Make It Mighty Ugly

By all rights, I should be in a very happy mood. Our Kansas Chiefs football team is on its way to the Super Bowl for the second consecutive year. I’ve always been quite a football fan, and I still remember the first Super Bowl — between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Green Bay Packers. I was rooting for the Packers to win their National League Championship game on Sunday in hopes of a re-match of that famous first Super Bowl. Alas, it was not to be.

Another reason why I should be happy right now is because I’ve had a chance to pick up a lot of lovely new art supplies. My Kuretake markers have already arrived, as has the new tubes of oil paint I ordered. I’ve also finished up my December art journal and have started on January. Although there’s a bit of rain, sleet, or snow in the forecast today, for the most part we’ve had fairly nice weather — considering that it’s mid-winter in the midwest.

I’m also preparing to embark on another 100-day creative journey, and I am looking forward to all I will learn as I explore techniques for creating mood and atmosphere in landscape paintings. I’m set to begin.

So, I should be happy. I should be excited. I should be feeling big bursts of creative energy. I’m not, and I’m not really sure why. All I know is that right now everything I touch in the studio turns ugly.

It started on Wednesday evening as I attended Getting Sketchyan online drawing session with artists Matt Fussell and Ashley Bane Hurst. It’s free, so why not check it out? You can take part in the session while it’s live, or you can catch it on YouTube afterward. The link I’ve provided will take you directly to last week’s lesson, the first of the season.

I always approach Gettin’ Sketchy with curiosity, wondering what we’ll be sketching that evening. I can’t say that I was overjoyed with the subject — a skull — but I was interested in getting out my charcoals (including my white charcoal pencil) and having a go at it. Using charcoal on toned gray paper is something I’ve enjoyed in the past. I’ve also drawn skulls in the past, so I wasn’t expecting the session to be too challenging.

In the end, I completed my drawing, and all I can say is that it’s one ugly skull. Of course, skulls usually are ugly, right? I think the drawing was reasonably good, but having this creepy-looking skull staring back at me with its hideous deep, dark eye sockets… well, I think that’s when the art funk started.

Next, a few days later, I worked on my hand lettering practice. Oh, how frustrated I am with it! I’m struggling with lettering and with what’s called faux calligraphy — which is supposedly easier — and all I’ve got to show for my time is a notebook filled with ugly letters.

And then when I was working on my art journal, I attempted to write a quote, but it turned out so awful — so ugly — that I went searching online for a nice image I could cut and paste on the page. So, at least I salvaged that.

Today I started another page in my journal, came up with a nice background of watercolor splatters, but then I tried illustrating the page, made a horrible mess of it all, and finally resorted to spraying on a lot of water to remove my failed image and then planning a new page with lots of cut-outs to form a sun and rays.

Yeah, the page was intended to be about happy, sunny days, positive attitudes, and feeling good. Didn’t turn out quite that way at all.

The ugliest of my messes came when I attempted an acrylic pour this morning. I was using another split complementary color schemeand this time I took care to mix my colors perfectly. To make it different, I decided to go with black for a neutral. I did everything right, used a simple “flip cup dirty pour” technique, and I was happy — initially. As I tilted the canvas and tried to cover the corners and edges, all my happiness spilled right off the sides of the canvas. I was left with a piteously ugly mish-mash of the ugliest colors I’ve ever seen. I tweaked it a bit, pouring additional drops of paint onto the surface. It didn’t help. I tweaked more, but by this point I was hell-bent on a destructive streak. Strong words. I don’t normally swear, you know. I had to take my frustrations out somehow, and the poor 10 x 10 stretched canvas got the brunt of it.

You’ll notice that I’m not sharing the frighteningly bad skull. Nor am I sharing pages from my journal. I briefly considered sharing an image of the ridiculously awful acrylic pour, but then decided against it.

What I’m sharing today is a book I found on Amazon. Make It Mighty Ugly: Exercises and Advice for Getting Creative Even When It Ain’t Pretty. I was browsing around, searching the topic of “making ugly things” when the book title popped up. I headed to Amazon, found a used copy, and yes, indeed, I ordered it.

Even though I purchased a paperback, I was able to start reading it using the Kindle Cloud reader, and I loved the author’s interpretation of ugly. She calls it “a metaphor for anything that’s less than pleasant, from mild squirmy feelings to abject failure.”

She continues:

Ugly is the blanket term for the vital parts of creativity we like to pretend don’t exist — fear of failure or judgment, block, perfectionism, procrastination, self-doubt.”

We all face those fears and problems as we explore our creativity. Choosing a path in any of the arts guarantees that we will meet with failure from time to time. It’s inevitable. Sometimes it may come on suddenly, the result, perhaps, of a single failed work. At other times it may creep along slowly and silently, only to emerge — as mine has — in the form of an overwhelming art funk, a discomfiting feeling that no matter what I try to draw or paint or design right now, it’s going to be mighty ugly.

Of course, I’ve been here before, and I know that these dark moods in art lead to brighter and more beautiful places. I know my artistic muscles are setting themselves just as our physical muscles do in the practice of yoga. I know this bleak time presages a time of increased creativity.

All the same, it’s a sad place to be whenever we find ourselves here. Earlier, as I struggled with both my art journal page and my depressing acrylic pour, I wanted to sit down and have a good cry. Maybe I will do that later.

I’ve learned before about the importance of making ugly things, so the ideas and inspirations in this book probably won’t be new to me. All the same, it’s good to have a handbook on the shelf, a guide to what to do when I feel myself slipping into an art funk. If nothing else, it serves as a reassurance that I’m not the only artist who’s been here. I’m not the only artist who sometimes doubts myself and wonders what on earth I’m doing pretending I can draw and paint!

And, at this point, as I look around at the ugliness I’ve created in recent days, I can laugh a bit. It’s got to get better. It surely can’t get any worse! And so, on that note, I’m closing up the studio for the day. I’m going to find a good book to read, or maybe watch a good movie. Not every day can be a good day, but as the saying goes, we can at least find something good in each day.





  1. Thanks so much for sharing! We all go through these pits and ruts and they are painful. It is good to share and to know we aren’t alone. I enjoy reading your blogs very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. Yes, I know it helps me when I realize other artists have the same doubts as I do, and I hope my experiences may be encouraging for others from time to time. I had a much better day in the studio today. 🙂 You’ll read about it in tomorrow’s post.


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