There’s a space in between the start of a portrait painting and the finished piece that is filled with discomfort, frustration, impatience, and skepticism. While the initial concept and sketch is all optimistic energy and possibility, the next stages of the painting are the start of the ugly part: the base paint layers, the strokes that begin the facial contours, the place holders for detail that comes later. The colors are basic and flat, the holes where the eyes go are gaping and creepy, and the portrait takes on a ghostly ugliness. It makes me second guess why I ever thought I could paint this, with the urge to scrap it and start over every single time.
I once had a conversation with another pet portrait artist about the way we approached our paintings. She starts with the eyes and works them in full detail, and then works through the rest of the face/body. She paints in detail through each section of the portrait. In contrast, I paint in layers, building the entirety of the portrait from broad strokes to finishing details. I typically save the eyes (and nose and whisker details in pet portraits) for the finishing touches. It’s my favorite part to do and what typically makes the painting “pop”, so I save the best for last. I fear that if I do the eyes and nose details too early, I won’t give the rest of the less exciting parts the amount of attention and detail they need, thus leaving an unfinished feeling to the portrait.
But that ugly phase of the painting messes with me psychologically. It causes so much doubt and fear and discouragement. Sometimes, I can’t hardly stand to look at or work on the portrait and my productivity declines. As much as I want to go paint, I will avoid and procrastinate because I’m in the ugly part. Photographer Chase Jarvis has a term describing something similar to this – it’s the “creative gap” – the difference between what we as artists can visualize ourselves creating and what we actually create. For my portrait paintings, I liken the “ugly part” to the creative gap. I see my reference photo and all the possibilities for the final portrait, but the process and progress to get there is slow and uninspiring. Every time I get to the ugly part, I question if this will be the painting I finally fail and have to redo or provide a refund. But so far, I’ve only scrapped and redone one painting, and I blame it on my poor choice of reference photo.
I’m starting to learn to recognize the creative gap or “ugly” when I get to it, and try not to become emotional about it. I have done enough of these now to realize this is just a part of the process, and something I need to learn to embrace. According to the authors in the book “Art and Fear“, the process is really the only thing that matters to the artist. I might take issue with that for these commissioned portraits, since the artwork isn’t just for me, but I still think learning from and evaluating the process and my experience with it is helpful as I grow as an artist. I am learning to put my frustrations aside and just keep painting. Just focus and be persistent and work through all the contours and shading and minor details that bring a child or pet portrait to life. Sometimes its just a commitment to 30 minutes to work through the ugly part and make enough progress that the ugly starts to fade and the essence of the soul I’m painting starts to peek through. And other times I just have to throw caution to the wind, go for it and paint those beautiful eyes so they can watch over me, inspiring me to the beautiful finish.