How to purge

Dear Artist, Last week Molly VanZant of Lexington, Kentucky wrote, “I’m an artist at the beginning of my journey toward a well-made watercolour. Recently, I took down some paintings stashed on the top of my cupboard and ruthlessly consigned about half of them to the trash. Mostly, it was easy to tell which ones to get rid of. Then I wondered if I’m too close to my own work to see its merit? Am I needlessly abandoning things that others might see value in one day? Or is it good to purge?” Thanks, Molly. You’re right on top of one of the main areas where beginning (and many advanced) artists fall down. Hope springs eternal that our work is professional or getting pretty close. At the beginning of a career, professionalism is possible, but not likely. Hope is a frailty of the human mind that needs to be tempered with reality. Hope is not a strategy. Purging must come from within, from your own calculated powers of discrimination, which should have nothing to do with what “others might see value in one day.” Here’s how to purge: As you’re going through your work, put it beside the work of masters you admire. An illustration in a book, a cherished poster, or an online discovery will help you make up your mind. Think about it — if you want to make your work look really good, put it beside the lousiest thing you can find. Use your own best work as a guide. Find work in your own portfolio that really pleases you and compare it to the suspect work. If you’re still unsure, use the “three bins” technique — “in,” “out” and “maybe.” A second pass on maybe will often tip the bin. Ask yourself if it might be just a small part of a picture that’s bothering you. This is where the scissors or box-cutter knife come in. A poorly-painted, amateurish area or a disparate element can be knifed away, leaving a work of diminished size but finer nature. Sit beside a cheery fireplace on a cool October night and feed the flames. Scotch helps. Those flames are hungry for your poorer efforts and, while the loss of them may be at first painful to you, the lick and wither of their demise will be your cathartic event. Best regards, Robert PS: “We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.” (Kenji Miyazawa) Esoterica: “When a picture isn’t realized,” said Paul Cezanne, “you pitch it in the fire and start another.” Trouble is, we don’t always know it’s unrealized while we’re working on it. This is because we’re still in the hope/ optimism/ self-delusion stage. This stage must not carry over into the discriminating self-critiquing stage. Paintings don’t just go bad like fruit left in a cupboard–they were already rotten when they were put in. We just can’t see it at the time. “Ignis reddit,” said Kjerkius Gennius (36 BC) “Fire restores.”   Excellent advice by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England  

“Purging made easy”
original cartoon
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe

Your letter on purging and burning stuff that doesn’t make the grade got me thinking about the practicalities, especially if very large work is earmarked for incineration. Recently it took two carloads to the local dump to dispose of some early work which made me cringe every time I stumbled over them when foraging in the loft.         The art of recycling by Lindell Stacy-Horton, Oregon, USA  

“A Way Out” acrylic painting, 36 x 20 inches
by Lindell Stacy-Horton

A watercolor attempted using fine Arches 300 lb and Windsor Newton artist grade colors is a bit of an investment, not only in money but your energy and for me I fail too many times. (I used to be really good, then blockage happened.) Build something out of the paper. Make papier mache, maybe a collage. You don’t have to be all crafty about it. No magazine photos, etc, and there’s a big world out there of papier mache possibilities! I have even built furniture out of it, including bookcases that have endured happily over ten years, and hold all my books. Keep going in your art, but with willingness to try something different, whether it be medium, style, whatever.     There are 4 comments for The art of recycling by Lindell Stacy-Horton
From: H Margret — Oct 25, 2012

Supplies are too valuable to throw out. I gesso rejects and re-use for studies.

From: Karen — Oct 26, 2012

I’m a big fan of cutting up unsuccessful works on paper into postcards. I find it interesting how the whole idea changes when I’ve chopped a work up, how I can concentrate on different aspects. I can also communicate with friends and family and say this is what I was working on…and who doesn’t love getting some pretty snail mail nowadays?

From: Mary — Oct 26, 2012

I have actually used this technique to clean the house. Works really well. Hadn’t thought of applying it to creative endeavors.

From: Anonymous — May 20, 2013

Gessoing over and painting on top of a failed piece seems to bring me good luck.

  Use the backs for practicing technique by Tony van Hasselt, East Boothbay, ME, USA  

“Burnt Island Light”
watercolour painting
by Tony van Hasselt

It was interesting to read Molly’s question and your suggestions. In addition, may I suggest that the advantage of watercolor paper is that it is two-sided and the other side may be used on another subject or, for instance, to practice brush control and the many different effects. There are so many ways to use a watercolor brush. (1) Learn the dry-brush stroke to, for instance, get the effect of sparkle on water. (2) Letting the hairs fall over each other when pushed “against the grain.” an ideal way to suggest the edge of foliage. (3) Printing with the side of a flat brush to get the effect of a Victorian porch railing, etc. (4) Learning to roll a rigger brush between your fingers when painting tree limbs, so nodules appear, take-off points for smaller branches. (5) With a round brush, learning the up and down motion of just touching the paper, then pushing down for a bolder mark, then up again for a thinner mark. Personally, I’m glad I held on to a few of my earlier efforts, just to look back and see where I came from. I don’t hesitate to share these with students to show them that we all go through the same process on this wonderful journey. There are 2 comments for Use the backs for practicing technique by Tony van Hasselt
From: Jan Ross — Oct 26, 2012

Your bright and bold painting makes me want to go out and play in the sunshine. It reminds me of some pleasant summer afternoons along the east coast. I agree that keeping a few of our earlier works helps to remind us where we came from as well as having those starters to share with beginning students.

