering personal connections like this to my favorite artists!

Happy Painting!

Will Barnet, A Man of Ideas

“My figurative work is basically abstract in thinking.”    Will Barnet

Will Barnet

Will Barnet, one of my heroes and all-time favorite artists, passed away last November at the age of 101. 

A painter and teacher, he had a passion for composition, art history, and the anatomy of the picture surface. Believing that contemporary art should be linked with great paintings from various periods of art, he urged his students to see the abstract ideas that run throughout art history. 

I had my first encounter with Will Barnet’s stunning figure paintings many years ago. Before I had a computer and access to the Internet, I discovered his painting, Mother and Child, on the cover of a trade paperback. There was no indication of who the artist was, but the painting blew me away and became one of my favorites even though I didn’t know who painted it. 

Will Barnet, Mother and Child

In the late 1990’s, I made a decision to move away from descriptive realism and into the territory of more creative and expressive painting. Looking to redefine my artistic direction, I delved into Modernism and the art periods that came after -searching for inspiration, fresh ideas, and a new visual language. I came upon Mother and Child again, along with Will Barnet’s other paintings and writings, and discovered that he was a living, breathing American artist who was still working daily. 

Berlinghiero, Madonna and Child

Digging into his writings, I was amazed to find that it wasn’t the Modern School of Paris that influenced his abstract figure paintings like Mother and Child, it was pre-Rennaissance, Byzantine art. He said that paintings like Berlinghiero’s Madonna and Child, painted in 1228, taught him about the flat picture surface and what kind of language to use to put together a painting. He talked about the painting’s simplicity, pointing out that it is really a flat painting with no real modeling, no real attempt to create any illusion, and how the flat surface has its own space; it doesn’t come forward or fall back – the space is compressed. 

I had never been particularly attracted to pre-Renaissance or Renaissance art before, but reading Will Barnet’s words changed my thinking and my vision, helping me to understand how important it is to connect our work to art history and how much we can learn from our artistic ancestors. And his concepts of space, his idea of reinterpreting nature in painting terms, his idea that flat forms and their interactions can function as substitutes or equivalents for ideas and emotions, his idea of abstract thinking as a new visual language – were ideas that opened my eyes and helped me learn how to see subject matter and the flat picture surface in new and exciting ways. 

Will Barnet held that great art was simple, dignified, and profound. His art is all of that and more. And from everything I’ve read about him, I think I can safely say that the same thing can be said for the man himself. Although I never met him, I feel I know him through his beautiful paintings and because he so generously shared his thoughts, feelings, and ideas with the world. 

Happy Painting!