Should I destroy them?


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Roscoe E. Wallace of Fort Walton Beach, FL, wrote, “Do you recommend painting over acrylic paintings or should they be kept for reflection? Since I’ve been at it for over 40 years, I have lots of paintings that used to be keepers, but which no longer show my present painting skills, my likes or my style. I wonder why I kept many of them. Should I destroy them? Or should I use them for supplies? I sometimes like the effect of painting over, but mostly this makes me lose my spontaneity and interferes with my current painting approach.”


“Island With Waves – Panama”
acrylic painting
by Roscoe E. Wallace

Thanks, Roscoe. Every so often we need to get busy and chuck — just in case some executor or offspring makes the mistake of thinking something’s okay. There’s enough bad art in the world already and we don’t want to add to it by leaving substandard stuff out and about. I don’t know about you, Roscoe, but that reflection you mentioned can be a living nightmare as well. We grow. We get better.

Regarding painting over, it’s a personal thing. Some painters don’t mind an underlying failure and accept it for any texture it may provide. On the other hand, many painters feel a failed or flawed image jinxes a canvas forever. No matter how obliterated by overlying gesso, it’s down there yelling that you’re a lousy painter.


“Flowers Imp”
acrylic painting
by Roscoe E. Wallace

A virgin canvas with a favourite ground has a kind of unsullied decency that a used canvas can never have. As spontaneity is a valued asset, dump the interference. Painters need to identify and tune into those seemingly minor fetishes that cause the spirit to flourish.

Now for something completely different: Some artists have a sense of preciousness about every squiggle or splodge they make. They hang onto stuff with tenacity, even building archives to rival The Ark of the Covenant. I’ve always put this down to poor toilet training, but it may also have something to do with ego blow or the expectation of a place in the history of art. Curiously, this sense of intrinsic brilliance is a condition frequently rampant among artists whose work is of low challenge or difficult for anyone to criticize, including themselves.


“Waiting On The Captain”
acrylic painting
by Roscoe E. Wallace

Best regards,


PS: “All that we are not stares back at what we are.” (W. H. Auden) “I know it’s very egocentric to believe that someone is put on Earth for a reason. In my case, I like to think I was.” (Art Buchwald)

Esoterica: If you do paint new over old acrylics, make sure you remove any final protective coat before you lay down new gesso or other primer. Ordinary household ammonia takes off most final acrylic varnishes. Before you prime, you’ll need to sand the surface as well. Sometimes a sanded surface yields something new and interesting — then you’re back to the same old problem. Good luck.


Roscoe E. Wallace’s paintings


“Lost & Found #5”
acrylic painting


“Blue Water Bay Marina”
acrylic painting


“Native With Molas”
acrylic painting






Keep evidence
by Hans Mertens, The Netherlands


“Lady in the garden”
watercolour painting
by Hans Mertens

Being an art teacher as well, I always recommend my students to keep everything they create, so they can see their own development, but also there’s a good part in every “bad” painting always.

Also being a painter for 22 years now, I still have what I created 22 years ago. For me is “touching” how I started and struggled over the years.

There is 1 comment for Keep evidence by Hans Mertens

From: bleu — Oct 25, 2009

One of my art teachers told us we should always keep our early work to refer to on those days when we were stuck. He said it would always remind us of our motivation, our essence as artists.


Don’t keep evidence
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington , NC, USA


oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Mary Susan Vaughn

That is too funny. If I really don’t like a painting, I might hold onto it for a month or so, but then I gesso over it and try to use the canvas again. But, I have found that, yes, the crummy painting beneath this white canvas is screaming at me that I am a lousy artist. More often than not, I pitch the painting that I gessoed over and think “So how many dollars did I just wing out in the garbage?” Then I’m disgusted and leave my studio for a few days to return with a new perspective on my artwork and a renewed sense of creativity and confidence. Also, I find that by keeping the crappy paintings, it only serves to make me feel worse about my work. I want to surround myself with my successes, not my failures.

There are 2 comments for Don’t keep evidence by Mary Susan Vaughn

From: Anonymous — Oct 13, 2009

As I was cleaning up after a college class I threw out some ink sketches into the dorm hallway where they were to be collected by the janitors. Many years later I was visiting in the home of a college friend and discovered she had taken a very poorly done sketch from my trash and had it hanging over her sofa. I tried to get it from her but she LOVED it. Although I’m truly embarassed by it, it is giving her pleasure. I’ve even offered to exchange it – no soap.

From: Larry Proteau — Oct 14, 2009

To recover a canvas covered with a bad acrylic painting, put a generous amount of rubbing alcohol on it, then cover with a plastic sheet to prevent evaporation. Wait 3 or 4 hours. The paint will have turned to a mushy goo, which can be easily scraped off. Wait for the canvas to dry, and cover with gesso.