From: John Dobrowolski — Oct 27, 2012
  Upset the darned things by Louisa S. Cooper, Hawaii, USA  

“Dancer at Rest”
oil painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Louisa S. Cooper

There is, of course, another way to purge those bad paintings, especially easy if they are acrylic or oil. I have a box for real dogs. There might have been a good thought or concept originally but somehow it just didn’t gel. Occasionally these paintings are really bad. Into the junk box they go. Sometimes when new work isn’t immediately forthcoming or being a bit rusty after a vacation away from painting, I dig in the old box and see if there is something that can possibly be resuscitated. Knowing they can’t possibly get worse there is tremendous freedom in just going after these… highlighting, enlivening, totally changing, moving things about, adding interest, dulling down… endless possibilities! Far removed from the original idea, anything can be done. Then if I don’t come up with something better, either it’s returned to the box, or preferably chucked! Surprisingly, some of these un-reworked horrors are discovered and bought with comments like “oh! I just LOVE that one!!” No accounting for some people’s taste! There are 2 comments for Upset the darned things by Louisa S. Cooper
From: Jackie Knott — Oct 26, 2012

Some of the Amon Carter Museum’s fine collection (Fort Worth, Texas) is of Charles Russell. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was seeing one of his early works hanging beside his mature paintings. One can see a struggling amateur transition to a master painter. There’s hope for us all yet! One of my art books has an early Van Gogh resembling that from a high school drawing class. However revealing it is to study the greats and their life work I’m not sure looking back at my own is worthwhile. People want to know how good you “are” as opposed to how much better than you “were.” There is value in resurrecting failed paintings. Problem solving is as productive as beginning a new work.

From: Bob — Oct 26, 2012

Looking at poor works of dead artists is like those paparazzi shots of celebrities without their makeup. I just don’t think that we should be doing it. The teaching materials should be provided willingly.

  Purge carefully by Michael Wolfson, Cape Town, South Africa  

“Evening Hout Bay”
oil painting
by Michael Wolfson

Last year in November I was asked to submit some works to a group exhibition. I submitted three works and two were chosen. Neither of them sold. Last week I received a phone call from an interior designer asking if one of the paintings was still available as a client had seen it and was interested in purchasing it. Actually, on reflection, I had decided that the painting was not up to standard and I was going to paint over it when I received the call. Although I had removed the canvas from the frame, I had not got round to destroying it. The painting has been sold at the price for which it was advertised on the exhibition. Does that answer the question? Be careful before you purge. There is 1 comment for Purge carefully by Michael Wolfson
From: Brenda lee — Oct 26, 2012

The question is if you realized that you were too hard on yourself, or if you sold it even though you thought it was bad. For me this is a huge difference.

  The four ‘C’s by Charlotte Schuld, Stillwater, MN, USA  

“Alfalfa Fields at Sunset: July in Minnesota”
acrylic painting, 36 x 48 inches
by Charlotte Schuld

I have been working very seriously at my painting for about 10 years now and my family and friends keep track of my statement, “I’m giving myself 20 years to be an overnight success.” Being a supportive bunch they have happily taken many of my works to hang on their walls and have expressed distress when I mentioned the works I have discarded due to my latest level of technical and artistic achievement and self-critiquing ability. They state they want to be the judge of my work and that I am too hard on myself… or that they like the works even if I don’t. I thank them for being so supportive but then use the conversation as a teachable moment. I am the final judge of my work and my “flinch factor” has to be acknowledged. If a work continues to bother me for some reason, I know I have missed the mark and my sense of integrity has to take charge. I use four criteria learned from the wonderful artist Cheng-Khee Chee, to assess my works: Composition, Craftsmanship, Content and Creativity. If I don’t see some excellence (forget perfection) in ALL of those four areas, I feel there needs to be improvement. I’m not saying I need to hit the mark in all four areas to keep the work in circulation — but there certainly has to be a “Wow” factor in several areas or the piece goes away. For me, this is an honest evaluation of my work that balances integrity of work with caring for my ego. There are 2 comments for The four ‘C’s by Charlotte Schuld
From: Jane Freeman — Oct 26, 2012

Well said Charlotte!

From: tom hoffmann — Oct 26, 2012

The alfalfa fields make a beautiful painting – very subtle, but also very simple. If one of your friends wants to hang it on their wall, just make sure they understand in advance that you reserve the right to make changes right up till the day it’s sold. By the way, is there a waiting list for friends with wall space?

