The Ugly Painting Stage: What to do if you are not Michelangelo (Invisible Bravery Part 2) / by Vanessa Longacre-Wilcox

Figure 1: When things started to get ugly.

Figure 1: When things started to get ugly.

My husband comes upstairs from playing with the kids, "Did you see my ugly painting?" I ask. This is not a setup, though it sounds like one.  I've been pretty amused by how ugly it is, it has been something we have been joking about.  My husband pauses, surveys the land, “It’s not ugly, it’s just in-progress.”  He’s a supportive and smart man.  I do really swear this wasn’t a setup but I’m pretty sure he didn’t take the bait just in case.

It is true, it is in-progress but not even that voice in the back of my head is backing me up on this one.  The critical voice says, “What IS this thing anyway?”  And my usually empathetic voice is like, “Yeah, um, what is it exactly?  Is it a dragon fly? Is it a snail? Is that a HAM???”  (I start hearing Cookie Monster in my head as I am painting.*) Maybe it is all those things, I don’t really know.

I’m having a very difficult time with it.  I’m painting on a gesso board with oil paint, something that is supposed to be fine to do.  I keep checking the packaging material to make sure I haven’t misunderstood.   I haven’t, but can’t believe it.  I was warned by a helpful oil painter at the art supply store that the board would “soak it up” but I didn’t really comprehend what that would be like.  It’s a little like painting with honey.    

Figure  2 : Self-portrait, age 20. Abandoned in the ugly stage.    I look at it now and think, why didn’t I finish that?

Figure 2: Self-portrait, age 20. Abandoned in the ugly stage.  I look at it now and think, why didn’t I finish that?

It’s not just the paint that feels like it is dragging in honey.  It’s also my brain, my creativity, my focus. Maybe it's that this is a bonus painting I wasn't planning on doing.  Maybe it's that my original thoughts for it involved painting two thirds of it black and then I discovered I didn't have any black paint but I impatiently started anyway. Maybe it's allergies (I like to blame everything on the pear trees blooming this time of year.) 

I find myself consumed with basics, how do I get the color that I want applied in the thickness that I want?  How do I blend colors? How much oil thinner, how much lubricant?  I’m not really focusing on what I’m painting as much as how to physically do it because I’m having a heck of time getting it to do anything resembling what I want.  When I step back, that is very apparent.  It’s ugly. I want to scrap it.  If it were a piece of paper, it would be a goner.  But it is a 48 x 24 board on a wood frame.  It’s large and it was expensive.  I’m annoyed.

Many of my paintings go through an ugly phase and usually I’m okay with it.  I had to get over any fear about people seeing my paintings in these stages when I was working at The Mannequin Room.  I wouldn’t have been able to paint anything, standing up there in front of all those people if I had worried it had to look good the whole time.  Most of the time, I would know where I was going with the painting and I could see through where the painting was to where it was going to be and I’d power on.    

Figure  3 : Kids portrait I abandoned at the ugly stage.

Figure 3: Kids portrait I abandoned at the ugly stage.

Sometimes though, during the ugly painting stage, it is very tempting to give up.  Take this portrait I was trying to do for my mother-in-law for Christmas.  I was struggling.  The more that I painted, the worse it looked.  With the pressure of Christmas looming, I broke.  I couldn’t do it.  It was too hard.  I was never going to get it right.  When I look at the canvas now I have the reaction that my husband did, “That’s not ugly, it’s just not done.”  But his mother got some lovely framed photographs of the kids instead.  It was for the best.

Michelangelo is said to have said: “If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all.” I was actually inspired by his mastery when I saw that he said that.  I was inspired by his tenacity.    

I was reading about Michelangelo because I couldn't convince my 5 year old that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’s name is Donatello, not Don-DA-tello.  The debate led to many web searches.  Despite proving that Donatello, along with his fellow Mutant Turtles, was actually named after a real person, my son just looked at me and said, “Don-DA-tello.”    

