Spring cleaning


Dear Artist,

A subscriber wrote, “I’m spring cleaning. Sketches, old matted drawings, paintings that aren’t my best, oil studies, unimportant works, etc., have finally found themselves in a big pile. Some, if properly matted and framed, could sell. The problem is that I don’t want to invest in the time, energy or frames. Would slipping them into poly bags with backing be appropriate to move this stuff? Right now, I feel like throwing them into the dumpster, but I have been told not to do so. What do you do with your studies and sketches? What do you think of having a fire-sale?”

The Lime Burner, London, 1859 Drypoint etching 55.6 X 40.5 cm by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

The Lime Burner, London, 1859
Drypoint etching
55.6 X 40.5 cm
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903)

Don’t have a fire-sale; have a fire. Don’t use a dumpster. Even if your work is broken up like Humpty Dumpty, people can put it back together again. While burning outdoors is illegal in many places, a household fireplace makes an excellent memorial pyre where substandard work can be sent off with some terminal dignity. Personal note: As a chronic disposophobiac, currently short-listed for the “Hoarders” television program, I’m excellent at giving “throw out” advice, and excellent at not doing it myself.

But I really don’t approve of the idea of slipping things into poly bags and selling them at lesser prices. Artists need to offer only their best work and to be consistent. Your personal integrity is worth more than the few bucks you might put in your purse.

Keep a few for yourself and your family. I have a separate building dedicated to this weakness. I call it my “Salon des Refusées.” Sometimes I like to just sit in there amid my stuff. It feels good all ’round.

Keep a few because you need to refer to them. Sketches, good and bad, are the stepping stones to your better work. Dig them out from time to time and refresh and rerun your earlier trials. It feels good all ’round. Keep a few better ones to give as gifts. Studio visitors are often thrilled to get sketches, particularly when signed and dedicated. Very often I find people think so much of our friendship that they go to a lot of trouble with framing. When coming upon such gifts in friend’s homes I’m often surprised by my generosity and thoughtfulness. They are too. It feels good all ’round.

Black Lion Wharf, 1859 Etching 29 × 41 cm by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Black Lion Wharf, 1859
29 × 41 cm
by James Abbott McNeill Whistler

Best regards,


PS: “When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another.” (Paul Cezanne)

Esoterica: Burning may be necessary for the progress of the muse. Cremation, the most final disposal method of all, permits the artist to move on. There’s nothing like an extreme failure going up the chimney. The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas noted, “The burning of bridges makes the nicest fire.” Looking back at a productive life, the Victorian novelist George Meredith wrote, “Not till the fire is dying in the grate, look we for any kinship with the stars.”

This letter was originally published as “Spring cleaning” on April 8, 2011.

Whistler with a hatThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Industry in art is a necessity – not a virtue – and any evidence of the same, in the production, is a blemish, not a quality; a proof, not of achievement, but of absolutely insufficient work, for work alone will efface the footsteps of work.” (James Abbott McNeill Whistler)

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