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…..

11 thoughts on “How I Approach my Figure Paintings

  1. Janet Werdin

    Very interesting approach, I would enjoy seeing more of the steps, perhaps a picture of your watercolor under painting. I love the way ;you continue to stretch yourself. It’s a good lesson for all of us.

  2. Mercia du Plessid

    Thank you for the information of using abstraction in figurative painting. It removes the stiffiness of the painting and creating more flow.

    1. Donna Post author

      That really is a great insight. Approaching realistic paintings from the abstract end of the scale is a great way to loosen up. Thanks for commenting!

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