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!

12 thoughts on “Painting the Figure

  1. Caroline

    Timely as ever, Donna. I needed that gentle nudge to remind me that it’s the aliveness of the model that is important, not the mannequin I create when I go for likeness and accuracy! Now it’s back to life drawing for the body language, aka gesture and attitude, with a renewed energy and refreshed eye. Thanks, Caroline

  2. Donna Post author

    Hi Caroline,
    Thanks for your comment – I LOVE what you wrote – couldn’t have said it any better myself!

  3. Sue Craig

    I especially love The Morning Commute! I love how you compose a painting. Yours was the first workshop (about 20 years ago) since my degree in Art Education many years before. It gave me the freedom and direction I needed to continue in my own artwork! Thanks so much!

  4. Donna Post author

    Hi Sue – Great to hear from you! Thanks for your kind words……..and yes – I remember that workshop well because it was the very first workshop I ever taught.

  5. Jo

    I’m envious of Sue and others who’ve been able to take your workshops. I learn lots from your blog and your very excellent DVD.

  6. Donna Post author

    Hi Jo,
    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I see you live in Oregon – I’m jurying the NWWS show and teaching a workshop in Oregon next year. Maybe we’ll able to meet there – or maybe you’ll even be able to take that workshop!

  7. Peggy Stermer-Cox

    Hi Donna, You’re so generous to share your insights. Isn’t it fascinating how Mr. Barnett set up a stoic great grandmother by using a nearly symmetrical composition?

  8. Donna Post author

    Hi Peggy,
    What a great observation! I’m such a fan of assymetrical compositions that W.B’s composition looks “cutting edge” and very contemporary to me. Guess I’ll have to try some symmetry! Thanks so much for adding to the conversation!

  9. Darla

    I’ve loved your work for so long and sure do enjoy this blog and your knowledge that you share with others. Thank you Donna for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to post and share your work so generously with those of us who continue to grasp that little bit of encouragement. I just read an article of yours in one of my artist’s magazines that was great. Keep up the great work!


    1. Donna Post author

      Hi Darla,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad to hear that my writing offers inspiration and encouragement. That’s exactly why I do it!

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