Pushing through the Ugly Phase

Pushing through the Ugly Phase

As an artwork progresses, it reaches a strange stage where it is starts to look like something - hopefully what you’re intending it to look like - but it’s just not there yet. In fact, it resembles a pretty unattractive (oxymoron intended) version of something-that-you’re-hopefully-intending-it-to-look-like…

This is called the Ugly Phase. A dreaded phenomenon, abhorred by all, since it has the potential to put you off creating art forever…

Cue a whole slew of self-deprecating thoughts:

I can’t paint/draw!
I’m a failure!
It looks like a toddler painted this!
What was I thinking?
I should just give up!
My 90-year-old, arthritic grandma could do better!

My personal favourites (YES - I hear that little voice too!)?

Holy smokes, I’ve lost my abilities!!!
How dare I call myself an artist?!

The truth is, this is a temporary phase. If you stick it out just a little longer - adding depth and details and ignoring that mean, deranged little voice in your head - The Ugly Phase will end, giving rise to a new one: The Phase of Infinite Possibilities! (Yesss, nice and dramatic! Feel free to add an angelic chorus of “aaaaaaaaaaah!” in your imagination…)

The other truth (and this is a sad one) is that many hopeful artists don’t ever push through the Ugly Phase. We give in to our inner-critic and abandon our creative endeavours.

It’s actually kind of ironic — most new challenges in life have an Ugly Phase, and we manage to get through it. Think about when you learnt to ride a bicycle, or learnt how to swim. Walk and talk, for goodness sake! We fell, near-drowned, stumbled over our words… Even as adults, we didn’t just waltz into things like tertiary education or a new job and could just… magically do it well straight away! There is always, always a learning curve (training wheels included!) which most often includes a bunch of ugly failures.

So why does the Ugly Phase get us down while producing art?

My theory is that the tangibility of it makes all the difference: The actual painting/drawing, sitting right there in front of you, is too hard to take. When we fell off our bikes as kids, a collection of snapshots didn’t magically appear to mark the traumatic occasion. We experienced the failure without the evidence, while your “failed” artwork continues to mock you in hard-core black and white!

Now, when it comes to my favourite medium, watercolour, the Ugly Phase tends to last quite a bit longer than other mediums. This is because watercolour is a evil, pernickety temptress…

It is a transparent medium, so you cannot cover up mistakes. In fact, every layer that you apply influences the final artwork. Oh, and don’t forget that every time you touch your brush to the painting surface, the paint that has already dried comes back to life (yes, like a zombie). Fiddle too much, and you risk turning the paper to mulch, but add too little time, effort and layers, and you don’t get past the Ugly Phase.

That being said, everything that makes watercolour an evil, pernickety temptress, is also what makes it such a vibrant medium. Its fluidity adds a sense of movement and playfulness. Its translucency allows one to create layered tones that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

Yup, I do have a stormy, love-hate relationship with this incredibly versatile medium… And its awkward Ugly Phase still gets me every time!

So here’s my advice on how to push through the Ugly Phase (and I think this can be applied to much more than just painting!):

  1. I allow myself a moment to have a little breakdown (because our feelings are valid, even when they’re not logical).
  2. Make a strong cup of tea.
  3. Share that tea with my artwork.
    That’s exactly what it sounds like: I sit down opposite my easel (a little further away than I would when painting, to gain a little perspective and to avoid the temptation of ripping the painting to shreds…!), and drink my tea while comparing my artwork to the reference photo that I’m working from.
  4. Then I ask myself: Is it really ruined/crappy, or is it just not actually finished yet?
    Where am I missing shadows, highlights, colour tones, details? A great tip is to actually turn your artwork and reference photo upside-down. This helps us to stop looking at the subject as a subject, but rather just a random bunch of shapes and colours. Remember that we have a whole bunch of preconceived notions about what things should look like. And this can actually hinder us when we’re trying to replicate something. If if it's just a thingy that you're trying to paint/draw, and no longer a tree/house/cat/person, it is much, MUCH easier to see where you need to make adjustments and improvements.
  5. Push forward.

  6. Repeat steps 1-5 as many times as needed……….. ;)

before and after watercolor progress 001

Look what a difference more time and layering made to this African Wildcat! Working in small sections helps me to push forward too - it's less overwhelming than dealing with an entire artwork that is all Ugly Phase all at once!

before and after watercolor progress 002

On the left, my meerkat painting entitled "Lookout" in its Ugly Phase, compared to the near-completed meerkat on the right.

before and after watercolor progress 003

On the left: All the right shapes and colours are there. but with deepened shadows, added highlights and a lot of details, this hippopotamus watercolour painting has come alive!

Visit my online store to see the full range of super-realistic, fine art wildlife prints.

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1 comment

Morning dear Skattie.. I’m absolutely devastated about news of your fall…EINAH..
It all sounds horrific..please, please just take things easy..rest lots, heal and get better.
Sending much love and warm hugs your way. X X

Lynn Forbes

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