The "Ugly Stage"

process seedling

When creating a piece of art, there’s often an “ugly stage” where it hasn’t all come together yet and it doesn’t make sense as a whole. I feel like I get this a lot when I’m painting and haven’t gotten to the detail or shading that really makes it, especially in a portrait where this stage can look particularly horrifying.

I often feel some panic in the ugly stage that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew, that the current state is proof that I don’t have the skills to pull off what I had planned. I get the urge to give up and do something else, maybe something easier and more predictable. Sometimes I do abandon the piece and move on.

But I’ve learned that in general, the best thing to do is to push through the ugly stage. It’s uncomfortable and you have to have a fair bit of faith in yourself, and not fear the potential for failure if it never makes it through. Most of the time though, I find the challenging pieces that I’m despairing in and tempted to stop wind up being the ones I’m most proud of. The discomfort was a necessary part of the process that needed to be worked through to reach the destination.

I’m trying to embrace the messy, ugly, not-ready-to-show parts of life and learn to identify when something is a good discomfort that can be worked through, versus a signal that something isn’t quite right.

Some more random thoughts to get into order later:

  • You can’t just skip the ugly stage (or at least, I’ve never been able to). With increased skill you might be able to minimise it, but it’s a necessary part of the creative process. Better to just accept it as inevitable and keep going.
  • Work in the ugly stage can be shared, but with caution. Anyone who is asked to (or might decide to) give feedback should be made aware of its incomplete state so they can take it into account. It’s a fragile state where a too-critical comment might cause you to lose faith in yourself and abandon it. The early stages before the ugly stage, or later as things are starting to come together, are usually better points to ask for feedback to avoid your ego being crushed.
  • Because of the above reason, you don’t often get to see the ugly stage of other people’s work. This might lead you to believe that it doesn’t happen for them, but it’s more likely that you just don’t get to see it.