  Value in old work by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA  

“Marking Space”
oil painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Mary Moquin

I rarely purge. For me, looking through old work does two things; it reminds me of how far I have come and sometimes it points me in a direction I once pursued but didn’t have the skills for at the time that I can now reinvestigate. Of course, if there were any real “dogs” I would destroy or paint over them for fear some future curator might gleefully expose my flaws! But often there are passages that are reminders of discoveries and turning points and these pieces mark my journey.     There is 1 comment for Value in old work by Mary Moquin
From: Casey Craig — Oct 26, 2012

Nice painting!

  Toxic gasses released with burning by Doug Purdon, Canada  

“Bretton Point – Newport RI”
oil painting, 30 x 40 inches
by Doug Purdon

Winsor & Newton — North American Technical Support In this week’s post regarding ‘purging’ your artworks, you mention that it might be a good idea to toss them in the fire while enjoying a good scotch. While this sounds like a good idea, there is however a problem. Many art materials and pigments can release harmful materials if burned. Metal-based pigments and acrylic paints both produce hazardous bi-products if burned. While it is rather poetic to burn your paintings, it isn’t necessarily the safest thing to do. There are 4 comments for Toxic gasses released with burning by Doug Purdon
From: Anonymous — Oct 26, 2012

Seriously? You’re comparing a tidy little fire to the factory down the road belching out untold pollutants 24/7?

From: Anonymous — Oct 26, 2012

Whether you burn it, burry it, landfill it or keep it until someone else one day has to burn it or burry it, or landfill it is all the same thing. How about we all place all our works that we ever did into museums and collections to be treasured forever? The museums and collectors who reject our “art” are then the polluting villains!

From: lindell stacy-horton — Oct 26, 2012

That’s why there is gesso! Start again, and use the “mistakes” as texture. Oil on oil, but anything goes on top of acrylic. That’s why i’m such a big fan of it. Stretchers are too prescious to burn, after all ;)

From: Jacqueline Kinsey — Oct 26, 2012

Um, seriously! He is talking about burning them in your home! Maybe safer in an enclosed wood stove, but in an open fire…could be very toxic and not worth the risk…especially if you have a family with children…pets…just something to consider. Suggest burning them outside, stay out of the smoke that is “belching out” from the flames. Adding to the factory pollutants! ; )

  An older style presents problems by Louise Francke, NC, USA  

watercolour painting
by Louise Francke

Purging current works is a lot easier than dealing with the past’s works which were predominantly feminist in nature and got into national juried exhibits during late ’70s & early ’80s. Two weeks ago at a party of very old friends from the ’70s, a young woman approached me and asked if I remembered her. She had modeled for me as a thirteen year old when I was painting works concerning adolescents. Since I was in the extensive process of purging my studio, I offered her the unsold 40 x 60″ watercolors of her and her brother. This meant a trip into the “time capsule of old works” sealed within a tub which I had never intended to revisit. Inside were well preserved (no mildew) 40 watercolors, which I had sandwiched between glassine sheets. They were a testament to my tumultuous feminist period and parenting adolescents. These paintings had helped me find myself. I also offered them to old friends but no one accepted. It seems no matter what kind of stir they caused in their time, today they were irrelevant in theme and just too big. My husband told me to put them back in the container. A few which I assessed as undeserving, I’ll gesso over for my new adventure into the world of collage and abstractions. I tried to lighten the load for my family but it didn’t work. I’ve enclosed, for IRS, a letter saying that these art works have no value except as markers of my life and the road I have traveled. I hope to have more people interested in my Valentine Purge of hand pulled lithographs, etchings, monoprints which are smaller, humorous, and predominantly about animals with attitudes. There are still the feminist lithos for the old friends. We, as artists, have a strange plight. We have lead creative lives following our muse, but in reality we have only sold a small percentage of our work. Maybe my artist son has it right to create art only for today without thoughts of its endurance past our own life span. There is 1 comment for An older style presents problems by Louise Francke
From: Ingrid — Oct 31, 2012

This is an interesting conversation, as the paintings I thought were dogs, turned out to be the ones my friends liked the most. One person’s trash is another’s treasure, I guess. However, I have a painting I started in January, got stuck, and returned to it six months later. Became unstuck and now I’m stuck again. Should I trash it as the frustration is annoying, or should I keep going back when I am, once again, inspired?

  For history’s sake, take photos by Andrew   I would suggest setting up a little photo shoot with some decent lighting and a digital camera on a tripod. Then, for each work about to be destroyed by scotch-infused fireplace catharticism, I would snap the shot, then itemize the work, giving it a name, a date when I believed it was worked on, my reasons for destroying it, and the date of the destruction. Ten years on you might see something in that work that you don’t see today… why lose that piece of your developmental history? I once wrote a piece of music that I hated, and I banished the recording. Years later I stumbled across the recording, and when I heard the opening notes I thought “Oh yeah, this is a terrible work…” but to my surprise it was very inspired. At the time I recorded it, however, it was too personal, and I needed to banish it. Take photos of your work first, then pour the scotch. (RG note) Thanks, Andrew. Taking photos of each work is a good idea for another reason. You may need someday to prove to the tax people that you actually destroyed it. I like a nice shot of it curling up. There are 3 comments for For history’s sake, take photos by Andrew
From: Pamela Elias — Oct 26, 2012

Although I hate to waste supports and paint over often, I also take great joy in our annual winter solstice fire…sitting out in the cold with a glass of bourbon and burning the paintings that are painful to look at any longer. The colors of the flames are great!

