Interview with Artist Donna Zagotta

by Paint Tube 8 Minutes

Interview with Artist Donna Zagotta

Donna Zagotta (The You Factor: Powerful, Personal Design in Opaque Watercolor) has been active professionally for over 25 years. Her paintings have been exhibited internationally and across the USA. She has accumulated numerous awards and her work appears in many publications. In 1990 the University of Michigan School of Art invited Donna to create and teach a 400 Level summer watercolor course. This first experience with teaching art ignited a strong passion for teaching that put Donna on a new and unexpected life path teaching watercolor workshops nationally and abroad.


What does the human form give you as a painter?

I love using figures because they can be interpreted and expressed in so many creative and interesting ways. But no matter what my subject, I use it only as a jumping off place - a starting point - to express myself in my work.   


How do you use drawing in your process? What importance is it to your process? Why? 

I often do a number of preliminary drawings to help me understand what’s going on with the figure, how it’s constructed, etc. However, because my intention is never to paint a portrait, my challenge is going further with my investigation of a figure by seeing beyond its distracting details and descriptive elements in order to express or create a story using the figure’s body language and gesture. 


Walk us through your process

My process has always been a mix of deliberation, improvisation, and experimentation. I focus on color and value, composition, abstract shapes, mark-making, pattern, and painterly brushwork with the intention of transforming my subject into an expressive and creative visual statement that’s more about me than it is about the subject that inspired it.

I find that my creative process is always in flux. I seem to be forever searching for a truer, clearer, more creative, and more authentic way to express myself. The more I paint and the more I learn and grow as an artist and as a woman, the more my work wants to change. Currently, I’m working on letting go of a good amount of the deliberation, exchanging it with the notion of letting things happen more spontaneously on the picture surface - letting the paintings develop more organically in the directions they (not me) want to take. For more than 20 years I’ve been teaching a workshop titled, Adding the YOU factor to Paintings, and I find that I’m still on that journey – still searching for my own vision and my own visual language.   


Why is planning important? What does it give you in the painting process that you would not have without it?

For me, advance planning means mentally organizing my creative process for the painting I’m about to do. I like to decide on the size of the figure and its placement on the picture surface, the size and shape of that picture surface, the color palette and working palette I’ll use, along with choosing the other media and tools I’ll use if I’m planning to work in a mixed media approach. Basically, my plan is a plan to get started. Once I begin painting I allow myself the freedom to make changes at any stage. I use my intuition to guide me as I put down paint or marks and respond to what shows up in the painting and what the painting needs next.  



You work from reference photos. What do you need from a reference? What don’t you need?

What I look for in a reference photo is an interesting pose, gesture, and body language. When I painted multiple figures, I also looked for appealing environments in terms of shapes, values, and colors that I could interpret semi-abstractly to create attractive and engaging backgrounds. 

In my current series (shown here), I paint a single figure and work from reference photos of my granddaughter. Again, I don’t want to paint a portrait of Amelia, I use the photos as a jumping off place to achieve my real goal which is finding and expressing my vision and my own stories and my own visual language. The content of these paintings relates to my family history and the memories, events, and experiences I’ve had in my life as an artist, wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother. 


How do you decide the mood you want for a piece and then how do you go about trying to capture that?

Currently I’m using the same limited color palette and working palette in all my paintings. The palette is soft and warm, but because I’m contrasting rich blacks with all that softness, I’m not sure what kind of mood comes across to the viewer. Maybe I’d call it a mysterious and enigmatic mood, which actually is a good representation of how I view my life!       


How conscious are you of color going into a piece? What decisions have you made about color before you start? What may change color wise, if anything, while the painting develops?

As I mentioned, in my current work I’m using a limited color palette and working palette that was chosen in advance for the whole series. Before that, I used an improvisational approach for finding the colors in my paintings. I would put random colors down and adjust them by adding more colors to the mix until I found something I liked. When I did, I related the rest of the colors in the painting to those initial colors and to each other. I never really knew the colors that would be in a painting until it was finished. It is a fun and exhilarating approach, especially because I’m working with watercolor and gouache. However, painting with that kind of wild and crazy approach can lead directly to mud. It certainly challenged me to invent creative ways to avoid making too much mud!  