Who’s to say?
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA


“Sailor’s Delight”
acrylic painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Brad Greek

Most people who know me know that I’m a believer in all work has a place in this world. Myself, knowing Roscoe Wallace, there isn’t a thing wrong with any of these paintings that he is referring to destroying. I have never seen as much planning go into a painting that he exercises when he’s working. His paintings are fine, just not to his taste today. I’ve seen him paint over paintings in the past, which is fine, but I think, what a waste of great effort that was already there. Any of these we would be proud to hang on ones’ wall. Roscoe! leave your paintings alone!!

I guess my view point on this whole “Destroy substandard works” is: Who am I, like most everyone, still growing, is to say that a piece of work isn’t worth making it to someone’s wall? In today’s standards of “What Is Art?” debate, how can anything be dismissed? Sure, I have work that I didn’t like the outcome of, usually the first piece that sold. I guess I have bad taste in my own work.


Studio clear-out
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland


original painting
by Caroline Simmill

I have just been having a good old clear out of my studio. My space was getting full of old canvases that were not good enough to sell. I saw them as practice pieces and an important part of the painting journey. However I did notice that once stored away I rarely looked at them, yet they were taking up so much space. I got rid of them and now my studio has only the paintings I either feel I want to sell or use to paint again having learnt from the mistakes I made earlier. Some are nice paintings that have bristles from the brush or old cloth fragments on so I need to paint them again. I say travel light, it is the best way to travel on your artistic journey!

There are 5 comments for Studio clear-out by Caroline Simmill

From: Caroline — Oct 13, 2009

I don’t understand why the colours of my painting look different here, in reality my painting doesn’t have much blue in it at all. It is just warm light and looks that way on the jpeg sent to Robert Genn and also on my website. It doesn’t look right here.

From: Bill Hibberd — Oct 13, 2009

I’ve never seen a painting yet that transitions from canvas to digital format without much mind-numbing colour correction. Nature of the beast.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Oct 14, 2009

I haven’t seen the original in order to compare, but, hey, it’s a beautiful painting: lovely, ethereal… Congratulations.

From: gregg hangebrauck — Oct 14, 2009

the answer is, that either your monitor is not calibrated, or robert glenn’s is not. My guess is yours is not. There are a few good devices fairly inexpensive that calibrate monitors. Just google monitor calibration. Eye one makes a decent one for about 200 dollars. Then you know that what you are putting out there is calibrated and that all the other calibrated monitors see your image the same way.
any questions email me

use the contact page.

From: Caroline — Oct 20, 2009

Thank you Sam for fixing the image for me apparently there was an error during the transferring stage. It now looks as it should.


Sacrificing paintings to exploration
by Carol Ann Cain, FL, USA


“A Pollock Boggy # 6”
original painting
by Carol Ann Cain

In this economy it seems wiser to gesso, than to destroy. A mature artist can certainly look past a bit of texture. In addition, painting directly on top of some of my less honored paintings has brought about a new series — I call it my “Pollock Boggy” series. Sacrificing paintings to further exploration has been just as freeing as destruction, and more frugal.


There is 1 comment for Sacrificing paintings to exploration by Carol Ann Cain

From: Karen R. Phinney — Oct 13, 2009

I have a friend who is a daring and flexible artist, she loves to paint over old stuff. She says the texture becomes part of the next work, and that is a stimulant to her creating something new. She is innovative and daring, and I like that attitude of making a piece that isn’t that great into something else. She is never held back in her ways of doing things, including remaking old canvases into exciting new pieces!


Elimination a good thing
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Autumn Evening Drive”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

I find it liberating to destroy paintings that no longer suit me. Even better if there is a huge fire going and I can chuck them right in! I don’t find that disrespects my effort in the least bit. What it does is reinforce the notion that my best is down the road on my journey. As my pastor says, “The past is in the tomb and future in the womb,’ so I need to focus on the present. I wouldn’t keep old love letters if I had them either. Don’t want to dwell on the past in that regard either. Nostalgia is not something I usually indulge in unless it is wonderful feelings. I’m happy to keep THEM! I’m with you. Hopefully some of my best work will survive my stay on Earth, but I’ve no use for the mediocre examples hanging around. Each artist ought to be supplied with a large personal dumpster and some sort of ego-flushing liquid to drink. Elimination is a good thing.

There are 4 comments for Elimination a good thing by Paul deMarrais

From: donfolk — Oct 13, 2009

I agree Paul – elimination is a good thing. I find myself burning pieces that I find so horrible that the act of burning is itself a performance art for me. I can revel in the art of creation and in the art of destruction, all without hurting anyone.

From: carolyn — Oct 13, 2009

This brings up another issue – the toxic substances we all use in our painting and how to dispose of them safely. Is burning really a good idea? The release of toxins in volatile form isn’t great – we breate it, it rains back down into the soil. Is landfill better? I don’t know if there is definitive science on this. And as for the stuff we pour down drains, well, we and animal plants end up bathing or imbibbing it – water purification plants haven’t done much with alot of the toxins by the time the water pours out of your faucet. I work with acrylic and water colour, and have a collecting bucket for dirty water which evaporates off and I remove the sludge with a rag or papertowel and throw that out hoping that the acrylic will lock up the nasty cadmiums etc. for a while. Sometimes this toxin conundrum gets to me so much that I pick up my pencil and pen for a few weeks.

