The caterpillar does all the work, but the butterfly gets all the publicity.
Art is ugly.
Recently I watched the TV series Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year. Each week, artists are challenged to make a portrait of a live sitter, in public, in four hours.
The most surprising lesson is how often the interim stage looks like a failure. There’s nowhere to hide for the artists, who are interviewed as they work. Not infrequently they despair of pulling it together in time.
Viewers see the awkward proportions and clashing colours, and agree. It doesn’t look good.
And yet, in the end, beauty emerges. Sometimes it seems that the painting only comes to life with the final few brush strokes.
You might be agonising over the scattered, ragged appearance of your current project. You study the polished, glossy work of those you look up to, and despair.
But you’re missing a vital truth.
Not Great Yet
There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly.
R Buckminster Fuller
A few years ago I took up watercolour painting as a complete novice. I love watercolour, but I had a lot to learn about the process of producing something pleasing to the eye.
The interim stages of a watercolour are often confusing and unattractive. The colours are wrong, things are missing, it looks flat. For a long time, it seems to be all wrong.
But as long as the drawing is right and you keep going, it will turn out okay. If you work on it more, it might even turn out great. The essence of watercolour is layers. You have to be patient, letting each one dry before adding the next.
Each layer reveals a little more of the picture you’re aiming for. Each stage hints at the finished article, but is only a step in the right direction.
To make a finished article you need two things: a map and a defined endpoint.
Look at this example.
JK Rowling plotted one of the longest books in her Harry Potter series by hand, on paper torn from a notepad. No Scrivener, no Evernote, nothing fancy. She saved fancy for the ideas that powered her words.
Rowling had the end in mind, so she was able to endure the development phase where things didn’t look so pretty. Don’t be seduced and discouraged by picture-perfect workspaces and elegant bullet journals. Real work often involves getting messy.
A story, a painting, a child, or a life all have their ugly duckling stage. Have the end in mind. You need to keep faith with your project and keep moving forward.
Above all, do the work — but don’t show it until you’re ready.
It will be beautiful, but you’ll only see it when you get to the end.
(first published by Publishous on 12 June 2019)
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