On Not Giving Up: The Ugly Painting and the Second Try

Art, Depression / Saturday, April 14th, 2018

I turn to art when my thoughts are dragging me down into the depths and I desperately need a ballast to pull me back up towards safety. Usually, picking up a pen or a brush allows me a few hours of tranquility, which is rare for someone in the midst of a mental health crisis. It lets me reset enough so that I can work through my thoughts enough so that I am no longer at a crisis level of emotion and I can reasonably address whatever needs to be taken care of.

And, bonus points! I usually have a beautiful drawing or painting as a sort of consolation prize for doing this art therapy. Something that makes me feel like I have accomplished something and am participating not only in my life, but this world. It allows me to feel like I’m fighting hard for my health and that I have tangible proof of it, in my hand, to show all of the people who don’t believe me, or who think I don’t fight hard enough. More than that, it is proof for myself. I have something to hold in my hand, for when my brain is on the warpath and trying its hardest to break the world record for knocking me into the fetal position.


This night I was going to paint a clown fish, ensconced in corals and anemones. I had it all planned out in my head and it was gorgeous. Normally when I start painting, I feel my pain start to become less noticeable, which is a freaking godsend. My anxiety tends to crawl away bit by bit. I think it’s the working with my hands and seeing such beautiful colors blossom on the paper before me. It still amazes me how much better I feel at the end of a painting session.

But this time the sense of calm never came. I kept getting more and more tense and the agitation kept climbing in me. The colors kept bleeding. They were too bold and wouldn’t blend. I lost the white of my page in the wrong places. And MY GOD. Look at the hideous little fish face I had created! It… it was awful. I ended up in tears as I painted this should-be-cute-but-i-made-ugly little fish that I began to loathe. I kept working on it, because I didn’t want to quit on it and have the feeling of not finishing and giving up. I got all the way to the end of the painting…

There have been some paintings I have done where I was absolutely certain I had botched the painting royally. Then I get to the end of them and I am astonished and wonder who snuck in while I was in the bathroom and fixed all of my errors and made a good looking lizard or whale. Even my paintings I think I could have done better on, I find things I like about the paintings. But not this one. This one I was actually crying over. I hated everything about this painting. It looked to me like a child had done it and the fish had bled its colors all wrong and the anemones weren’t looking the way I wanted— they looked like undercooked spaghetti that had been tossed in food coloring, became sentient and waved its arms at me like a car lot air dancer that was mocking me for sucking so much at painting(you see it, right? You see those danged air dancers? I can’t unsee them now and I refuse to be haunted alone).



I was so angry and wanted to quit and never paint again. Obviously all of the other paintings I had done had been flukes and this was the real me coming to the surface— the talentless, worthless me that everyone knew was there. I had had some good luck but now here I was again, failing at yet another thing, because failing was what I always do best.

I set the painting to the side. I don’t know how I did this or why. In the past, I would have given up. I have given up. But this time I picked up a fresh sheet up paper and a pencil and began a fresh sketch. When I finished I set out fresh watercolors and began painting, more mindfully this time.

A few things started going right and I felt better. I was astonished that it was going right and felt conflicted. Which me was the true self? Was it the the failure and the fraud, or the artist who could produce actual paintings?

As I finished a work I was proud of, I realized I am both. There are going to be times in my life when I fail, but that doesn’t make me a failure. There are going to be times in my life when I succeed as well, and I need to use those times to build up resilience for the harder times. Because of my depression it makes me feel like a fraud and my brain tells me I should give up and never try again and that I am worthless. But that’s just my depression, not me. I know for a fact I’m going to forget this lesson and have to teach myself over and over again. That’s the ongoing battle that is mental illness. It’s a freaking marathon, followed by a 5k, followed by a triathlon, with a few carb loading sessions and Netflix binges shoved in between. The point is fighting for my mental health is going to be a life long journey. As of now, there is no cure, but it can get better. And I can hold onto that hope during the times when things are all Alexander(terrible, horrible, no good… c’mon. You know you’re going to start saying it to now).

The point is, I’m so grateful that I picked up my pencil and brush again. That I got to see what was on the other side of failure.

My lovely partner has finished the hard, behind the scenes, work on the blog. So, he’s going to help me launch the area where you can send and upload your own work along with a short piece about what you’re going through and how art has helped you or whatever art does for you. Basically get messy with your media and say some words. Hope to see some art soon!



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