From: Anonymous — Oct 13, 2009

Environmental tip: If you really can’t stand to reuse them yourself, you might want to just gesso over the old paintings and donate the canvases to your local high school art class or beginning art group. They would really appreciate them.

From: Susan Vaughn — Oct 13, 2009

You got that right Paul! I couldn’t have said it better myself. Now I know what to add to my Big Bear’s bon fire when we cut down trees in our back yard.


Held back by unfinished pieces
by Michelle Sirois-Silver, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Doughnut Delight”
mixed media by
Michelle Sirois-Silver

I’m a fibre artist and I make hand hooked rugs. Your comment, “There’s enough bad art in the world already and we don’t want to add to it by leaving substandard stuff out and about. I don’t know about you, Roscoe, but that reflection you mentioned can be a living nightmare as well,” struck a cord with me because last year I went through my ‘pile’ of unfinished pieces and tossed several of them. The pieces were unfinished for a reason — they were stiff and dark. I did have the option to pull out the fabrics strips and reuse the backing and fabric strips for another project. I had a moment of doubt as I threw them in the garbage but afterward I felt liberated and it helped to clear my mind. I was able move on to other things that I wanted to work on instead and it released the guilt of having ‘unfinished’ pieces laying around. I find it interesting to think that those pieces were in some ways holding me back. And to some degree I think I was also influenced by what others in my community might think if they knew I was tossing out unfinished pieces. I’ve let that all go now. I don’t miss those pieces at all and I’m glad I did it.


Overpainting pleasures
by Jeanette Obbink


oil painting
by Jeanette Obbink

Personally I enjoy working over a painting that has failed. But in order to do so I turn my work sideways or upside down without whitening, or putting a layer of gesso in between. Given I work with oil, I lightly sand down the failed work — getting rid of the worst bumps and I go colour on colour. It is a great exercise in bold decision making as the new layer needs to cover enough of what is underneath to start the new work and make the eye see where the mind wants to go. Halfway through a first layer of new work it looks like a zoo, but unexpected pleasures happen when colours start to zing with the previous attempt and new shapes start to emerge. Not to mention the fact that it helps when one can’t afford to discard the old canvas. Although most of my work is on a fresh canvas, I don’t mind the mistakes or failed attempt or discarded pieces, as it is all part of the journey… for a sample of my work… here’s one that has at least 2 failed paintings underneath…

There is 1 comment for Overpainting pleasures by Jeanette Obbink

From: Liz Reday — Oct 13, 2009

My sentiments exactly! Some of my best work has been done over a failure. It’s very freeing, knowing that you have nothing to lose and potential magic in the juxtaposition of upside down old and the new discovery. Never felt jinxed, quite the opposite: lucky.


by Elizabeth Line

I disagree. I live a very transient life and wish that I had been able to keep my earlier drawings, paintings, and works on paper. I’ve never really had a consistent, safe, studio or place to store a lot of my art. I’ve lost many works through my many moves and irrational moments of “chucking.” At this point in my life, I think back on these works, and they signify home to me. I wish I had some of them. I often think about how important it is to have reminders and to acknowledge myself in how far I have come in developing my own vision. I also see themes in the older work that I have managed to hang on to, though right now it manifests in different ways in my work.

I never regret cleaning, editing, and recycling old canvases and drawings, but at the same time I wish that I had not been so zealous in my past “spring cleaning” attempts! I completely understand the desire to start fresh and the burden and energy of one’s artistic history! My advice would be to edit carefully, look at each piece and maybe have another artist friend come into who you trust to help you “pare down.”

Rather than think of it as “poor toilet training,” I think old works can be recycled: canvases cut down into scraps and made into collage, frames re-used. These old things often have new meaning and life when they are re-configured and re-worked into our current artistic vision. And, the canvases, scraps and old works are already imbued with our history and mark-making.


Joys of burning
by Anna Mulfinger, PA, USA

I used to be a “hoarder” of every little scrap I drew on, but I took one of your older emails to heart and had a ritual burning of my substandard art. Most of it was sketches, but several paintings went in there as well. While one friend was astonished and horrified by this act, the older friend seemed to understand. Some of that stuff was just embarrassing — I don’t know why I kept it in the first place! I kept repeating that mantra anytime they said, “Why are you burning this?!!” It really did enliven me to know that when I die, I won’t have crappy artwork around to mock me. Leonardo da Vinci has very few finished paintings in existence, and none of them (that I’ve seen) are sub-par…perhaps this is why he goes down in history as such a flawless, perfected painter.

Canvases in particular are such a beautiful joy to burn. I had some of those old types of cheaper canvases (from high school, you know) that were just stretched over cardboard and glued down. When those burn, the canvas bubbles up from the cardboard, holes form with various colors from the paint pigments, and eventually the heat breaks free from between these surfaces and spits out fire like a flame-thrower. It’s awesome to behold!


