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Ugly Abstract Paintings

I’ve been thinking about so called “ugly” paintings lately.

I see artists in workshops and classes excited with the beginnings of their paintings…they love activating the canvas with stream of consciousness mark making or with intuitive gestural expressions/shapes/color fields…

…only to struggle with the middle of their paintings.

In particular, I see artists grappling with the issue of what I call the “ugly” painting…this is when you create a painting you don’t like…a painting that feels chaotic, frenzied, fussy or messy. A painting you deem unfamiliar and unrecognizable

And your impulse is to cover up the marks or obliterate the painting with gesso or throw the whole thing out.

Yet this amounts to a full scale disavowal and rejection of your newly emerging work.

It’s akin to disowning parts of yourself…the so called orphaned-off self which I’ve written about here in Making Room For Your Orphaned Self.

Why do I say this?

I believe “ugly” paintings threaten us because they’re unfamiliar, unruly and emerge unbidden without our consent.

They subvert our need for control.

It’s like experiencing a mutation causing unforeseeable consequences.

They’re unpredictable, unfamiliar, unrecognizable…and different than our recent work…

We don’t value them…and perhaps that’s why they seem “ugly”.

We’re blinded by our current mindset of what our art is supposed to look like. There’s supposed to be some kind of logical connection between what we created yesterday and what we create today…

And yet these expressions seem to come out of nowhere…threatening to undermine the thread of consistency in our creations. We can’t make sense of them. We have ideas of what we envision as a lovely painting and this unwanted visitor is not part of that picture.

I suggest to you that your “ugly” paintings are vitally important…in fact, probably more important by several orders of magnitude than the work you like and value

Why do I say this? How can this possibly be?

I say this because I believe these “ugly” paintings are the nascent underpinnings of your emerging work. They’re primitive forms gasping for breath as they’re desperately trying to be birthed…

And if you squash them or throw them out…what’s at risk?

You risk missing the moment of discovering something heretofore invisible in YOU trying to become visible

You may end up annihilating an entire future body of work…just because your current mindset can’t see and therefore won’t tolerate the possibilities for the future that this “ugly” piece holds.

This scenario plays out time and again and it’s akin to the story of the chrysalis and the butterfly.

The Adjacent Possible

There’s a concept in evolutionary biology that’s analogous to what happens to us on our artist’s journey.

The idea of the adjacent possible is that the act of moving forward creates a new set of next steps that would’ve been difficult or impossible to predict beforehand

Just as the chrysalis is the nascent form of the butterfly, the “ugly” painting is the raw essence of new, experimental work…

It’s the next step…the adjacent possible…in the evolution of your emerging body of work.

And the adjacent possible is vital to your evolution as an artist!

So if you crush the chrysalis…the butterfly never emerges…it never lives.

And so I ask you this…

Will you allow yourself to paint “ugly” paintings? Will you make room for work that’s trying to be expressed but that part of you immediately and unthinkingly rejects? Will you permit it to live anyway?

Will you create the space for deep experimentation…allowing unknown and unfamiliar images/shapes/marks/gestures/colors/compositions to emerge even though they feel uncomfortable?

And when the “ugly” painting emerges….will you value it? Will you see that “ugly” paintings come into your life bearing gifts if only you’ll receive them?

Let’s make room for both the paintings we love and the paintings that scare us…the ones we see as threatening…

Let’s make room for “ugly” paintings so we can create the deepest work of our lives


From my studio to yours,


P.S. If you’re new to abstract painting and you’d like to explore how to activate the canvas by deeply experimenting…with freeing yourself up with intuitive, gestural mark making, check out my course: Activating The Canvas. You can read more about it HERE.



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