Yesterday, Laura Tovar Dietrick of Portsmouth, Virginia wrote, “I’m spring cleaning. Sketches, old matted drawings, paintings that aren’t my best, oil studies, unimportant works, etc., have finally found themselves in a big pile. Some, if properly matted and framed, could sell. The problem is that I don’t want to invest in the time, energy or frames. Would slipping them into poly bags with backing be appropriate to move this stuff? Right now, I feel like throwing them into the dumpster, but I have been told not to do so. What do you do with your studies and sketches? What do you think of having a fire-sale?”
Thanks, Laura. Don’t have a fire-sale; have a fire. Don’t use a dumpster. Even if your work is broken up like Humpty Dumpty, people can put it back together again. While burning outdoors is illegal in many places, a household fireplace makes an excellent memorial pyre where substandard work can be sent off with some terminal dignity. Personal note: As a chronic disposophobiac, currently short-listed for “The Hoarders” television program, I’m excellent at giving “throw out” advice, and excellent at not doing it myself.
But I really don’t approve of the idea of slipping things into poly bags and selling them at lesser prices. Artists need to offer only their best work and to be consistent. Your personal integrity is worth more than the few bucks you might put in your purse.
Keep a few for yourself and your family. I have a separate building dedicated to this weakness. I call it my “Salon des Refusées.” Sometimes I like to just sit in there amid my stuff. It feels good all ’round.
Keep a few because you need to refer to them. Sketches, good and bad, are the stepping stones to your better work. Dig them out from time to time and refresh and rerun your earlier trials. It feels good all ’round. Keep a few better ones to give as gifts. Studio visitors are often thrilled to get sketches, particularly when signed and dedicated. Very often I find people think so much of our friendship that they go to a lot of trouble with framing. When coming upon such gifts in friend’s homes I’m often surprised by my generosity and thoughtfulness. They are too. It feels good all ’round.
PS: “When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another.” (Paul Cezanne)
Esoterica: Burning may be necessary for the progress of the muse. Cremation, the most final disposal method of all, permits the artist to move on. There’s nothing like an extreme failure going up the chimney. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas noted, “The burning of bridges makes the nicest fire.” Looking back at a productive life, the Victorian novelist George Meredith wrote, “Not till the fire is dying in the grate, look we for any kinship with the stars.”
Burn only wood indoors
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Charlotte, NC, USA
I am surprised you suggested burning in your fireplace. That is the surest way to burn down your house. I know, I almost did, and that was simply from throwing paper in the fireplace. Inside fireplaces are NOT for bon-fires. Period. What happens is that instead of burning, some papers and things get pulled up into the flue — on fire — and then your chimney and roof follow suit. This happened to us in a matter of seconds. One paper envelope from our mail caught the fire and then floated up the flue. We heard this “wummmmph,” looked at each other and walked out on our deck only to see 20 ft flames shooting from our chimney. If it had not rained and rained hard that day, we would have lost our home. Especially with charcoal, paints, pastels, and chemicals that are in paintings, DO NOT burn them in your fireplace. They leave residue on the interior of the flue that WILL catch on fire; even if a simple spark travels up the flue it can burn down your house. The fireman that saved our home told us this and said, “NEVER burn mail or anything other than logs in your fireplace.” EVER. If you do, you will get to know your local fireman up close and personal and not in a nice way either. If necessary, Laura should get a fire permit on a nice spring day and burn her work. She can get one from her local fire department probably.
(RG note) Thanks, Mary. And thanks to everyone who scolded me for burning. I’m sitting in my “Salon des Refusées,” drinking Scotch, being thankful for yet another reason not to get busy and get rid of this stuff.
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Alternatives to burning
by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA
Besides burning them you can:
— Shred them
— Leave unsigned and donate to Goodwill, etc.
— Sell on eBay or on Craig’s List
— Leave unsigned and put them into Freecycle
— Pull the canvas off the stretchers, cut the painting up into little pieces, re-stretch with new canvas
— Use cut up pieces as bookmarks or collage or scraps to experiment on
— Cut up old watercolors as above
— Wash off bad watercolors and reuse the paper.
— Gesso over an acrylic (I know you frown on this, but I sand it first, then use iridescent gold paint as an imprimatura, to completely obliterate what’s underneath).
— Sign another name on it and sell, donate, or give away. Rose Madder, Georgia O’Cult, Jay June, Michael Handjello, Kerry Vaggio, Ricasso.
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The freedom that comes from burning
by Hugo, Calgary, AB, Canada
I followed your earlier burning advice when I moved my studio about five years ago. I was not all that sure about it at the time, and I had quite a bit of time to think about it, as most of my work from that period was painted on panel. They take a while to burn. It was a very freeing thing to do, and paved the way to a distinct style for me. As I am currently doing another clean-out of a bay in my garage that is to host my letterpress when I get it completed, I ran across a few panels from that period that at the time I could not bear to burn. Today I see quite clearly that I should have.