Smashing liberation
by Andrew Wielawski, Seravezza, Italy


“Study for a Girls face”
stone sculpture
by Andrew Wielawski

A few years ago, I destroyed a marble sculpture I had made, during happy hour at a plaza bar next to where it stood. I made its destruction into an event, and included some of the more inebriated of the bar’s customers, who took turns with a big hammer at trying to knock chunks off.

The impetus to produce this piece was rotten to say the least. A Greek gallerist who knew my figurative work asked me if I could make something big in a hurry. “You don’t have to carve everywhere,” he said, “just throw a few small figurative elements into a mass of ambiguous junk. We can make a lot of money.”

The gallerist drifted away, and I got stuck with two and a half tons of “Does This Not Make Sense.” After placing the piece in storage at a museum, which exhibited it after getting a waiver of responsibility from me, I had the chance to show it on the other side of Florida, at Marco Island, and potentially sell it. When I didn’t, I began to see that I’d forever be a slave to this sculpture, spending money on transport, and becoming hopeful and then disappointed each time I put it up for sale. I decided to liberate myself by destroying it, and was determined to have some fun at the same time.

I rented an aggressive looking Dodge Charger, and got permission to drive it into the plaza to load the pieces as they were ‘disassembled.’ I got some friends to help me, and had a film professor from a nearby college come to film the event. No one knew what I was planning to do except for him and my friends.

Some of the people present protested, but no one made any effort to stop me. By the end of the evening, some bar patrons had begun to ask if they could take away small chunks as souvenirs. We had brought a truck to carry away scraps, but when we finally left, there weren’t any. The people had carried away every bit of the 2 1/2 tons of marble.

Although there were reporters from several local papers there to cover the removal, when their editors realized the piece had been destroyed, they decided not to run any story at all.

From what had been a bad piece, I left with the memory of an evening of fun. And best of all, I had been liberated.

There is 1 comment for Smashing liberation by Andrew Wielawski

From: Jimmy Kelly — Nov 14, 2009

Great story, thanks for sharing it




The wind of summer

acrylic painting
by Carl Schlademan


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 John Fitzsimmons of Fayetteville, NY, USA, who wrote, “Whenever I paint over an old painting I regret it. Not only do the old painting’s sins persist and somehow seem to bleed through the new paint but I miss out on the satisfying exercise of destroying some old work that had way too much effort into it.”

And also Sam Hunter of VA, USA, who wrote, “I once heard from a ceramics teacher “Smash it or sign it.” In other words… sign the stuff that shows the best of you, and don’t let the lesser works out of the house with your name on them. Roger that!”

And also Mary Ellen Connelly of Sioux Falls, SD, USA, who wrote, “Thanks, I needed this; I’m not an anal person, just too damned proud of little old me!”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Should I destroy them?



From: Shirley Peters — Oct 08, 2009

If the old painting is on a stretcher, strip off the canvas, roll it up, and write on the outside the title, date and a comment. These rolled canvases take up little room, and can be shoved into an attic and are out of mind. Then, at a later date, you will either be delighted to see an old friend, or horrified! Then the decision to chuck or not might be easier. (The paint might crack if you roll too tight, so maybe use a postage tube as a core, and keep adding to it, one canvas over the other.) This way, you will now have a stretcher ready for a new canvas.

From: Faith — Oct 08, 2009

Since I moved into a smaller apartment and gave up my studio, I have stored a lot of paintings in my cellar, which is fortunately dry and temperate. For ages I’ve been considering doing away with a lot of them. I’m in the habit of obliterating paintings that I’m not happy with (or are just plain awful), so there are a number of blanked out canvases to deal with, and a number of paintings in various stages of completion, which I presumably gave up on! But I also stored a number of very large paintings which have just languished there after the exhibition they were painted for did not happen (circumstances beyond my control). Only last week I bought a lethal cutting knife to deal with them. But I am currently represented at a group exhibition, and at the vernissage a lady came up to me and invited me to do a solo exhibition! Yesterday I inspected the venue, a hospital with long, wide corridors, and realized that those paintings I had written off were going to look great on those walls! Had I not been too busy all week, those big paintings would now be off the stretchers and rolled up in a corner. I don’t know if anyone will want to buy one, but at least they’ll get an airing. And of course, there are other ways of clearing the “attic”. Why not donate paintings you would otherwise destroy to a charity shop or other good cause? No one will know you can no longer identify with them!

One more idea: Stretchers can be reused! A roll of canvas (heavy cotton or linen) is a good investment.

And as Shirley says, storing paintings rolled up is a practical proposition if you can’t make a decision. You can always reinstate them and it’s never too late to throw jetsam overboard!

From: Richard Smith — Oct 08, 2009

I know of sculptors who have thousands of dollars worth of sculpture, sitting in storage. What’s the point of having work you no longer enjoy just taking up space? I’ve recycled a number of bronzes and turned them into new pieces. Artwork is like anything, if it hasn’t had a purpose after a certain length of time then it’ s time to part company. Make it into something better.

