It’s OK to Make Some Ugly Paintings: the Importance of Artistic Exploration

Originally published in my November 2015 issue of Off the Easel

If you’ve been a?reader?for awhile, you may have noticed that I have been branching out lately by experimenting with new media and approaches.

From recent works such as the charcoal rubbing drawing Fictitious Pictish Standing Stone?to the as-yet-untitled?triptych?of found?aged cedar inspired by votive coin trees, I have been exploring new ways to express my ideas.

Yet how does an artist balance an innate creativity and desire to discover new working methods with the need to keep a focus in his or her artwork? As fellow artists have surely heard, everyone from grantors to curators are usually looking for a cohesive, committed body of work. Such devotion best illustrates?the artist’s point of view and?gives a sense of dedication to his or her craft.

Another way of saying it? A focused body of work looks like the same artist did it all.

Yet, take two artists who worked in a variety of media — Picasso and Gauguin.?An influence on Picasso, Gauguin painted, carved wood, did ceramics, and worked in various forms of printmaking, including woodcuts. But despite this?variety, each work, undoubtedly, looks like a Gauguin. This artist who notoriously booked a ticket to Tahiti summed up his philosophy on creativity in a very?succinct,?polarized manner:

“Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”

Picasso was not only a trained painter, but?also an accomplished self-taught sculptor, as evidenced by the current exhibit of his three dimensional work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. And don’t forget his collage work with Georges Braque. But you can always tell, no matter the media he chose as the vehicle for his self-expression, that each piece is a Picasso.

You can look to style, subject matter, and intention to thematically connect works executed in various media. To compare Picasso’s?Blue?Period to Cubism, however, you must look for the developmental stepping stones in between. You must look for the element of artistic expansion.

One of my Twitter followers, Carrie Brummer, creator of Artist Think,1?recently asked in a thought-provoking tweet:

“Does art have to be important to be worth creating?”

Seeing this tweet was quite timely for me, because I had already been meditating on this notion. Since my previous technique of indirect oil application?2?was quite time consuming, I had already recognized that I had fallen into the trap of feeling that every piece had to be, to use Carrie’s word, “important.”

Stepping away from oil for just a bit to explore media in which I might work a little faster, like a charcoal rubbing, or materials where I can just explore new concepts and play, such as found aged wood, felt like freedom to me. The first step to working faster is to prove to yourself that you can, no matter what the media.

This month, I am looking quite forward to something I have not done in ages — taking a workshop! I am taking two, actually, from?among?a veritable buffet of choices held in conjunction with an artists’ trade show. I chose topics that I felt would directly speak to certain painting projects I have planned, and one workshop is even in acrylic. What better way to pick up the painting pace than with a media that dries so quickly?

In such an environment where the fostered atmosphere is to learn new techniques and approaches, you go with an open heart and mind with an expectation of growth. You open yourself to the possibility of artistic expansion.

Just think: if Picasso had never experimented, Cubism would never have been born. So to stay fresh and to reinvigorate your creative practice, fellow artists, remember to play.

Another artist who worked in wildly diverse art forms, including film and fashion, was Salvador Dali. He said:

“Mistakes are almost always of a sacred nature. Never try to correct them. On the contrary: rationalize them, understand them thoroughly. After that, it will be possible for you to sublimate them.”

Wondering what my response was to Carrie’s tweet???I replied:

Every piece teaches and leads to the next. Break free of the “every piece has to be a masterpiece” mindset — experiment and play!?As they say, you have to break a few eggs to make a cake. Studies or “ugly paintings” feed into the “masterpiece.” Thus, all art is important, even the studies, experiments, and flops that help you to get where you are going.

This is how we artists grow from our own version of the Blue Period to our personal Cubism. It’s?OK?to make some ugly paintings along the way.

All the best, and Namaste,


1 Indirect painting is the wet-on-dry technique of using layers. Each paint layer must dry before the subsequent one is applied. After employing the first layer, called an underpainting, the artist uses thin transparent layers called glazes to achieve luminosity on top of an opaque layer. Direct painting, on the other hand, is also known as?wet-in-wet painting, or?alla prima.

2 Be sure to check out Carrie Brummer?s fabulous website on creativity, Artist Think. On her About page, Carrie writes: “I?m here to help unleash your inner artist: our world is a better place because of your creativity.”

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  1. […] you read my post last month, It’s OK to Make Some Ugly Paintings: the Importance of Artistic Exploration,?I was prepared to make some not-quite masterpieces, but to learn from […]

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