The Ugly Stage: every painting has one. I watch students struggle with this part of the painting process, as they grimace at their work and debate whether the trash bin would be a more appropriate place for their half-finished work. I’ll tell you a secret – every one of my paintings goes through the Ugly Stage too.
This is the point of the painting process where the canvas is mostly covered in paint. It’s been worked on, so it looks like a painting, but details haven’t been added yet. More importantly, the parts of the painting that will really make it come together haven’t been added yet. In addition, there are probably decisions to resolve design problems, which an artist has to make on any artwork, that still need to be made. Usually, the artist hits the Ugly Stage wall when a particularly challenging decision needs to be made. The uncertainty of how to take the painting to completion causes the artist to either overwork the area in question or to throw the brush down in frustration.
This is all normal. Breathe.
Put the painting away for a while. Work on something else.
In time, pick up the painting again. With fresh eyes and perhaps a bit more experience, try to work through the problems you were having.
Most importantly, try to make yourself work through these Ugly Stage walls, because in any case, you will learn something from the challenge.
A few months ago, I visited the Art Institute of Chicago with a few fellow artists to view a medieval art exhibition there. We all brought our sketchbooks and wandered around the hall looking for subjects to sketch. I sat down on the floor and sketched the model of knight and armored horse for the next two hours.
Finding unusual places to sketch, such as museums, may offer you a chance to draw unusual and complex subjects. The foreshortening, the angle, and the costuming all presented challenges that had to be solved within a relatively crowded environment. People would walk in front of the subject constantly, and my angle was limited to where I could sit unobtrusively to draw. However, working through these challenges all provide growth opportunities as an artist, and I left feeling a sense of accomplishment in having drawn this complex subject.
By giving yourself the opportunity to try challenging subjects in less than ideal conditions, you will develop resiliency and grit as an artist, and you will open yourself up to the possibility of expanding your ability and subject matter.
We all know the work of Leonardo Da Vinci and other acclaimed Old Masters. His drawings and paintings have stood the test of time and are now hailed as some of the best work anywhere. What better way to learn to draw than from Da Vinci himself?
Select a sketch that you find particularly appealing, and pull out your sketchbook. Observe the construction lines that might still be visible – those light initial tentative lines that artists make when first starting a piece. Decide what type of medium was used – chalk? Graphite? Will you decide to use the same medium, or will you try to reproduce it with something different?
Work from large shapes to small. If the sketch is of a head, observe the shape of the sphere that forms it. If the hair is in a complex braid, sketch just the basic forms initially. All of these initial forms should be done very lightly as they just provide the structure. Details will come later.
As you add more detail, start to strengthen and darken the form. Build these up slowly as it is easier to add more graphite than it is to take it away. Switch to softer, darker graphite as you move to areas that need to be dark.
Finally, add your details. Pay attention to the direction of wisps of hair, or other details that make this sketch special. Ask yourself what qualities drew you to that particular sketch in the first place, and make sure you are working to replicate those qualities in your piece.
Finally, don’t just stop with one sketch! The first one might not have all the qualities that you are looking for, and that’s ok! The more you practice this technique, the better you will get.
The other day, I working at the local co-op gallery that I am a part of, and was scheduled to demo oil painting for customers that stopped by. There was one problem – I had all of my painting supplies, but I didn’t bring anything to paint! Luckily, my lunch came with a lime garnish that then became a lovely little painting. Another day, all I had on hand were some extra tubes of paint from my kit, which then became my subject.
Alla prima sketch paintings are great for practice because they pull you out of your typical subject comfort zone. When I go in search of subjects for these small paintings, I usually don’t know what I’ll end up painting that day.
I highly recommend doing these small paintings from life as they allow you to observe objects in varying lighting conditions, with varying shadow qualities. Replicate what you see as best as you can, but feel free to put some artistic personality in these works. Because you’re not committing to a large, extensive painting, you can try out new colors or application techniques.