From: Eric Armstrong — Oct 08, 2009

I keep tons of small things I’ve painted that are incomplete pictures, abandoned efforts, what have you, but only if there are pieces within them that were done well and that might some day find similar expression in another work. Because I paint exclusively with watercolor I don’t have the problem of bulky canvases taking up room. I love going through folders of old partial pictures, because often I find that I reabsorb the image into my internal reference library and more finely depict it at some time in the future. No ego involved in this case. These are learning devices and memory aids. If and when I die (an obscure and unlamented painter) and those things are still on the shelves in my studio, my heirs can toss them or keep them as they see fit.

From: Dora Gourley — Oct 09, 2009

I paint mainly in watercolor and teach a watercolor class. It’s easy to take some of my work and just paint over it in gesso or a light colored acrylic background, then I have a free ‘canvas’ to paint an acrylic painting on. It works great, the paper is then heavier and holds up well to the ‘new’ artwork.

I can also flip the paper over and do a new watercolor on the back. Old masters often did that.

From: Bonny Current — Oct 09, 2009

I used to think I should keep everything – as a way to watch my career and hopefully my development as an artist. Now I realize that I cannot nor do I wish to keep work that I do not think repressents the best of what i am as an artist. I don’t want the sub par stuff out there for any generation to see. I don’t mind keeping pieces that I think were my best at the time – but not every one. There are just too many to keep and supplies are too expensive to just chuck a canvas. Drywall sanding mesh is great for getting rid of old masterpieces!

From: KennyO — Oct 09, 2009

After my last purge of paintings into the local dumpster, I found some of my paintings were rescued by a dumpster diver. If you want them removed from circulation then destroy them before you through them away.

From: Jessica Lipsky — Oct 09, 2009

My studio-mate gives me all of her oil painted canvases that she no longer wants and I get to paint over them. I turn the painting upside down, splash some left over oil color onto it not really covering the canvas 100% and stash until dry. Then I begin….allowing some of her color to be incorporated into my new landscape.

From: L. Anne McClelland — Oct 09, 2009

I find ways to recycle acrylics which either don’t seem to be selling or which have weak areas I can’t or don’t want to fix. I love to use failed paintings as the ground for a new image (but usually turn the original image upside down so it’s not so distracting when over painting). Otherwise, I find the strongest areas which work as a complete image and remove the canvas from the stretchers to then cut the original canvas into resized pieces and mount them onto board for reframing. Any remaining pieces are either kept for new starts or collage elements or cut into 3″x4″ segments and mounted on cardstock to sell as ‘recylced art’ cards. A failed or outdated painting can still generate income if creatively recycled.

From: Bobbi Heath — Oct 09, 2009

Currently my approach is to paint small and finish a piece in one sitting almost every day (and I love posting them to my blog and getting comments). But there was a period when I was following the advice “do many starts”. As Roscoe said, I don’t find those starts are really suitable for how I paint today. I totally agree with Robert, get rid of them! My method is to gesso over them (they are oils) and then I give them to either a friend who is a local grade school art teacher or to my son’s college friends who are art majors. They don’t have the money to by supplies and are thrilled to get them. I also give them art supplies that I bought, tried out, and didn’t care for. How many times have you held on to something, thinking it will be useful someday, only to find that when you are ready to get rid of it, it is no longer useful to anyone? Give it to someone who can use it, now!

From: Mary A. — Oct 09, 2009

If you really do not want to keep or recycle them, I agree with Bobbi – gesso over them and donate them. My friend volunteers teaching art classes at Ronald McDonald House to children with cancer – she is always in need of supplies.

From: Victoria — Oct 09, 2009

I wonder did Picasso destroy all of his old paintings because he changed his style? Would we have samples of art work that artists did in their past to show their progression today if all artists destroyed former works of art? I agree there is a lot of junk out there but should we destroy everything from the our past? Art historians are going to have a tough time with our generation of artists if we continue to destroy our past because we have changed in the present. Should our art work go the way of the hard copy photo negative and delete like today’s digital photos? I’m wondering is anyone else?

From: Nancy Marshall — Oct 09, 2009

I agree! Some old paintings are just too awful to save. I cringe when I visit a relative’s house and they have something hanging on their wall that I did in high school! (I’m in my 50s now…) I use some old paintings to start fires in my wood stove. But with some, I take on the challenge of improving them. Many can be “saved” with a few expert brushstrokes, or by softening an edge or adding some new flourish. Some, sadly are relegated to the burn box – and they deserve to be there. I have no regrets!

From: Barb — Oct 09, 2009

There is no danger that our generation of artists will end up unrecorded. There are mountains and mountains of junk in form of failed paintings, worthless sketchbooks, every thought and scribble treasured, seas of photographs – paper and digital, imagine all that real state wasted. Everyone and their dog hopes they are a Picasso. This age will be remembered as the age of delusional self-importance. It will (and should) all be destroyed to make space for next generations. The few Picassos will be treasured by collectors and museums, not by artists. We need to let go of ourselves and let us be caught by those who need us.

