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.”
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.
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.
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
by Hans Mertens, The Netherlands
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.
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Don’t keep evidence
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Weddington , NC, USA
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.
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Who’s to say?
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
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.
by Caroline Simmill, Morayshire, Scotland
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!
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Sacrificing paintings to exploration
by Carol Ann Cain, FL, USA
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.
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Elimination a good thing
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
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.
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Held back by unfinished pieces
by Michelle Sirois-Silver, Vancouver, BC, Canada
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.
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…
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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!
by Andrew Wielawski, Seravezza, Italy
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.
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The wind of summer
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!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Should I destroy them?…