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Embrace The Ugly

During an afternoon last summer I felt my heart stutter when I discovered my puppy, Moxie, had disappeared from the backyard.

She’d only been outside for a few minutes, yet when I called, there was no fluffy little body sprinting up the grass towards me. I called again, and again, getting progressively anxious as the minutes slipped by and she didn’t appear. My brain started imagining all the terrible endings she could have discovered. My long strides turned into a partial run as I checked gates and called her name with increasing pitch.

Minutes later she came careening up the driveway from the tree-line, grinning, panting and far too satisfied with herself.

I was so relieved my girl was in once piece that I scooped her up and hugged her tightly...only to gag and put her down. She smelled like death. She stank so badly that it felt like my insides were trying to escape out my mouth and sprint far away.

Dry heaving, I ended up bathing her on the back deck with the garden hose, much to her displeasure. We’ll call it just punishment.

My dog Moxie, out for a sunset stroll
Moxie at sunset

Now, what does this have to do with painting?

That whole ordeal, the increasing worry to the eventual slap of revulsion, is akin to being confronted by the ugly, early stages of a project.

If there’s one thing I suffer from as an artist, it’s persevering once being met with how vile an unfinished painting can look.

Like a sudden, putrid smell, you sit back from your easel and take in the sights, amazed at how your vision has so quickly descended into shit. Or, in Moxie's case, rolled in something that died a while ago.

Logically, I understand that this is just the way things go. Every time I trust the process, have faith in my abilities and embrace the ugly, I slowly coax beauty out of the misshapen horror in front of me.

I know this.

Yet I still struggle.

I often put paintings on “time outs”

For instance, a few months ago I was in the process of completing the second set of four of my 12-part cocktail series and tried my hand at a rendering a cork trivet that a glass sits on.

It looked like a protein cookie. And not a tasty one.

Cork is really hard to paint.

So, the Negroni cocktail painting was put on a time out.

After some time passed and I built back up my confidence by finishing a different cocktail painting, I went back to the Negroni and overcame the technique challenge that was making everything look so damn hideous.

Good-bye protein cookie, hello cork trivet.

On the left is the version of the Negroni painting with the unfinished, "ugly" trivet that resembled a protein cookie, on the right is the completed paining, no protein cookie in sight :)
Negroni before and after

I find I encounter less hurdles in projects when I can hang onto a strong vision and hope for the outcome, yet also enjoy the actual making of the piece. For the most part the cocktail series and the first painting of my "big fruit" series (working title, haha) Cherries, fall into that category.

I’m ebullient with anticipation for the completion of the big fruit series, so much so that when working on those projects I can flail forward, painting through my doubts and inner critiques without getting very caught up on the ugliness of the early stages.

Sometimes our hands and present skills can’t compete with the unflawed artistry of our dreams.

When it comes to projects I’m less consumed with, like the odd commission or old school assignment, the work can really drag its feet. I’ll avoid a project for stretches of time and it’ll skulk in the corner of my studio, or crouch defiantly on my easel, sneering at me, magnificent in its ugliness.

With more regularity, I confront myself with my cowardice, or I’m struck by a manic-level productive energy and, nearly on autopilot, I’ll put myself through my pre-painting routine. Paint-water dish, human-water glass (important they don’t resemble each other), brushes readied, easel adjusted, time-lapse tripod set up, umbrella light on, maybe get a snack, mix paints or unveil them from within a stay-wet palette...and then I dive in.

Embracing ugliness, hoping for majesty

I believe that this is a burden creatives have to bear.

When we persevere past the disheartening moments, secure ourselves with the knowledge that we have a track record of complete tasks and a history of beauty and success on divergent scales, when we embrace the ugly, we get to watch something dubious turn into something marvellous.

On the left, the "ugly" unfinished version of the completed painting, Cows In A Field, on the right
Cows In A Field (working title) before and after

Sometimes what was supposed to be a masterpiece instead becomes a lesson.

In those times we get to embrace the ugly, and maybe even be a little thankful to it, for teaching us something. We all have to make ugly art in order to make okay art, to then make good art, to eventually make great art.

Whether the ugly art stays or goes, we get something out of it.

Additionally, there’s a perverse pleasure in ripping unsalvageable canvas from a frame to re-use it, or in covering over a failed piece.

It might feel like a step backwards when you’re staring at a piece and recognizing that it’s not working. That it actually stinks, perhaps like death, and your insides are screaming at you to flee. But the ugly is a good thing. I’ll continue to tell myself that because from some of my most hideous pieces I’ve made successful work, or pulled a new technique away from the trying.

You don’t have to see a masterpiece on your easel to benefit from its bones.

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