When it’s a big muddy mess . . .

This is a recap of a talk I was invited to give at a gathering, hosted by Leah Goard for her Define Design Align Academy.

In a room filled with intelligent and inspiring female entrepreneurs, I got up and started speaking about mud!

I was accompanied by Marleen Vermeulen, my lovely friend and co-host of our Open Your Art Retreats. We brought a painting each for show and tell, so that I could speak about our painting process. I wanted to explain how we move forward when our paintings literally feel like mud.

I shared 3 ideas that work for both of us:

1. Scrap it or paint over parts of it. This is hard to do and takes courage because it feels like a failure.

I’ve seen Marleen take one of her big palette knives and scrap off layers of thick oil paint because she was fighting a part of her painting too much. I’ve painted over parts of mine with a solid colour for the same reason. When there is too much resistance and too much struggle, the work is simply not aligned.

I’ve done this with other projects as well. I once had a registered business name and website built. Before I launched, I realized with Leah’s help that the whole thing was just a huge distraction. It was taking me farther away from what I really wanted and was scared of pursuing. I hit delete.

This is really hard to do because we see this as a failure. We are conditioned to believe that failure is really bad when it is actually part of the process. Failure is necessary in every pursuit. This is easy to remember when you think of a scientist or inventor for them every failure is a step closer to an epiphany! If you are developing a new product or service, try out prototypes with people that you know will give you honest feedback. Be willing to fail early in the game before you’ve invested too much (like a website)!

The fine line here is recognizing the difference between moving through a rough spot and being completely off course. It’s not easy to distinguish at times, usually it’s your gut feeling that can tell you to keep on going or to scrap it.

At the talk, a discussion ensued about being able to tune into our intuition. I have my yoga practice and my meditation to help me listen for inner guidance. In addition, painting actually forces me to tap into my intuition constantly. Tuning in is a skill that helps me navigate other decisions in my life. Regardless of your day job, a creative practice is an effective tool for listening to your intuition because it is what guides you to choose a colour, pick up a certain sized brush, make a new mark and ultimately tells you when your work is done.

A playful practice in life is invaluable because it normalizes failing. It is a reminder that it’s ok if things don’t work out and takes the weight off of the decision to start over.

2. Trust in the process.

Both Marleen and I agree that when we are staring at mud on the canvas, we usually surrender to the process to help us find clarity. We look for the area on the painting that’s bothering us the most and ask ourselves what step we could take to move into a new direction. Then we step back and look at the whole canvas again. Sometimes that one mark or new colour is just what the entire painting needed to bring it all together. Usually, we observe how that step resonated with the entire piece and we look for another section on the canvas and ask the same question,

“What can I do here to move this part forward?”

We repeat over and over until step by step the painting starts to come together. This is what trust in the process really means to me. Take one step, see how that feels, check in with the whole project then take the next small step.

3. Ask for help. This is very vulnerable but it is also so valuable to get a different set of eyes on your project.

Reach out to someone that you trust. Someone that you know who will be able to give you honest and respectful feedback.

I have a personal story to share about this:

A few years ago I was preparing a painting for a group show that Marleen was also involved with. I was honoured to be invited and was inspired by many of the artists in the show. I was also nervous about my piece and was “in the mud.” I reached out to Marleen for help. I didn’t know her very well but I knew that she was kind and I respected her work. She was amazing and within minutes she helped me resolve my painting. It turns out the painting just needed a bit more blue! I couldn’t see it, I was too stuck and overwhelmed. That afternoon over tea, she started to tell me about this magical place called Juseu in Spain. She had thought about hosting a group of painters there for a retreat and wanted to know if I was interested in exploring that idea with her. Of course I did!

While I was preparing for this talk, I asked her if she had the Spain retreat idea in her mind before coming over to visit me that afternoon. “No,” she said, “it just came up while we were relaxing over tea.”

I’m so glad I got out of my way and asked for her help that day. I’m so glad that I was able to be vulnerable and invite critique about my work. It is hard to do but I’m living proof of the rewards. We are just about to embark on our 3rd Open Your Art Retreat in Spain. By the way, the painting also found a new home and I’m still in touch with its lovely new owners, another ripple in my metaphor.


Lastly, I want to leave you with this one thought; you will always find yourself in ‘the mud’ at times. This experience is part of the creative curve. Relish it because it means that you are pushing new ideas forward. That you’ve stepped out of your comfort zone and are in a growth spurt. It is painful at times but necessary.

You are intelligent, curious and creative so go get yourself a good pair of boots and enjoy the journey!





Photo: Thank you Tanis Frame for the photo!

By Marlene Lowden

I'm an abstract artist and a down to earth yogi. I live on the Sunshine Coast of British Columbia, Canada.


  1. This was great. I really connected with the comment that failure is not bad but rather a part of the process. I needed this today. Thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing Marlene. I am writing again as I do not think my first comment got posted. Your story is very touching and heart-warming.
    Personally, I think that PIGS must be the HAPPIEST BEINGS in the Universe as they get to roll around in the MUD all day.
    In my 20’s ( a throw-back to my Hippie Woodstock days) the thought of rolling around in the MUD was delicious. And it can continue to be so.
    Happy MUD Slinging Everyone!
    Deborah 😉

  3. Hi Marlene,
    Thanks so much for this sharing this. It is a very heart warming story.
    As for MUD I am in the middle of it now. However, when I was much younger in my 20’s I thought PIGS must be the HAPPIEST Beings in the universe because they get to ROLL AROUND in the MUD all day!!! A throw back to my hippie days and the Woodstock Folk Festival. No I wasn’t there but I wanted to be. And now I just want to be FREE! HAPPY MUD SLINGING today everyone!
    Deborah 😉

  4. Thanks so much for this. I have been stuck on a painting for a month. Have revisited it three times to no avail! Today I’ll paint over the area that isn’t working and see where that takes me. I so appreciate this blog!!!!!
    Denise Grsms

  5. Hi Marlene,
    I just have to let you know how much I appreciated reading your blog today as I am often in the muck!!! I admire your and attitude and it is comforting to know that such strong artists as yourself and Marleen still get stuck in the mud. Learning to love the process. Patricia

    1. I’m so glad that it resonated with you Patricia. I hope we all find ourselves in the muck from time to time because it means we are still moving forward 🙂

      Much love,

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