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My Advice to Creatives: If You Want to Succeed, Let Yourself Fail.

How I moved past fear and procrastination, and learned to embrace the value of failure

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Pamela Caughey painting the "ugly stage" in her studio in Hamilton, Montana.
Pamela Caughey painting in her studio. "I felt this painting was pretty ugly in this stage, but I kept going to learn more about myself."

Even though I’m now a professional artist who loves to paint and teach students from around the world on how to create their best, most personal and authentic artwork, early in my career I had so much fear and procrastination I didn’t set foot in my studio until 10pm or later at night. The reason? What if I don’t create a masterpiece? How should I start? What colors should I use? What should I paint about? What if it looks like crap? What if I FAIL?

Decades later, I now know that my creative thought process was backwards. Instead of facing the creative process with high expectations, I became more productive when I “let go” of perfectionism and embraced “UGLY” (ie, failure). Yes, while no creative person is happy about their work when it looks ugly, it is important to realize that almost all art is ugly at some point (or many) during the creative process. When you know this is the case and you expect it you will not be surprised when it happens, and trust me: it will happen often that your work will look pretty bad. Some might call the ugly stage failure; but I call it success. Why?

Further defining and breaking down WHY we feel our creations are ugly provides our biggest laboratory of learning; it is fertile ground for discovering who we are as expressive, creative beings. If what we have in front of us is NOT what we wish to have, then we can take this opportunity to break it down, dissect, define and literally write down (or make mental notes) in positive, visual language terms exactly what it is in our work that we DON’T like. When we approach the lowest points during the creative process in this positive way, we can then be more clear about what we would rather have. Failure’s ugly stages are the breeding ground for successful problem solving, which is the definition of creativity. If you happen to be a painter, for example, here are key questions to ask yourself during your painting’s UGLY stage(s):

1)      If you think your color is ugly, is it too murky, saturated, desaturated?

2)      If you don’t see anything beautiful in your painting, is it because nothing stands out as important? (ie, there are no “gems” to look at?)

3)      If you feel confused when you look at your work, is it because you haven’t varied your lights, darks and midtones enough to help your eye navigate?

4)      If you feel you have too many, or too few shapes, is it because they make you feel your work is too busy, or just not very interesting or engaging?

These questions are endless and are important to ask whenever you are feeling like quitting. Artists quit when they feel a painting isn’t working, they lose hope that they can turn it around and that it’s pointless to keep moving forward. Sometimes, an artist will even go so far as to switch mediums, thinking it’s the medium’s fault that the paintings are ugly! Nothing could be further from the truth! The ugly stages of a painting are there to teach the artist to stick with it, define what ugly is, why it’s ugly, and then use their own creativity to discover the “how” of moving forward. Just how do you do this? Try adding and subtracting paint until you see glimmers of hope – what I like to call “gems”. An ugly painting can turn around in a moment’s time as soon as the artist sees the smallest treasure or gem appear out of nowhere. It could be a small patch of texture, a lovely transition from warm to cool, or a beautiful area of tangled marks. Each artist will respond in their own personal, unique way and their gems and treasures will become their personal voice.

In the end, “ugly” is the very best teacher because it presents the biggest problems to solve. I myself have learned very little from my most successful, “easy” paintings; rather, it was the ones that kept staring me in the face, daring me to quit that had the most to teach me. What did I learn when I stuck with it? I learned that if I’m patient and don’t quit, I will eventually, through the creative process, find my true, authentic voice and discover this problem child painting can be loved if I simply don’t give up. If I use each ugly stage as an opportunity to calmly describe, in visual language terms (ie, shape, line, color, texture, value, size, direction) what isn’t working and not allow negativity to derail me, I will, I will succeed. So fail, create ugly, but do it quickly. The more quickly you can embrace ugly and keep moving forward, the faster you will discover there is a rainbow waiting for you at the end of your creative journey!

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