Have you ever had that experience when you look at what you’re working on and think, “Good grief this looks so awful [or something a bit stronger!] – I may as well quit now!”? I think we’ve all been there. This reaction usually happens at what I call the ugly stage.
So what do I actually mean by the ugly stage?
I think of the ugly stage as that point midway through the art-making process when you become dissatisfied with what you’re creating. It’s the phase where you’re working away and your frustration level is rising because it looks nothing like what you’re hoping for. Basically you feel your painting looks like rubbish.
It may look like nothing you’d want to put up on the wall but that’s probably because it’s far from being finished.
Although the ugly stage could be anywhere along the continuum of creation, it usually tends to be in the middle, somewhere after you’ve had the initial rush of starting and long before you get to fine-tuning. The ugly stage is a time when you haven’t even begun to review the piece for problems and hone in on possible resolutions.
I’ll post a few of images from the 31-pastels-in-31-days challenge showing both the ugly stage and then the approaching finished or finished stage.
The thing is, when we’re in the middle of painting a piece, we don’t know where we are on the continuum but our tendency is to believe we are much nearer the end than we actually are. And because of that, we tend to judge the appearance of what’s before us much more harshly than we should. We tend to evaluate it almost as a finished piece!
What we know is, in the present moment, we don’t like what we see. I mean we really don’t like what we see! So much so, we want to throw our hands in the air and walk away, or immediately wash the whole thing off and start again, or worst of all, take the damn thing and rip it to shreds! Our high expectations of what we hoped to achieve, dashed.
Years ago, I was in my studio working on a painting of a boat. “This is pathetic,” I thought and in one swoop, wiped a cloth over the pastel and lost the image. A couple of days later, I looked at the progression photos and was surprised to see the painting hadn’t been that bad. I had overreacted and quit rather than pushing through what I call the ugly stage.
You may be painting on location and someone will come by and you’re sure they’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh she sure doesn’t know what she’s doing,’ because at the same time (since you’re in the ugly stage) you’re thinking, ‘Oh my gosh I sure don’t know what I’m doing!’ At this point what you’re seeing is the boring and ugly part of construction – all boards and concrete and dust, and no beauty, finish, or polish. You’re tempted to quit because it’s not looking good and you believe there’s no hope for it. Or you don’t want to spend any more time, materials, or effort continuing to work on a piece that appears to be going nowhere. But know this – your painting is only in the middle of its journey.
This is the stage every painting goes through. It’s what you do when you get there that makes the difference.
When you’ve been painting for awhile (years in my case!), you recognize this phase, this ‘ugly stage,’ as a part of the painting process and you know how to handle it. You know to keep painting even though every fibre of your being is telling you it’s ridiculous to keep going because it looks like crap, and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.
Well I’m here to say, that’s not true! Sure sometimes you’re not going to end up with a wonderful painting but that’s beside the point because that’s not your drive as an artist right? O course we all want to end up with a perfect painting every time but we know that’s not going to happen. The point of painting is to learn, to nourish our creative selves, and to portray the world (outer or inner) as we see and feel it.
So what should you do when you feel the rush of frustration and anger that signifies you’re at the ugly stage? Rather than abandoning what you’ve started, accept your thoughts and carry on. Believe that the end is nowhere in sight, and there’s plenty you can do with the painting before it nears being finished.
Simple but not easy. It takes practice to keep going despite your negative self-talk but believe me, you won’t regret the decision to push through. It’s at the ugly stage that we have to trust that by continuing to work at this juncture, we’ll find our way to the finish.
I want you to take progress photos. Take one when you’ve got the first layer on, then another as the painting builds. Be sure to photograph your painting the moment you’d rather give up in angst and dissatisfaction than go on. One of the good things about taking progressive shots of your work is being able to look back. You’ll be able to see the early stage, then the ugly stage, and then see what happens when you push through. You’ll see where you might have stopped but then bravely kept going, and you’ll also see where the process of creation took you.
Creating is a process, and to create is to be brave.
If we don’t take the chance to push beyond the ugly stage, the stage where it feels futile to go any further, we’ll never evolve as artists. If we push and we go too far, we’ll build on that experience, but if we never push and take the risk of moving forward, of continuing to work through the ugly stage, we’ll never know how much better our painting could be. If it doesn’t work out that’s fine because it’s through these trials and errors that we grow.
The ugly stage is rarely a happy place but once you recognize that this phase is simply part of the creative process, you’ll be liberated. You’ll push through and see where the journey takes you. Believe me, wondrous things can happen!
Until next time,