From: Tony van Hasselt — Oct 26, 2012

Back to the “purging” idea. It could actually become an interesting biographical addition. For instance: “My paintings have been added to the municipal collection of (Name the places where you reside and have previously resided.) Don’t mention that they were added to the municipal TRASH collection. Just an idea!

From: Marvin Humphrey — Oct 26, 2012

Excellent advice. While ridding one’s self of clutter, a record of the images can still be kept. Looking at them later can be a reminder of the initial sparks of ideas.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for How to purge

From: Ann Davis — Oct 22, 2012

I just wrote the feature article for Metal Clay Artist on how to purge your studio and take your Artself back:)) about jewelry but still we have the same problems…my first ceramics professor told me that the hammer would be my best friend:))(for smashing bad work) how true it still is today…If you can’t say “This is me, I own it, you have to let it go…Impedimentum you know:)) didn’t work for the Roman army…doesn’t work for for an artist either.

From: Susan Holland — Oct 22, 2012

Old paintings that didn’t get a life can get new legs by putting a sturdy ground over the distressing surface and reusing that canvas to make something great. There is a certain freedom I get from working on a recycled canvas…permissions to boss it around that might be called “owning it.” I also have found it interesting to paint over a painting, letting some of the original colors work behind the scenes as interesting elements.

From: Russ Hogger — Oct 22, 2012

I find culling out the crapolla once in a while from the studio has a therapeutic effect. Makes one feel clean and fresh again.

From: ReneW — Oct 23, 2012

Photograph every work as a record of what you’ve done. The good as well as the bad. In early work i put prints of my work in binders, now images are saved on my computer. Going back to review what progress I’ve made can be very enlightening. With that said I have saved a few originals that I liked, sold others, gave a away some and trashed the remainder.

From: Suzanne Savage Brewer — Oct 23, 2012

When culling watercolors that don’t make the grade, I don’t throw or burn them right away. I set them aside and use the backside to test new techniques or color mixes while I am working on other paintings. When the back is all used up then it is off to the fire.

From: Robert Sesco — Oct 23, 2012

Gosh, if I compared my work to the Great Masters that I admire to begin the process, I’d never keep anything! You mean, before I keep a painting, it has to compare favorably to paintings by masters that I admire? But… I’m not a master, yet. I either have to change the Masters I Admire to Masters I’m Lukewarm About, or Masters That Amuse Me, or burn every painting I’ve ever done. I’m sure I can find sufficient consensus to confirm the latter as the preferable option. What a bummer.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Oct 23, 2012

I don’t agree with comparing yourself to the Masters you admire, I am not them nor they me, we do not see the world around us the same way. Who I do compare my work to is my inner critic. I know what I am satisfied with and what is crap. I know what I was working toward and when I missed the mark. When I am on the fence, I get a second opinion from someone I trust to tell me the truth. Then I recycle my substrate, too much throw away happening and materials are expensive. Some failed watercolours are gessoed over and used for oil or acrylics; some chopped up or ripped up for collage work (small areas can make interesting bookmarks). Canvas is gessoed over and repainted with some interesting textures to work with. At the very least I save the stretcher and re-stretch it or stretch watercolour paper over it for other projects. Some stuff I keep just to remind me how far I have come.

From: molly — Oct 23, 2012

Thanks so much for answering my letter Robert! And all the comments here are great. I have new steel in my spine! It is obvious to me now that to get where I want to go, I have to let go of where I was. Thanks so much, all!

From: Janet — Oct 23, 2012

I can understand how this point of view works for an experienced artist. However, I am a beginner. While I do expect to improve over time, it is very discouraging to know that my current piece, of which I hope to be proud, is destined for disdain and the trash.

From: Robert Sesco — Oct 23, 2012
From: Marvin Humphrey — Oct 23, 2012

I also have done the liberating “Scotch/Fire” event…it does give you a sense of freedom and renewal. I’ve also checked the “Maybe” stack, months, or even years later, and salvaged parts of them: telescoping in, cutting out a section, re-working, and ending up with something interesting.

