The Messy Stage

Painting requires a lot of determination and patience, no more so than when you hit the messy stage. I certainly find starting a painting relatively easy. I normally have an idea about the colour palette I want to use and the composition and the first application of paint is straightforward and enjoyable, the easy stage. I use oils and cold wax medium and if you watch any of my videos on my YouTube channel you can see me apply that first layer with freedom and abandon, using my trusty catalyst wedge to smooth and blend as I go along. But then I hit that first decision point and it all changes. Do I carry on applying more oil and cold wax medium on top of what I have, or do I leave this layer to dry (I never do that – I’m so impatient I have to be a wet on wet painter), or do I start to scrape back what I’ve applied to see what effects I can uncover beneath? I usually opt for the latter. The first scrape back is intriguing, interesting, but the second is … well … hmmm not sure. I start to be concerned I’m being too repetitive. So I move to another area of the painting and try something a little different. And suddenly, in a blink of an eye, I’m looking at a total mess. I’ve wrecked the first layer and I have no idea what to do next. Disaster.


The above happens to me in pretty much every painting session and you can see it in my videos on my YouTube channel. When I watch back I think why didn’t I stop after the first 5 minutes – it was perfect then. But of course it wasn’t perfect because I didn’t stop, in continuing to make moves that even I didn’t understand, my subconscious was telling me this painting was far from done. But the problem is my subconscious doesn’t give me any clear instructions as to how to proceed, instead it pushes me off the cliff, encourages me to make a mess, but then leaves me to it (or so it feels anyway). I have to find my way through the messy stage alone.


This stage is often filled with frustration and disappointment. So often I find myself staring at my painting and simply hating what I see. At this point I have to dig deep, tap into the determination I have deep down to at least not leave this painting session with that monstrosity sitting in the corner! I have to create something of which I can be proud.


Of course what I should do at this point is step away for a bit, take a breather, have a cup of coffee. But I never ever do that either. Did I mention I’m impatient? I always stay there, feeling knotty and tight and anxious and not sure what to do but only sure of one thing – I have to keep going and I have to keep going now.


We can’t escape the messy stage in art. It’s a key part of the creative process. It’s only by breaking down the artificial, superficial structures we impose on our paintings when we make our first moves and then going further to embrace the chaotic stage, that something beautiful can start to emerge.


The messy stage, the ugly duckling stage, is where meaning and vision start to take shape so that something that matters can be created. There is the first move, then the second – thesis and antithesis – and from this emerges your artistic synthesis, your vision, your truth – always new and unique.


There are no short cuts to this – at least not in my experience. To create something that says something is to encounter chaos; to succeed in this creation is to get beyond that chaos, or to learn to view that chaos from a new perspective, a perspective where real meaning and vision exist. However, to step into the chaos, at the outset at least, is to step into darkness.


But there are things that can help along the way – small beacons of light to help guide us from one small waymarker to the next, even when we’re not sure of the destination. If we stop and consider the value and tone of the painting, our use of shape and form, line and mark, where there is balance and where we need contrast, all these considerations can help us navigate the chaos and keep making our moves. We take a step, then the next step, then another, until finally we get far enough to hear the painting call out. It starts to speak and it’s when you hear the painting speak that you realise you are finally emerging from the chaos.


It’s not quite the home straight of course, there are still decisions to make, more steps to take, but you are the other side of the messy stage, you and your painting have rediscovered each other, discovered that you do indeed speak the same language, and from this point on you are long lost friends having the catch up of a lifetime. You start to feel that what you are producing is going to be good, perhaps more than good, perhaps even awesome. And the messiness and the chaos start to feel worthwhile. It wasn’t so bad after all, you think to yourself. You now know what it is you are creating, what you were always creating even during the chaos. You and your art are creating your truth, it’s the only thing you can create. And in that moment everything is wonderfully clear and you have complete confidence in your painting and the work you produce.


You are buoyant and enthusiastic about your art and this enthusiasm sustains you all the way to the start of the next piece. You take that first move brimming with confidence and wild abandon, and then of course you hit it, the messy stage and it starts all over again.