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.
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.”
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England
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 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.
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Use the backs for practicing technique
by Tony van Hasselt, East Boothbay, ME, USA
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.
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Upset the darned things
by Louisa S. Cooper, Hawaii, USA
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!
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by Michael Wolfson, Cape Town, South Africa
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.
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The four ‘C’s
by Charlotte Schuld, Stillwater, MN, USA
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.
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Value in old work
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
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.
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Toxic gasses released with burning
by Doug Purdon, Canada
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.
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An older style presents problems
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
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.
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For history’s sake, take photos
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.
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Enjoy the past comments below for How to purge…
The Visitor 1
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.