From: Debbie S. — Oct 23, 2012
From: Marilyn Smith — Oct 23, 2012

I keep all my crap watercolors in a box–then reuse the paper for collages, painting over and experimental media. It is a lot of fun covering up what I thought was good art at the time. As for oils, one can take the canvas and make big colorful bags out of them..they get a lot of attention and maybe start a new career! Art is art no matter where itis displayed.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Oct 23, 2012
From: Tatjana — Oct 23, 2012
From: Lori Fontaine — Oct 23, 2012

So many times, when reading your letters, especially when your information came at the exact moment I’ve needed it, I’ve thought, “if I could only shake his hand to thank him for this…” Then I read that you’ll be nearby in Banff at Canada House for your show. You have no idea how thrilled I was that I would be able to meet and thank you in person. The Cosmos has other plans for me however, as on October 27th I will be delivering some paintings in Kimberley B.C. for an upcoming show there. I’m at the beginning stages of showing my art, so it was an honour to be asked to be in that show. I nevertheless want to let you know that your words have had a profound effect on me and your generosity has meant the world. Sometimes, especially when at a crossroads, it’s so encouraging to hear that hard craft will get one through to the other side. It gives me courage to continue when I read that you’ve experienced some of the same frustrations I’m gritting my teeth through as my work goes to the next level. So, please accept my thanks for your words and know that when it all clicks and my paintings make people smile, part of that honour belongs to you. (Radium B.C.)

From: Jeanne M. Roberts — Oct 23, 2012

I’m going to have a garage sale, There will be a subtly placed box with my rejects in it. If someone takes a peek at them, I will be thrilled. Buy one, I’ll be next to myself. Then they go in the trash at the end of the day.

From: Sally Mappin — Oct 23, 2012

I have a problem with your suggestion about comparing my work to a Masters painting that I admire. As a relative newcomer to watercolour painting, if I did as you suggested I wouldn’t keep a single painting even if it had merit. That is hardly something to do to boost one’s confidence. While I realize that purging is necessary so one doesn’t get stuck in a rut, I suggest recycling as opposed to burning so that one can feel that one’s discarded work is doing something good for the world as opposed to adding unnecessary carbon into the atmosphere. Scotch, or in my case, a glass of port, is good for the occasion no matter what.

From: Peter Fischoeder — Oct 23, 2012

Not that my work is anywhere near where I suspect Molly’s resides on the quality scale but her “problem” is faced by every dabbler who retains a smidgen of humility and doubt. Having just returned from Madrid and another visit to the Prado Museum I wonder how many of the masters, at one point or another in their careers, sat in front of a fireplace and fed the flames, picking from the “out” and “maybe” piles.

From: Loraine Wellman — Oct 23, 2012

It can feel good to purge- one good outcome is you liberate some canvases that just need painting over. I’ve been on a purge and a re-paint, re-touch on some others. One nice thing about acrylics is that you can add a glaze at a later (two years, even) stage when you have figured out what the painting really needed. It is definitely better to purge yourself. One reason there are a number of not-up-to-par Emily Carr’s around is that she left it to Lawren Harris to sort through her works after her passing. Should have been okay- but then her sister, who hadn’t valued her work in her lifetime, suddenly saw the dollar signs and rescued some that were originally destined to be thrown. A good purge is a good thing.

From: Alex Nodopaka — Oct 23, 2012

As I look into the flaming fireplace I have visions of angels and devils issuing out of my rejected canvases and papier maché sculptures. I quickly leap to my feet, douse them but not with the Vodka! I retrieve the cinder still with ember glow, quickly and randomly paste them thus forming fiery collages and suddenly feel like Moses next to a what used to be a burning bush. And voila! Another godly or is it ungodly masterpiece before I head for the beach and bigger vistas.

From: Auke van Holst — Oct 23, 2012

I always advise beginning artists to keep one or two of their very first attempts at painting or drawing. Then as you hit that period where you feel you are getting nowhere, as we all do, pull them out and be amazed by your progress. This little trick may well be the difference between renewed motivation and the desire to burn your brushes. Failed watercolours can of course be soaked in water, scrubbed and gone over with soft pastels when dry or while still wet. One of my favorite experiments is to use vine and compressed charcoal on the wet painting. None of these procedures may actually save the painting , but what the heck it was a mess already anyway. In the process you may actually discover something interesting, if not you have given the piece a proper obituary prior to its cremation.

From: Verna Korkie — Oct 23, 2012

As for purging paintings, my dilemma would be the waste of discarding the supports. The ones I have used almost from the beginning start at about $10 a pop. They couldn’t be cut with scissors and scraping would take forever. So perhaps I’ll just give them away to (good) friends and relatives who will “oo and ah” because they don’t know the difference and because they love me :-) Ah, the bliss of ignorance (mostly mine)……

From: Betty Covington — Oct 23, 2012

Yesterday I was going to throw my painting in the trash but after reading your letter today, I decided to keep it and just maybe I will learn from it.

From: Pauline L. Lazzarini — Oct 23, 2012

You have no idea how your letter today about purging art work hit home. I have been thinking of this for weeks. I have been going through old work and trying to see if I could fix paintings with no real success. Since I have some paintings in oil and some in acrylic I cannot toss them into the fire and enjoy the release, but I do plan to cut a portion of each that I like and toss the rest. I do plan to keep the stretcher bars and recover them with new clean canvas.

