Friday, August 6, 2010

The Ugly Teenage Years

A funny thing happened on the way to a finished painting the other day...

Seriously, I was out with my good friend Ray on a miserably hot day. We both got cranky, and we were both ready to throw in the towel on our semi-finished paintings. But then I plunked down on a stump next to Ray’s easel, and suddenly I could see exactly what was wrong with his painting and how to fix it. I blurted out to him (he's so patient with me!) that the values and colors on the upper half of the painting were completely different from the lower half, making the two halves seem disconnected. Within 20 minutes or so of what looked like wild-abandon-Ninja-artist-pastel-sticks-flying-through-the-air, he had transformed the whole value pattern, unified the color scheme, and was well on his way to yet another great painting. Then he turned to my painting and showed me exactly what was wrong: All my values fell in the medium to light range, with no darks to anchor the composition. And again, once the lightbulb went on, it only took a few minutes to solve the problem so I could put in the final details.

Ray and I had a good laugh about this because it’s a common problem Ray likes to call “the ugly teenage years.” In other words, you’ve usually started off with a nice baby (a good design) and have developed it into a charming adolescent (with value, form, and color)... and then you hit that horrible stage when nothing seems to be working and you just want to quit. It’s just like an awkward teenage on the verge of adulthood, no longer cute and cuddly but not a compelling, mature work of art either. And quite frankly, you just don’t know how much more time you can stand to spend with this strange thing you’ve created that suddenly has a mind of its own!

The lesson--Ray reminded me--is to never give up. Expect to encounter that awkward phase and be ready for it. Calmly step back and evaluate the basics of design, value, color, and so on. Chances are good you’ll soon see what it will take to bring that painting to beautiful maturity. And by the way, the answer is almost never more detail.

So now I’m curious: What are your tactics for seeing a painting through the ugly teenage years?


  1. Loved this analogy and thought it amazingly appropriate...
    I often abandon my paintings at this stage... Maybe now I'll persevere!!!

  2. I think that is why it's always good to pull those failures out of the closet and re-evaluate them, and give them a second chance at greatness.

  3. There's an Asian proverb that says you can't step into the same river twice. I think this applies to paintings, too. When we return to a painting we've put away we are different painters with a different set of problem-solving skills. Sometimes you just need to let them cool off and resolve the problem later.

  4. Good point, Jennifer, that the answer is not more detail! I don't think I said that, though I should have! In fact, I think the answer is often to get rid of detail that has taken away from the original vision.

  5. I've just discovered your blog and was glad to find someone else who stumbled on the analogy I use all the time as I struggle through a painting. Those "babies" are always so full of promise, then they get homely and withdrawn when they hit adolescence... but if you can just hang in there, the adults they become can sometimes cause you to stand back and say "A pleasure to meet you!"

    The worst part isn't the struggle, that is sometimes the most interesting, even if frustrating. I only give up on a painting when I feel disconnected and don't really care about it for more than a session or two. It's like having an argument about a topic you don't really care about.

  6. Elin Pendelton puts it this way... "all paintings go through the uglies".... ain't it the truth!

  7. What a great way to describe that "stage"! All paintings go through it, but it's so worth the effort to see them through it.

    Thanks for posting this!