From: Cal — Oct 09, 2009

Recently I sorted through boxes of unsold paintings. Some I destroyed, but others I sanded off my name, signed on the back using a faux name and donated to the local charity shop. The woman in charge was very pleased to receive them, telling me art sold well there and they were always glad to get more. Carrying out the door a second batch for charity, my neighbor begged me to give him a painting, so I let him. He noticed none were signed. I explained if I signed the painting I would expect to be paid for the work, otherwise it devalues the work I previously sold. He said he’d put his name on them. I laughed and he took two paintings, very excited. So my storage area is cleared out, a charity made some money and my neighbor is happy.

From: tamsin — Oct 09, 2009

I think Shirley’s got it about right. I go the other way and chuck absolutely everything out (set fire to it) with gusto too hastily. I was looking through some old photos the other day and saw some of some paintings I did years ago and thought ‘I wish I’d kept that one’ lol

From: Jason Leisering — Oct 10, 2009

I would suggest putting the paintings into storage to keep as a reminder. If you are concerned about them being shown when you are gone I would suggest putting a note on the back stating your opinion about the work. Good or bad they are yours and I think having a visual reference of progress and benchmarks can really help. I know I have destroyed work in the past and have later regretted it because their was something in those destroyed works that helped inform my current work and process. Although sometimes it really helps to burn work or destroy work in order to move on or change gears. I think it is always best to keep work. Even separate it into three folios, a bad work folio, a good work folio, and a works that could be developed folio. Sometimes you don’t know what you have until its gone.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Oct 10, 2009

I believe some work should be destroyed — pieces that were experiments, demos for classes, or just plain bad compositions. Then there are works that are the best you can do that this time in your career. These should be kept (if they have not sold or been given as gifts) to judge your work as you progress. The only person you ever compare yourself to is your past self. How do you do so if you have nothing to see from the past? Those paintings are ones I was proud of at one time and just because I have become better in some sense, does not mean they should be destroyed. Progress is what we are after is it not? How do we show progress? By comparing! So save a few to compare with. Destroy those that you know at that time are not up to your level of work!

From: Dawn Blair — Oct 10, 2009

It was hard to paint over that first piece, but I did and I’ve never regretted it. If you want to have a record of everything you paint, you can always take a photograph of it first. I keep digital images of my art, even ones I destroy. I keep thinking of putting it into a separate folder but haven’t yet. Someday I probably will, just so I can open that folder when I get in a funk and look at all the really bad pieces to remind myself that I survived and destroyed them so I can do it again. Every brushstroke (or whatever your medium is) isn’t golden, nor should it be thought of as so. When you remember that it is only a brushstroke, it’s easy to paint over it and do it again.

From: Janet Toney — Oct 10, 2009

I’ve held onto several canvases thinking I HAD to paint over them. After reading your letter I feel free to burn them; the sooner the better! Thank you.

From: Pamela Haddock — Oct 10, 2009

I think I rightly attribute this to Robert Wade who suggests on those failed watercolor paintings that at times it is best to use “the strong right arm” – meaning to blissfully tear them to bits. It does feel good. I will allow my rejects to accumulate for 6 months to a year. Somehow I think that by allowing them to age, something worthwhile will magically emerge. Usually while matting and framing those offerings that I recognized as good, I deem it worthy to sift back through the reject pile. Maybe there is something to crop out – some small spot that was not “so horrible.” If anything, they serve to make what did make the cut look even better. Then, with little ceremony and a big trash can I start ripping. Sometimes I do consider how much pigment is on that surface – but usually I can tell you what mental failure brought this paper to this fate. The lack of planning, taking too much time to paint and becoming niggling and overly critical, poorly planned shapes, no places of rest in a cluttered design. I find a lift to my spirit and I can take a heartfelt sigh. Those pieces of evidence are laid to rest with no crime done. There is after all, so much paint and so little time.

From: Bill Kerr — Oct 10, 2009

I have just attended a workshop where glazing was a major element. Being out of town and receiving a gift of Painters Keys I took time to re-read a section on discarding old paintings. I have quite a few and some are already painted over so further painting over had no appeal. I decided to use them to learn.

With no intent to try to save the paintings I did extensive glazing experiments before trashing them. Quite a few perked up very considerably, others got gloomy. In most cases expectations were confirmed and I will now glaze with more confidence. The paintings continued to the dumpster.

From: Ortrud K. Tyler — Oct 10, 2009

Few things are that precious to warrant hanging on to them. Reflecting on older work is ok, for a while, maybe one should set a time limit. No longer than 5 yrs? Also if your style has changed subconsciously or on purpose, comparing new to old work may not be all that important. Painting is an ongoing journey and looking back has only limited usefulness. After all, you should know where you have been and look forward to where you are going.

As to overpainting an old surface. I do mostly watermedia on paper and gessoing over an unsuccessful or old piece doesn’t bother me at all. Sometimes I like the heavier surface gesso gives me. Also sometimes I scrape back to areas of color that look promising. For abstracts, gessoed , textured surfaces are a gift, it gets my imagination going and the “what if…” possibilities are wonderful. In the end it is important to really edit your work and check for design and composition factors and make sure it says what I want it to say.