From: Ortrud K. Tyler — Oct 23, 2012

One way of using discarded paintings, especially watercolors, is to gesso over them, you save the sheet and get a new surface on which to try new things. Maybe try an acrylic or a collage. Breaking the habit of sameness opens new doors and you may even find an answer for your watercolor works.

From: Florie Baumann — Oct 23, 2012

In regard to purging, it’s good to remember that Taste Always Moves Upward. Meaning that as you learn more, you become more discriminating about all works of art, as well as your own.

From: Carolyn H. WarmSun — Oct 23, 2012

It hurts my thrifty heart to hear of people destroying artwork. One of the most fun and freeing things to do is to use an old work as a beginning. Cover it with white gesso. While still wet, lay a piece of plastic on it and rub with your hands, making and leaving marks. Peel the plastic off and let it dry. You will have colors glowing through, plus random texture marks. Now—make a new painting! I have pieces of watercolor paper that are so heavy they can stand alone—I have re-created on them more than once. It gives a bit of history, and mystery. And is just great fun. I even had one come alive all on its own—when I lifted the plastic and turned the sheet—voila! There was the most beautiful old winter tree.

From: Julie Eastman — Oct 23, 2012

I find it helpful to weed out my art inventory at the end of each year. Taking the time to assess my work and acknowledge that some paintings no longer measure up is not necessarily fun. But it is useful in my growth as an artist as well as mental preparation to clean out and make room for the new. It feels good!

From: Catherine Stock — Oct 23, 2012

Before chucking things, I indulge in a wild attempt to rework them. Sometimes I succeed in salvaging something but usually not, but in any case I love the freedom to muck about and usually I discover something interesting from the experience. After that, I make sure that there isn’t some small part of the picture that I like and can crop it on before relegating it to the bin in its entirety.

From: Noni Williams — Oct 23, 2012

I found this to be an especially satisfying composition of thoughts on perfectionism. It’s like you said, you really reach higher with it – but you have to know how to handle it, because you don’t ever “reach it”.

From: Lynda Kelly — Oct 23, 2012

As an inspiration to purge I think of the Tibetan Buddhists who spend countless hours creating very large, complex mandalas made of coloured sands. Upon completion it is destroyed- a lesson to the monks in detachment from the material world and offered as a sacrifice to the higher power. I watched the destruction of this perfect work, as they each swish the patterned sand perfection away into nothing, I gasped. Now it is easier to let go of the less than perfect.

From: Marie Adam — Oct 23, 2012

Putting aside not-so-good paintings, just to tidy up, is okay but burning them is overdoing it! At the very least, the paper can be used as test paper or practice sheets, while canvasses can be painted over. I just bought some canvasses with lots of wood in them, and those would burn brightly, for sure. But at $15 a pop they won’t be heading for the kindling box! My best work coincidentally has been the canvasses that I over painted. There is something solid about them, as though the worst has been wrung out of them and only success will shine through these particular works. Besides, going over your old work shows how far you have progressed and improved. Essential for learning!

From: Susan Marx — Oct 23, 2012

How sad it would be if Picasso had purged all his student work.

From: Barbara Timberman — Oct 23, 2012

Regarding ‘purging’ I seldom discard an entire painting. I remove a ‘good’ area…maybe touch it up or not…and use it as a greeting/birthday/miss you card. People love receiving hand painted cards…it spreads your joy to others. There is always some area of any painting which can be used.

From: Michael Lang — Oct 23, 2012

The main problem I have is storage. The number of pieces of work soon mounts up and they take loads of room. I keep only pieces that I am fairly happy with and throw away others, not immediately but after a while in case I have a change of heart. However I do take a photo of everything I’ve done, so that I have a record that I can ponder, and laugh, over easily – a huge advantage of the digital world.

From: Pat Morgan — Oct 23, 2012

I’ve been purging for years but instead of the fireplace I donate my failures to our hospital thrift shop. There are many people who will never be able to afford original artwork but can afford to purchase and enjoy my castoffs. Everyone wins.

From: Arlette Franks — Oct 23, 2012

Ha! When I purge, members of my family suddenly get more possessive of the purgeable works and try to stop me – no keep that one mom, and why are you getting rid of that one. At other times they may complain there’s too much work lying around! I can be quite ruthless about purging (although I don’t do it too often)…

From: Elle Smith Fagan — Oct 23, 2012

You know I did Red Cross and similar work and donate my art to fund-raise for my old causes – fun. They benefit from my purges: The donations want my mediocre images- the ones that are nice and liked by people, but won’t make a prizewinner. And the ones you’d consign to the fire, I pile up and chop up into bookmarks and fold into bookjackets and they earn cash set in a bucket on assorted counters for $1 or two. One successful artist spiffs up his bookmarks a bit and inserts them into advert letters or letters to raise funds for his large projects, as sort of a free gift that may want the recipient to buy a proper painting. Fun stuff – That way, if you paid the top price for the papers, at least it does not go to waste. But still some WILL, as you say, do best making fire a bit more cheerful.