A few years ago I decided to find out what kind of color palettes I would use in my paintings if I determined them in advance. Because I don’t have favorite colors (I love them all!), I was intrigued to see how I would come up with those color palettes. I researched by looking at a lot of paintings, books, and online resources, searching for color combinations that spoke to me.

Eventually I began to see a commonality in the colors that appealed to me the most. I was surprised to find that over and over again I was drawn to dominantly mid-value and light muted colors because they felt elegant and sophisticated to me. I also discovered that I love white (the absence of color) and black (all the colors in the spectrum mixed together). In the past, the majority of my paintings were fairly bright and dark so I began to rethink my approach to color. I realized that I needed to make conscious choices about the colors I put in my paintings if I wanted them to authentically express who I am in the present.  



How has your use of design evolved as you’ve become a more skilled painter?

I have been passionate about composition and the design elements and principles for many years. Long before I was able to work effectively with them, I knew intuitively that they were the keys to creating successful works of art. Because I love them, I’ve gathered loads of information on composition and the design elements and principles over the years. 

However, putting what I know into practice has always been a challenge. Working with subject matter, I use composition and the design elements and principles to structure my representational images. Learning new skills and exploring new approaches to painting and design gets me excited to grow and expand my art and I’m finding that the more my art grows and expands, the more abstract my imagery is becoming.  


When a painting isn’t working, what questions do you ask yourself?

Does it feel balanced?

Is there a unifying element that holds the whole composition together?

Does the eye move around the painting?

Are the shapes all the same size or the same kind?

Are the values too much alike? 

Does it need more contrast?

Does it need less contrast and more similarity?

Do the colors play well together? Are they too bright or too dull?

Does it look finished? Is there anything I should do or change in order to call it finished? 

Do I love it? If not, what could I do that would make me love it? If I love it, can I love it more? 



What’s the biggest challenge you see students facing with gouache? Any Advice?

I think the biggest challenge artists have with gouache is the same challenge artists have with watercolor - controlling the water/pigment ratio. What gets us into trouble with both mediums is adding too much water to the paint. Artists coming to gouache with a watercolor background are used to adding a lot of water to their pigments to move the paint around on the picture surface. Like transparent watercolor, gouache is a water soluble medium. 

Unlike transparent watercolor, it’s an opaque water soluble medium. A wet brushstroke on top of or touching wet paint surrounding it will lift, mix together, and create another color. Too much of that kind of mixing (overmixing) can create dull and muddy colors, especially if a lot of water is in the mixture. The more water that’s added to gouache, the more the pigments will mix together. 

Leaving the layers dry before adding more paint helps keep the colors fresher. However, sometimes it’s preferable to use this kind of wet-in-wet approach with gouache, where you mix up colors on your palette and let them mix with the other colors already down in the painting. If handled carefully and consciously, that approach can create beautifully related color passages in the painting that couldn’t have been gotten any other way.

In addition to the wet-in wet approach, I also use an opaque approach and a thicker application of paint. Using color right out of the tube, I add only enough water to make the paint move around on the picture surface. I add white gouache or a light valued gouache tube color to watercolor pigments and mix them on my working palette into a thick-ish consistency - somewhat like sour cream and often as thick as heavy body acrylics or oils - so that I can use acrylic and oil painting techniques. 

Another approach I use is to start with a bright multi-color underpainting in transparent watercolor. I let it dry and then paint over it with thickly applied opaques, using acrylic and oil painting techniques. With this method I make a concerted effort to lift up some of the watercolor underpainting below and allow it to mix in with the opaque top layer. Interesting and surprising color patches will result that couldn’t have been gotten any other way. 

Again, the primary key to painting effectively with gouache (and transparent watercolor) is controlling the amount of water in the mixtures. Deciding in advance whether you want a thin or thick application of paint in your painting is also helpful. 

As it is with every medium, it takes practice to be successful with gouache and opaque painting with water soluble mediums. For me, the beautiful muted and velvety picture surface of an opaque watercolor and gouache painting is well worth the effort.