From: Marla Thirsk — Oct 10, 2009

Read with interest and some bemusement about the “destroy” unwanted paintings. Well, sure would be good to be a “wealthy” artist and have lots of dough to buy lots of canvases, but if I’ve painted something I don’t like, I unstaple the canvas and turn it over to start again. Is this some sort of “no-no” in our art world? When canvas costs what it does, I figure it’s a ‘make it go as far as possible” situation.

Gets rid of the problem of old painting ridges too!

And someday a big surprise for someone….maybe!

From: Jane Schlosberg — Oct 10, 2009

Several charitable groups in our community ask for small works for fundraisers. I have often found parts of old acrylic or watercolour paintings that are worth keeping; so, I cut those parts out and glue them with acrylic medium onto pieces of masonite* or archival foamcore for these donations. The stretchers can then be re-used. If the old work is a watercolour, I glue it to my backing and then give the surface a good coating of acrylic varnish. A friend who makes paper will happily take the leftover scraps of rag paper.

*Masonite is close to PH neutral, I’m told. Other brands of pressed board use formaldehyde in their process; so their products are considerably more acidic.

From: ramesh jayaraj — Oct 10, 2009

When we sell such painting which was painted on second time, there will be a sense of guilt. The buyer is unaware of this fact. When buyer is willing to pay our price, we owe him a decent deal. I too have many such spoit and unsold. At least I remove the canvas and recycle the frame with fresh canvas over it.

From: Doug Key — Oct 10, 2009

If you have access to some roll canvas, or scraps, save the stretcher bars and staple on a new piece of canvas. It’s as good as new, and you’re still starting fresh.

From: Marion Corbin-Mayer — Oct 10, 2009

Comment: If tossing out art, be sure to destroy it rather than put it out with the trash or you may see your work in your neighbor’s yard sale (true story!)

From: Stephanie Kolman — Oct 10, 2009

Another solution to the old painting problem might be to turn them over to keep from grabbing onto “precious” parts, cut them up into whatever size desired. I use 8″ squares. Because the colors are still my personal palette they become an invaluable source of collage material. They are small enough to store easily and just flip through like paint strips. Can be torn or cut for collage, greeting card or book mark.

From: Peggy Appleby — Oct 10, 2009

I keep my old paintings because they show growth and often have fond memories associated with them. If one of my family members wants an old one and enjoys it, I let them. After all, when I first started selling, I sold paintings that are now old work, and the people (the ones I know) who have them are still displaying and enjoying them. Now if it’s one the artist hates, that’s another matter.

From: Hugo — Oct 10, 2009

I took the opportunity of a studio move to burn most of the results of the first three to four years of my painting efforts on panel and canvas. I approached it with much trepidation, delaying it till the last day of the move. But there was this old burning barrel in the backyard, and the new place hand no such convenience. Once I started the burning process it became easier. The outcome was very freeing, invigorating. Not too long after I made a major departure in style, don’t know if it would have happened with the old stuff staring back at me.

From: Anne T. Nielsen — Oct 10, 2009

A very good painter friend of mine… will not keep work that is not up to his current standards… I however feel that it should be kept to teach students where the mistakes are. I take the canvases off the stretcher bars… then staple them together like a book but do not sell them. I use them to remind myself and others… of past mistakes and ignorance!

From: Gammy Miller — Oct 10, 2009

Evidently, I had a very thorough and lasting bout with toilet training. I have gone through past works, tossed and torn so many that those remaining (ones that I like and wish to be remembered for) have been winnowed down to “a precious few,” as in the “September Song.” Those that have been sold, I have no control over, but those with me and those yet to come, are having a harder time making the cut as I grow older. I am hoping to leave a solid 100 good works to posterity.

From: John Ferrie — Oct 10, 2009

Every artist is different. But this is what I do. While I try and keep my current inventory up to date, it has been my experience that very few paintings from earlier collections will sell. If they haven’t sold by now, they probably won’t.

In this day and age, the economy is tanking and art supplies continue to skyrocket in price. The frame is the most expensive part of the process. First of all, I photograph everything! Most of the pieces make it to my website, but not everything. For older canvases, I take a pair of pliers and carefully remove the staples and canvas. I roll up the canvas and store it away in my giant print drawers. Then I stretch a new canvas over the old frame and paint with a fresh palette. NEVER Paint over an old canvas! No matter how much gesso is applied, the old image will always dictate something.

Artists need to do what is termed “Gallery Quality.” This is where the canvas is well painted without drips, tears or another painting shadowing behind a new image. But that is just me.

From: vonny andreassen — Oct 11, 2009

I am currently having a good clearout and donate all unwanted unsigned watercolours/ drawings to our local charity shop – they seem to sell OK- and what they bring goes to good causes I otherwise couldn’t afford to donate cash to.

shop – helps the feelgood factor

From: Phyllis Stone — Oct 11, 2009

When I have a painting which begins to look old or tired or just doesnt’quite “have it”, I make it into a floorcloth. Take the canvas off the stretchers, lay it on the floor and have a look. I usually then add spatters or drippings ala Pollack. Trim the edges so you can turn under 1 inch and hot glue down on back using a brayer to smooth as you go. Finish with two or three coats of non-yellowing clear polyurathane ( I like water-based). It’s sometimes amazing how these turn out when used on the floor ! Art you can walk on !! Makes you feel they are successful after all.

