Content in Painting

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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!

5 thoughts on “Content in Painting

  1. D Johnson

    I missed your postings, but checked every day. Wonderful surprise to read your thoughts on series work. As an amateur hooked on rendering and acquiring skills, I find it exhilarating to read the WHY of painting not the HOW. I read the books you refer to and see Kahn in a new interesting light. Thanks, D. Johnson

    Reply
    1. Donna Post author

      Thanks David, for your comment! The most exciting part of painting for me is the opportunity to express something personal rather than simply illustrate what a subject looks like. Keep on painting, keep on reading, and keep on searching for answers – and you will get there!

      Reply
  2. Casey Klahn

    I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I really appreciate that you’ve offered this inquiry. Lately, I have been finding the bloom in overworking the paper, and the discoveries are wonderful.

    Reply
  3. Dan Kent

    I start by sketching, then I paint ordinary colors – what I see. Then if I am lucky, something kicks in – a certain restlessness, impatience, and I start placing colors instinctively and that’s when it comes alive. I live for those moments.

    Reply
  4. nat

    I use to think, to be an artist one needed to see the final work before creating it. For me that idea kept me from doing much. I am not schooled except by my own creative journey. Art is like one’s own life, All I have is a vision and I do my best to create it. Serendipity, spontaneity are part of the purpose of art and life, allowing us to grow and find our uniqueness in a mass produced world . . . I love your work and this blog is probably the best I have ever come across. Thanks for the inspiration and insights.

    Reply

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