Past the ugly stage: Gail Sibley, "Waiting for a Refill," Schminke pastels on UArt 500, 5 3/4 x 5 3/4 in

Working Through The Ugly Stage – Yes You Can!

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.

'Martini in Waiting' - the ugly stage
‘Martini in Waiting’ – the ugly stage
Pushed through the ugly stage: "Martini in Waiting," Terry Ludwig pastels on UArt 600 paper, 3 1/2 x 6 in
“Martini in Waiting,” Terry Ludwig pastels on UArt 600 paper, 3 1/2 x 6 in

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.

The ugly stage
The ugly stage
Gail Sibley, [untitled as yet], Schminke pastels on Wallis paper, 5 1/2 x 5 1/2 in
Gail Sibley, [untitled as yet], Schmincke pastels on Wallis paper, 5 1/2 x 5 1/2 in

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.

The ugly stage of "Waiting for a Refill"
The ugly stage of “Waiting for a Refill”
Past the ugly stage: Gail Sibley, "Waiting for a Refill," Schminke pastels on UArt 500, 5 3/4 x 5 3/4 in
Gail Sibley, “Waiting for a Refill,” Schmincke pastels on UArt 500, 5 3/4 x 5 3/4 in

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 right?

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.

The ugly stage
The ugly stage
Gail Sibley, [Untitled as yet], Mount Vision pastels on Pastel Premier paper, 8 x 8 in
Gail Sibley, [Untitled as yet], Mount Vision pastels on Pastel Premier paper, 8 x 8 in

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,

~ Gail

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14 thoughts on “Working Through The Ugly Stage – Yes You Can!”

  1. I agree absolutely about the existence of “ugly stages”….I get one with almost every pastel I do! I find these stages quite a hefty mental challenge (and they say painting is relaxing? gggrrrr!!) and it is true that you have to grit your teeth and push it on towards some kind of conclusion. However, every so often the ugly zone turns into something rather unexpected and that’s when nice surprises can come, as a reward. Interestingly, ones I’ve struggled with have sometimes sold, while other “easy-flow” pieces have not.

    1. Chris, thanks for sharing your own experiences with the ugly stage. And you are right about sometimes the unexpected can happen and lead you to somewhere rewarding. Interesting too how some of those paintings sell and it’s perhaps by allowing your artistic intuition to take the lead rather than the more rational side. Thanks again!

  2. Thank you so much for this post! I go thru this almost every time I paint and sometimes I get frazzled trying to make it better. I will try to remember that the ugly stage is a part of the process and force myself to slow down and think about what my final goal is for each piece. Hopefully that will help me continue on without overworking. Not every painting I make will be a masterpiece, not every painting is precious. For me, learning to be a better artist is all about experimentation. After all, it is just a piece of paper!

    1. Patty glad this post resonated with you. Yes, the ugly stage will almost always be there in varying degrees and I think accepting it will help you move through it. I’m happy to hear your words about becoming a better artist through experimentation. Certainly taking those experimental risks are what help us grow as artists. Thanks for chiming in 🙂

  3. Gail

    It’s taken me many years to get comfortable with the ugly stage and to calmly keep going knowing it will eventually get better – emerge into something better, if not always a terrific piece. I so enjoyed reading your blog and knowing other artists understand this stage.

    I wish someone had written this many years ago – it would have eased a lot of frustration !!!

    Nancy Quinn

    1. Nancy, I know what you mean about how long it takes to come to terms with the ugly stage and to be able to move past it. You put it beautifully! My hope is this post will help a lot of beginning artists, letting them know it’s all part of the process and doesn’t reflect on their ability as artist. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I love this article, I thought it was just me! When I think of all my ‘attempts’ that ended up in the bin I wish I’d known sooner. I shall try and be more patient in future. Thanks Gail

    1. I had to laugh when I read this Tina. I’m sure at some stage we all think “it’s just me!” Nope, it’s the process. Glad it will help you push through. Let us know when it happens!

  5. Great article! Sometimes that ugly stage stays ugly for me and then I put the painting aside for a while till I think I can resolve it or forget it!
    I am fascinated by the cumin glass painting ‘Waiting For A Refill’ and your process. All of the sudden the glass appears and that’s your magic!
    I’m enjoying participating in 31/31. Thanks for all of your encouragement and what a nice group of amazing and generous artists from all over the world!
    Sandi Graham

    1. Glad you liked the article Sandi. The main thing about the ugly stage is to know it’s coming and that it’s worth pushing through. However, as with your experience, sometimes it’s worthwhile walking away for awhile!

      Thanks for your comments about ‘Waiting for a Refill.” That’s why I like leaving all the highlights until the end – it’s like turning on the power once the Christmas tree is strung with lights. Pow – everything changes!

      So glad you’re participating in the 31 in 31 challenge. I too am delighted with the generosity, kindness, and fabulous style diversity of all the group members. And to think they come from all over the world. Pretty amazing time we live in!

  6. Hi Gail,
    I love this article. I have painted for many years and have never given it much thought until now. I want to share this idea with all my painting friends, pastelists as well as workers in other mediums, and tell them about your wonderful website. Do keep up the good work – I look forward to reading more of your experiences in the future.

    Kind Regards,

    1. Glenda thanks for your lovely comment. I am quite sure that ughy I-think-I’ll-give-up-now stage happens for all artists in all mediums! Thank you for sharing this post with your painting friends.
      I look forward to hearing from you again in the future 😉

  7. Ahh, I am re-reading your blogs. Y’day’s post of mine on the ‘how to pastel’ facebook group is because I am right at the ugly stage, with no idea where to go next. So I will set it aside to just look at it for awhile. Thanks.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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