The low before your breakthrough

Every project has its ups and downs, whether you hear about them or not. Projects shown in the light of success – like portfolios, or client stories – will naturally emphasize the best, but this doesn’t mean it was a smooth process. Most projects will reach a point where something is off or not quite right. When that happens I think about a philosophy I learned from my figure painting teacher, Joanne Beaule Ruggles.

It’s just part of the process.

One of the first times I ran into this was after we took reference photos and the initial idea was sketched, shortly after the second or third color of painting was done. It looked incomplete, which was natural as it wasn’t done. But there was something deeper that looked off. I began to doubt the idea. I slowed down, disheartened. I definitely was not in the mood to show it to anyone because it wasn’t what I envisioned, even though feedback was exactly what I needed.

She came over to take a look at what I had, started off with the parts that were working. She pointing out small successes and interesting dynamics I had overlooked, and we discussed possible directions to take it from there. I think she could tell that I felt like I’d screwed up because she paused and said “this happens. You just have to work through it. That point when you feel lowest comes right before you’re about to make a breakthrough.”

I could have easily ditched the idea I’d started with and jumped to something else, something I knew would work. Thinking about the low point as a precursor to a breakthrough made me more willing to not just write it off as a failure and abandon it. There was something there – an original spark behind it. It made me dig deeper about where the idea came from and go in more radical directions to bring it back.

In my class of 30 or so there were a few students that didn’t ever seem to hit a low point. I realized they were repeating tried-and-true styles that had worked for them before. One had a particularly compelling style that was interesting the first time we saw it, but it did not scale well to other themes, and felt a bit flat by the third painting. One was so accustomed to drawing manga that all of his paintings had a basic, cartoonish look to them. Both had interesting ideas behind their work, but they didn’t show through because they were so rigid in the way they executed it. They hovered somewhere in the middle, unable to grow and adapt from feedback, and also avoiding taking the risk of deviating and hitting that low point that might help them break through the patterns they knew.

Whenever I work on art or design projects now, I try to preserve the original sketches, quotes, or notes as much as possible. I know I’ll need them later on to challenge me if I’m thinking of too narrow a solution, and to help orient me when questions arise. When I hit that low, I think of those classes and the students around me stuck on their own unique challenges, in those moments before each finds their own way.

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  1. I definitely understand this, some of my best works are ones that I had to push through a low. Sometimes I have to let it simmer for a while though. Even try working on the subject in a completely different medium. I have went from oil, to watercolor, digital, even some beading or wire work, and then go back to the original and there it is, “click”. One of my favorites, unfortunately, took a couple of years to get back to. I think my mind crunches away at the problem even when not physically working on it.

  2. Hannah

    I find this true in so much of life. After a failed teaching day, I want nothing more than to hide away with a cup of hot cocoa and a rerun of West Wing. But if I’m going to get through the tomorrow, I’ve got to carefully plot out the next lesson and tighten my craft. I’ve got to return to what I know works, and approach problems from a new angle. If I can motivate to take care of the problems, often the next lesson is excellent, and redeems me as a teacher. It’s the getting off the couch that is hard!

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