The Ugly Phase: How to Keep Going When Your Creative Project Isn't Looking Its Best

Various phases of the painting thus far.

When I first started to work on this large canvas a couple months ago, I was mostly filled with excitement and anticipation for what the final product would look like. This new blank canvas represented a new chapter in my life - an opportunity to create a new story about love. At first, it started well. Painting over the old picture felt symbolic, adding some lyrics from a personal poem felt cathartic, and sketching the couple over it felt inspiring. But as I added paint and played with different colours and proportions, things started to feel frustrating. It just wasn't looking as great as I had imagined. The colours were off, and turning the figures into clouds looked clumsy. The more I worked on it, the more if felt like a mess. I was entering the "ugly phase" and it was testing me. Should I keep going or change direction? 

After too many frustrating brushstrokes, I decided to adjust my direction. I intuitively painted over the entire canvas using various shades of pink, and a heart "appeared" at its center. But then, I wasn't sure which direction to take it in next. "Now what?"  I felt unsure about my ability to bring my original vision to life, so the canvas sat untouched on my table for weeks.  

Multiple shades of pink featuring the abstract heart shape in the middle

Eventually, I decided to emphasize the abstract heart shape and turn it into a heart-shaped cloud. Not long after that, I saw a post on my feed of someone who had captured a picture of a cloud in the shape of a heart. I took it as a sign and let the canvas sit untouched for a bit longer. Then, a random impulse got me to retrace the embracing couple on the canvas using chalk, just to see how they would fit. And so the painting sat untouched for a couple more weeks. 

However, I recently felt the pull to continue working on that painting again, despite my fear of it not looking right. Even though the project is still in its "ugly phase," I had to remind myself that slow progress is still progress. My low-hanging fruit this time was to clear my space and clean my paint palettes, so I was ready for the next creative impulse. It's not much, but it makes a difference. It removed an excuse not to paint. Also, focusing on the next small steps, instead of projecting too far into the future with big expectations, is the way to keep momentum going and feel a lot less overwhelmed.  

Early stages of the heart-shaped cloud

Working on this project has been (and still is) a rollercoaster of emotions, from excitement and inspiration to frustration and disappointment. But ultimately, it is helping me grow as a person and is teaching me the importance of taking action despite my fears and sticking with something, especially when it gets tough. There have been (and still are) many moments of self-doubt where my critical inner voice has tried to sabotage my efforts by injecting fears of failure. But I keep reminding myself that either way, there's something to gained from persevering and learning throughout the process. Besides, I can always paint over it.

One quote that tends to help me in these situations comes from an interview I heard with Ed Sheeran, talking about writing music - another form of art. He said that it "is like turning on a tap in an old house; first you'll get the mud and dirty water, but the more you get it out, the quicker the good water starts flowing." 

If you are struggling to make progress on a project you care about, I encourage you to keep going. Get through the ugly phase, no matter how long it takes, so you can get to what inspired you to start in the first place. Slow progress is still progress, and with time and effort, you can bring your vision to life. That's what I'll keep doing this year as well.