Defeated, I went to close my laptop but the web page left open was about Michelangelo and I read on about the man.  According to the page, when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he hadn’t painted anything in 13 years and had never painted frescoes.  There are more than 300 painted figures on the ceiling.  He had to paint on curved surfaces and figure out how to correct the perspective so it would look right from below.  All while teaching himself an incredibly difficult medium that he had never used before. Basically, he was a total bad ass.  But not because he was such an amazing talent (which he obviously was) and it was effortless, but because of his dedication, and determination. (“Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo” 2015.)**

So even if you are Michelangelo, things still can be hard, creating great art is still going to be work.  If that is true for the greats, there really are no excuses for the rest of us.  We are not all going to be able to be a master artist but that doesn’t mean we can’t act like one.  Well, maybe not act like one, by many accounts Michelangelo was kind of a jerk.  But we can practice like one.  We can be dedicated like one.  We can not give up like one.

It was with this in mind that I considered this latest ugly painting again.  Every ounce of me wanted to quit the painting but in the spirit of Michelangelo and of learning, I didn’t give up, I decided to plan.

It’s ugly, it’s painful, and it is lost. So what do I do now? 

Figure 4: The part of the painting I found to build on. 

Figure 4: The part of the painting I found to build on. 

  • Step 1: Don’t phone it in and don't give up
    Once I decided I was going to finish it I had to fight the urge to just fill in all the blank parts of the canvas with whatever and call it done.  Part of what I was struggling with was that the painting wasn't fun to paint. The stickiness of the paint was frustrating to work with.  But by not giving up I began to understand how to manipulate it.  It wasn’t the blissed out painting experience of my last painting but at least if I wanted to make something blue, I could make it blue, damn it! 

  • Step 2: Focus on something I like
    To stop the chatter about the things that I didn't like or my fear that I’d never be able to “pull it off”, I had to look  for something that I liked, something to invest in, connect to, something I could build on. 

  • Step 3: Be brave and let my ego go
    My damn ego worrying if it was going to be good was like a pair of creative handcuffs.  It chained me to all sorts of preconceived ideas and choices I had already made.  The painting was taking on a child-like theme of various critters and I had judgments about that. I had to remind myself of the stakes.  Emotionally they felt very high but in reality, the worst that could happen was that I created an ugly painting.  That’s not really so bad, is it?  The simple act of saying that to myself helped me let go a little. It is okay for this painting to be whatever it may be.  It does not define me even if it is ugly (or even if it is good for that matter!)***   

As I went back to working on it I thought about my friend's five year old daughter and her reaction to my last painting. She told her mom that she saw a woman in it.  Thing is, I saw that woman too.  She appeared to me after the painting was finished.  Looking at the framework of this new painting, I saw a lot of things.  That was one of the problems with it.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know what it was, it was that it was too many things.  But I decided just to go for it even if it didn’t make sense.  If for no other reason than to give my friend’s daughter lots to find.

In the end, it is not ugly at all, it’s whimsical.  It’s a world where a dragon fly and a snail hang out, a lady bug the size of a bus says hello to a butterfly under the moonlight. A bird sings by the flora as a fish swims away, and I can’t help it, that still just totally looks like a ham.  Whimsical indeed.

Figure 5: Finished (but still drying) painting.

Figure 5: Finished (but still drying) painting.


* If you haven’t seen Sesame Street’s Kermit And Cookie Monster And The Mystery Box, it is worth watching, at any age.

** Esaak, S. (2015). The Sistine Chapel Ceiling by Michelangelo: 7 Common Questions about Michelangelo's Famous Frescoes Paintings. Retrieved from:

 “It took him a bit over four years, from July of 1508 to October of 1512. Michelangelo got off to a slow start, not having painted frescoes before. He intended to (and did) work in buon fresco, the most difficult method, and one which only true masters undertook. In addition to having to learn everything about the medium itself and making initial blunders in that area, he also had to learn some wickedly hard techniques in perspective. (Consider that his figures look "correct" on curved surfaces, viewed from nearly 60 feet below.)”

*** I am a big fan of the web site Humans of New York.  Recently they posted piece about a musician talking about being booed off stage and how liberating that was.  I loved that.  Failure as a form of liberation.  Really, what other choice is there?  

Here is the quote: “Fifteen years ago, I played at the Apollo and got booed off the stage. I’d never been booed before, so it took my ego down a notch. But it ended up being a good thing. Before that moment, I had been so afraid of looking stupid. I’d always been so worried about taking a wrong step that would damage my career or my image. So getting booed off stage was liberating in a way. It made me think: ‘Well, that’s the dumbest I’ll ever look. And I’m still here, I’m still healthy, and I can still make music.”

Stanton, B. Humans of New York. (2015, March 15). Retrieved from