From: Maureen Miller — Oct 23, 2012

I am not an artist but a writer. Somehow I ended up on your site and became a subscriber. I love the advice, click on the clickbacks, relish the delicious examples. Many times I can apply your tips and hints to corners of my life or to notions that may cloud careful thinking.

From: Carol Firth Baxter — Oct 23, 2012

One other suggestion for watercolors: Use them as a basis for a pastel! I took a class from Sally Strand and she had us first watercolor the subject in broad strokes. Then after the paper dried, we applied pastel color and voila! a work with more depth and contrast because of the use of the 2 mediums. I did this with an old watercolor and ended up selling the “pastel” at a great price. Waste not want not, my mother used to say.

From: Dora Gourley — Oct 23, 2012

I wondered if Molly painted on the back of her watercolors? I always do that and teach my students to use those papers up, with that method as well. Watercolor paper is getting very pricey. Once you’ve done that, and mat and frame the better side, and if it sells, then the buyer gets an opportunity to have TWO for the price of one.

From: Margaret Stone — Oct 23, 2012

Ah, one must be careful when “purging”. A number of years ago I lived in a town and had my work in the local gallery. The gallery owner called me. Someone had come in with one of my works on paper to frame. Seems they told the gallery owner that they had found it in my trash. Why would someone would go digging in another person’s trash? Probably a story there, but, do not ever throw unwanted or unresolved work in the trash. Burn it. I contacted the person and offered another work I had on exhibit in trade for the piece they had found in the trash. And then I starting scripting the event and wondered if there might be more of my trashed pieces gracing walls someplace.

From: Mary Wilbanks — Oct 23, 2012

Don’t forget collage, it’s amazing what you can do with it.

From: g gordon — Oct 23, 2012

this afternoon i finally tore up 40 watercolor masterpieces. so what a surprise to see the current subject. I cringe to see my paintings of years ago hanging in peoples homes-they think they are good. Better to destroy them now than see this garbage on walls in the future. There is no use in kidding onesself there are very very few great paintings or artists-i am bad and i know it but i will never ever give up trying.

From: Kathy G. — Oct 24, 2012

To the purgers, what percentage of your work do you end up purging? Being relatively new to drawing and painting, I didn’t realize how common it is for seasoned artists to make works from time to time that they dislike. And, how do you store the drawings and canvases that you do like?

From: John Ferrie — Oct 25, 2012

Dear Robert, Life is a series of letting go. If you have a turkey in the mix, PUNT IT! We all have the occasional fluke where we try something new and everyone is fighting over it. Then we go off in another direction and everyones face curls up like a cats behind. There really isn’t any prediction here. The key is always to be re-inventing yourself and the sign of true creativity is to work beyond what you already know. I have all of my canvases custom made, while the canvas isn’t terribly expensive, the frames are. When you have something where there is ZERO response, I recommend taking the canvas off the frame, neatly filing away the old painting and take the frame up to your framer and have it re-stretched. I think artists can be poisoned, especially in art school, an art history class or just looking at one of those coffee table books of Picasso. We see every drawing they ever did from their childhood right through the end of their career. Trust me, if Saachi ever decides to do a 300 page book on any of us, they will find these scraps….somewhere! We don’t need to catalog everything we do incase we suddenly have a great deal of fame and fortune! John Ferrie

From: Miles D’Amour — Oct 25, 2012

The idea is to not have to purge. Trouble is, that’s impossible.

From: Ruby Odell — Oct 25, 2012

Dear Robert – I love this idea of using the pomodoro timer to increase focus and intention. It’s good. I really love your painting – its very powerful and very beautiful. Thank you for sharing all that you do. I feel grateful and happy for all your thoughts and advice!

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 25, 2012

We are not always the best judges of our successes and failures. But remember too, friends and family are worse judges. I suggest not getting their opinion before the selection process. Since you are working in watercolor you won’t have a storage problem with stretchers and canvas and the like. Since space isn’t an issue, save everything you believe is “good” and toss the rest. You know in your heart which these are. Re-visit them in six months and cull again. If you still have doubt, keep it. Do this again and again the rest of your life. BUT the important thing here is to keep working forward. Don’t take out your old stored works and examine them every day.

From: R Yvonne Colclasure — Oct 26, 2012

I take my oil paintings that “fail the test” and cover them with the leftover oil paint from my palette with a palette knife. Sometimes they become a nice abstract or the ground for a new painting idea. They are “fun” to paint on and some of the works I have liked the most were painted over “failures”.

From: Susan A Warner — Oct 26, 2012

I have always been a fan of”purging”, but also recycling the cast offs. This past Summer I dug a few old canvases out of storage and was intrigued by one. It was a Collage on canvas and the shapes were interesting. I threw on a double coat of Gesso and after reworking I feel it is very successful. I don’t always ‘like’ the results, even after trying to revive something, but it’s worth the effort. I hate to waste materials, so recycling is my thing.

