Creativity from the ugly foundation

The process behind creating something beautiful is often ugly itself.

As a creative worker, you can’t let that notion prevent you from working on the things that matter, though it will sometimes make it hard to do so.

Imagine an amateur artist sitting in her studio, as an example. She arranges her easel and brushes and starts out on an endeavor to turn the images in her mind into a tangible work of art.

After two or three hours of work, the canvas is a wreck. There are odd shapes scattered across the white background. Ugly colors blend and drip and droop all over the place. Lines aren’t where they were supposed to be.

Two or three more hours of work and the canvas doesn’t look any better, in-fact, it appears to be in arguably worse shape.

At this point, the artist has two decisions to make. With each decision, the first option is always rational, the second more irrational but worthwhile.

First decision: to scrap the painting or not. To throw away what’s been made and simply start over with a fresh set of brushes and a spotlessly clean canvas. Or to keep painting, repeatedly, over the marks that currently sit on the canvas, using them as a guiding foundation for what strokes to paint next.

The second decision the artist has to make is whether to scrap the idea itself or not. If the canvas isn’t turning out how it was envisioned to be in the first place, maybe it’s a poor idea after-all, right? Or keep playing with the idea, seeing if there’s a way to make it work.

Whether you’re an artist or not, you have to make these same decisions any time you start a new project. You’ve made these decisions one way or the other many times in your career already (whether you’re a student, amateur, or expert). Can you think of a time when you did?

Throw away the work and start over. Or keep the work and build from it, improve it and see what it can become.

Throw away the idea and wait for a new one. Or keep playing with this one, discover what it was meant to be all-along.

To get the most value from our ideas and our work as creatives, I’d argue that the later decision is always the best one. Without building from what you’ve got in front of you now (and without holding onto an idea until you can at least see its true potential), you’ll never know what you’re fully capable of.

If you look at any creative work near the beginning, it’s ugly. But come back to the work when it’s truly complete (or, at least, closer to being complete), and you’ll see something worthwhile.

In a 1974 interview, Ray Bradbury articulates the importance of building on the founding, ugly work in order to build something worthwhile. He did so by pointing to the artistic process of famed painter Henri Matisse. Bradbury shared in the interview:

“Matisse does a drawing, then he recopies it. He recopies it five times, ten times, each time with cleaner lines. He is persuaded that the last one, the most spare, is the best, the purest, the definitive one; and yet, usually it’s the first. When it comes to drawing, nothing is better than the first sketch.”

In 2010, MoMA curators set out to uncover Matisse’s process by taking an x-ray scanner to one of his most prominent works: ‘Bathers by a River’.

What the curators discovered was line after line of work that Matisse had drawn, painted, then covered up with other lines or paint. To Matisse, the original work was ugly enough to be covered but important enough to be used as a foundation (both literally and figuratively) for the final product.

For Matisse, this process took eight years, from 1909 to 1917.

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If you had looked at that first work in 1909 you would have wondered why Matisse even bothered to paint it. Compared to the 1917 work, though, you can see clearly the importance of those first, ugly strokes.

When you first set out to work on a project, know that the process will be ugly at first. You may not like what you see, or hear, or feel.

But take the time to build from the first iteration, to tinker and explore what’s possible with the idea itself, and you’ll find that you not only grow as a creative, but that the work itself grows.

The work grows into exactly what it needs to be.

Related:

A note on creating something imperfect

Your decisiveness and ability to create

Picasso on Intuition, How Creativity Works, and Where Ideas Come From

Illustration work by Troy Wandzel.