Purge before it’s too late
by Roxanne Rodwell, Hardu, VA, USA
When purging art files, a spring cleaning seems appropriate. But the availability of a roaring fire during the New Year season is a splendid opportunity to burn 10% of the work of the past year. That is the advice my mentor passed along to his students, and ever since I haven’t been timid about throwing out work that isn’t up to my standards. He also said, “Go through your studio and throw out all your bad work because when you die they’ll come in, go through it and put it all in a museum,” When I visited Delacroix’s studio in Paris, there it all was. I’m sure he would be chagrined if he could see work he wished he had burned.
Throw a party
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
Many times, when I have not liked one of my paintings, others, including artists whose opinion I value, have really liked the piece. I often gift those pieces to the admirer and feel very good about it. I do not feel as though it was a sub-standard piece, but that it spoke to another differently than me. I think Laura could have a little gathering of friends (a good excuse for a party) and spread out these pieces for them to choose. This could be a “culling” and then what is left over may be going into the burn pile. For myself, I tend not to throw anything out, because I will cut it up or collage on top of it and then these become some of my own favorite pieces. One such painting actually ended up in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Foot in the Door exhibit for Minnesota artists last year and now hangs in my dining room.
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Dumpster your online paintings, too
by Randall Cogburn, Alvin, Texas, USA
I got rid of a lot of stuff recently. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it all at once. The darn garbage can was really heavy walking down the street. Then to heave it into the dumpster, well, that was even harder. Should have thought of burning it but I guess I’d be polluting for sure then. I still have a bunch of stuff still most on the wall as reminders. Then there’s my blog. Well it was three or more years in the making and I hacked off about 2 years worth. Hard to see that go but I have all the photos still which is I guess a nice easy way to keep it all. A lot of my work has been done with memories of me and my dad as he ages, still sick but getting slower. Tuff times for sure.
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Dumpster diving for lost treasure
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’m sorry, but I really disagree with you this time. Seems kind of selfish to me that in the name of personal integrity, an artist should destroy all but what they consider to be the very best of their work. Reminds me of a story my friend Katy King told about her early years as a potter using a kiln at the University of Florida. All the potters, faculty and students alike, always smashed their substandard work and the shards would end up in a dumpster. Katy noticed that some folks were willing to climb into the dumpster to pull out the pieces, so they could glue them together to have some real handmade pottery. Katie decided that, although she’d still discard what she didn’t like, she’d leave the pieces intact, outside the dumpster. Not everyone is in a position to buy an artist’s best original work, but handmade things are rare and wonderful. If you don’t like a piece you’ve done, leave it, unsigned, by the side of the dumpster. I promise you, it will be a treasure for someone.
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The ‘three pile’ system
by Leslie Anderson, Sedgwick and Portland, ME, USA
I own two homes, each with a small studio. When I arrive at my summer studio, where older work is stored, I force myself to go through the bins and make three piles: destroy, re-purpose, and donate. The destroy pile gets cut up in tiny pieces and goes to the dump. I go through the re-purpose pile to see if there are small gems hidden within larger failed works and if so, crop appropriately, mat, and sell at the farmer’s market. (If not, move immediately to destroy pile). The donate pile goes to a local non-profit that builds and manages affordable housing for seniors, low-income families, and homeless folks who are transitioning to apartment living. These are used to brighten up common areas, and are much appreciated. This process gives me an opportunity to look with fresh eyes at older work, see how far I’ve come (or not), and helps me set painting directives for myself for the coming summer.
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Let the kids deal with it
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
Being prolific is a curse. But giving art to unsuspecting recipients is the most rewarding experience one can have. I remove the frames which possibly could be used for future works and let them frame the works. If they do a smashing job, then they can see how much it costs us to do it for them. There is a series of 30 or more oil paintings I did which hang on my home walls. I would be hard pressed to make plans to dispose of them. They whisper to me where I’ve been and encourage me to keep doing it. I am not mentioning the two huge cylindrical containers in which I’ve encapsulated rolled up early watercolors and oil paintings listing the titles on the side and enclosing slide sheets, resumes, etc. Yes, they were done before the digital revolution. Let my sons deal with those! My supplies however remain intact to my husband’s dismay.
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The comfort of ‘The Pile’
by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada
We’ve all heard “Without valleys, there can be no hills; without losses, there can be no gains.” Without a variety of our work around us spanning across the good, the bad and the downright ugly, how do we gauge ourselves? Memories are fleeting things and if we think we’ll remember how bad we used to paint, forget it! A record of our accomplishments and failures around us, whether it be sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, is a fantastic reference for us as artists. My pile goes up and down like The Bay of Fundy but it is always there. I actually find “The Pile” comforting as I drag the whole thing out and sift through them on this rainy, damp day, looking for a lost and forgotten idea.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Spring cleaning…
Where The Road Goes
acrylic painting, 28 x 30 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Lynette Fuller who sent this quote: “The end of all my labors has come. All that I have written appears to me as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
And also Bill Kerr of Courtenay, BC, Canada, who wrote, “In a silly mood I have signed a few poor paintings ‘Adolph H.’ and left them in garbage containers in plain view. It helped me get out of a funk.”