From: Tara B — Oct 26, 2012

Choose the better quality watercolour paper of the paintings you wish to purge, scrub as much of the colour off as you can and recycle the paper by tearing it, putting it all together in a pail of water to break it down, squeeze water out of it and dry on a screen, and then paint on it, you will be surprised with what you get, a little bit of serendipity.

From: Charlotte Schuld — Oct 26, 2012

I have been working very seriously at my painting for about 10 years now and my family and friends keep track of my statement “I’m giving myself 20 years to be an overnight success”. Being a supportive bunch they have happily taken many of my works to hang on their walls and have expressed distress when I mentioned the works I have discarded due to my latest level of technical and artistic achievement and self-critiquing ability. They state they want to be the judge of my work and that I am too hard on myself…or that they like the works even if I don’t. I thank them for being so supportive but then use the conversation as a teachable moment. I am the final judge of my work and my “flinch factor” has to be acknowledged. If a work continues to bother me for some reason I know I have missed the mark and my sense of integrity has to take charge. I use four criteria learned from the wonderful artist Cheng-Khee Chee, to assess my works: Composition, Craftsmanship, Content and Creativity. If I don’t see some excellence (forget perfection) in ALL of those four areas I feel there needs to be improvement. I’m not saying I need to hit the mark in all four areas to keep the work in circulation-but there certainly has to be a “Wow” factor in several areas or the piece goes away. For me this is an honest evaluation of my work that balances integrity of work with caring for my ego.

From: Ellen Barnett — Oct 26, 2012

Cutting parts out that are unsatisfactory to make a better piece is a good idea. But I would not burn work that you deem unworthy. Instead, why not, use as an under painting or background and redo. That is what I do and it works because one grows with experience.

From: Jacki Prisk — Oct 26, 2012

I am a very beginning beginner at watercolor, and I’ve found, what I think is a good idea for purging early pieces. I buy or cut a mat, wrap it in plastic, and donate it to assisted living facilities or nursing homes with gift shops. I’ve watched myself get better year after year, and, while none of them are “masterpieces,” they can be pretty good, and this way I’m not just pitching them. Many of these organizations appreciate these contributions very much. It’s just a win win situation for everybody.

From: Phyllis Oliver — Oct 26, 2012

I have always culled my work once a year. Frequently, I have found that pieces I didn’t like were really good and ones that I did like belonged in the trash. There is a lot to be said for emotional distance. My only caution is don’t let your neighbor take them tote the dump as they may never make it!! Found my rejects lining the walls of her laundry room! Getting them removed was a difficult negotiation.

From: Rick Rotante — Oct 26, 2012

Purging is a good idea especially at the beginning stages of your art career. We are not always the best judges of our successes and failures. But remember too, friends and family are worse judges. I suggest not getting their opinion before the selection process. Since you are working in watercolor you won’t have a storage problem with stretchers and canvas and the like. Since space isn’t an issue, save everything you believe is “good” and toss the rest. You know in your heart which these are. Re-visit them in six months and cull again. If you still have doubt, keep it. Do this again and again the rest of your life. BUT the important thing here is to keep working forward. Don’t take out your old stored works and examine them every day. There is an urban legend that goes like this: an art teacher told his prospective student when beginning his art career, ..”paint, on your own, one hundred paintings, then come back for lessons.” Be wary of comparing your work to your idols at first, this can be devastating. Strive for excellence, don’t work for it.

From: Joan Sveen — Oct 26, 2012

I agree that we all need to purge our paintings – I certainly don’t want poor paintings of mine put up on someone’s wall after I’m gone! On the other hand, keeping a small sampling of work is great for reflection. Quite often it feels like you are not making much progress until you pull out older work and see where you came from.

From: Jennifer — Oct 26, 2012

What do you think about saving work as a form of journaling? It might be easier and take up less space to take a photograph and then let it go. How does one repair the cut out area or redo that area? If I understand correctly, your saying, cut the canvas. Thank you for your letters. As a fiber artist I’ve found them very valuable.

From: Amy — Oct 27, 2012

There are also great apps for ipad if a real tomato timer isnt available :)

     Featured Workshop: Michael Chesley Johnson
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The Visitor 1

acrylic painting by Bob McPartlin, BC, Canada

  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. Will you have some Scotch with that? That includes Lionel Woodcock of Wimborne, UK, who wrote, “It is quite clear from your perceptive letters that a component of your wisdom is Scotch whisky. You should now let us have your advice on how to use this essential tool most productively in our art work. My own experience is that you have to match the single malt to the genre. E.g. Macallan landscape, large skies, square brush Lagavulin abstract, browns and gold Glenlivet drawing, largish charcoal and pastel Glenfiddich portrait, sitter also partakes There is, of course, a lot more work to be done in this field and we would be grateful for some guidelines.” (RG note) Thanksh, Lionel. I’ve never sheen such a dishcriminating breakdown. As I have all four of thoshe in my supply, I am doing a tesht thish very even even evening. C’mon ober.    

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