From: m.a.tateishi — Oct 11, 2009

I recently applied black gesso to some old canvasses and am passing them on to some teenaged artists for their use. Recycling at its best, and then I get the great feeling of clearing out my art space.

From: L.Lemay — Oct 12, 2009

I keep the paintings I do not like. I use them to practice and play with different products, textures, glazes, with or without a fresh coat of gesso. Also good to make a test sample for wall paint. It is bigger and light and can be hung on different walls to see the effect of the light before spending a fortune redecorating your living room and not liking the colour. Also cut the canvas and give it to a child along with everything Crayola and others make. Use thinned white glue to cover and make sculptures. (use frame as kindling for

fire) And finally you can use it to fix your canoe!

From: Andrea Pratt — Oct 12, 2009

I wish I’d paid proper attention to this letter earlier as I blogged about a unique solution to this problem earlier this month:

From: Victoria — Oct 13, 2009

This is a great solution!

“From: Anne T. Nielsen — Oct 10, 2009

I take the canvases off the stretcher bars… then staple them together like a book but do not sell them. I use them to remind myself and others… of past mistakes and ignorance!”

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Oct 13, 2009

I wish I could agree with you here Robert, but I can’t. It hinges on 2 things- the first being that you come from a painter’s background and you produce far more than many of us artists can. Some of us, whose work is far more labor intensive than many a painter’s, hope and pray every single day that at the end of our lives we’ve had enough time and enough money and enough support and enough sales to guarantee that we’ve actually produced enough work to constitute an acceptable perceivable body. So trashing work is not a concept that rises to the surface very often. Over the years I have in fact tossed a couple of pieces that I realized were never going to get to where I wanted them to, but not recently. That was a learning experience. But my second point would simply be that substandard is a judgment, one that I may not be able to accurately make. Many pieces I’ve created that I may have thought of as slightly less than have been very attractive to someone else. And my life’s work as represented by the body I have created needs to be seen with a historical reference including the occasional piece that doesn’t seem to be as stunning as all the rest. I’m up into the hundreds of pieces, not thousands like some painters. And each reflects where I was at the time of their creation. That historical reference has extreme value in the long run, especially for us artists who will never produce as much as you painters do.

From: John — Oct 13, 2009

I have a friend who cut up a dozen unsuccessful acrylic on canvas paintings and sewed the pieces onto other unsuccessful works. A gallery owner saw these and offered a show. The stitched paintings sold out and for $1000 each.

From: Averill Dundee — Oct 13, 2009

Having sold more paintings than I am happy with, I’ve come to the conclusion that sometimes I might be wrong. My taste might have changed. Others seem to like works of mine that I wouldn’t line the birdcage with. Usually it’s a matter of knowing that now I have more skill and could do better, or differently. On the other hand, I like the “sign it or smash it” test. I might have to go through those old stacks of drawings and pastels and run them past my willingness to sign.

From: Brad Greek — Oct 14, 2009

Ya’ll crack me up, worrying so much over nothing. One of the first rules that we learn as artist is that we are too close to our own work. Needing critiques from others to make us feel we are on the right track. We are our own worst critics, we all know this. So how do you expect to go through your body of work and successfully discard unworthy works. What happens is that the older works have grown distant to you, so you feel less attached to it. Which in turns allows you to see your work differently then you use to. Not that it’s bad art, it may be less developed or the fact that you’ve grown….Wow!! Here’s an idea, throw all your recent work away, because in 10 years from now you’re going to find it repulsive. LOL Artist crack me up!! LOL

From: Noreen Spence — Oct 14, 2009

“Wow!! Here’s an idea, throw all your recent work away, because in 10 years from now you’re going to find it repulsive.”

Now, THAT’S funny!

From: Robin Shillcock — Oct 14, 2009

There’s middle ground you haven’t covered in the debate over what to do with older work. I believe it’s best to clean out the shelves every couple of years. I used to sand old paintings down (oils, not acrylics) but have run into trouble in that the oils I used in older work was self-made and therefore greasier than the industrially produced paints: I’ve seen some cracking, especially when asked to put a new layer of varnish. So it’s best to leave old paintings for what they are, waypoints in history. But, what I have done with paintings that in retrospect look less good than they did at the time, is pare them down. In other words, take out the best parts and reframe. Thus, I have been able to flog quite a few of my old paintings, and some I have even kept because they look so good. Is it cheating? No way, because every part was painted by me, but each detail seems enlarged, and therefore more painterly than I had originally intended.

With acrylics? Sand em down and overpaint. Professionals see an old panel or canvas simply as a new possibility, but I’ve noticed that amateurs fear they might be dragged down into previous disasters. I say do not be superstitious about previous mistakes screaming out at you, it’s rather easy to silence them in a new layer of paint.

From: Don Scott Macdonald — Oct 22, 2009

Simply take photos (JPGs) of the work you no longer wish to keep. That way you’ll have a record of your progress, but free up storage space or have pieces to paint over without concern.



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