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)



  1. I just had an ‘art garage sale
    No plastic, no fuss.. absolute bargain basement standard
    I made $800 in 2 hours.
    But the best part was seeing the joy on (poor) peoples faces, to know that they could finally afford one of my paintings.
    It’s the only time I’ve ever done it
    I didn’t want to pollute the earth with my art – burning or landfill!
    They gave people joy and I didn’t sign them or frame them so it didn’t waste my time to prepare them for showing.
    I might do it again. It felt good.

  2. I love “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.”

    I’ve started watching for/targeting people to give older/lesser art to. At a family reunion, I gave 8 or so paintings to my adult nephews and nieces. I’ve given works as birthday gifts. I recently gave a painting to a physiotherapist who helped me recover from a leg injury.

    “It feels good all ’round.”!

  3. Wyncia Clute on

    So many of you are grand artists. I am a perpetual student of art. Like the story of the off key opera singer, my partner praises and promotes me. That is fun, but still the really good piece is rare. That said because in odd times here and there, I cut and paste, even stitch, messy paper and canvas for painting “quilts,” collage, cards, and what not. I guess one has to have the spirit of a hobbyist to play with one’s art attempts, but it can bring pleasure.

  4. I, too, wish to give art away, and not just my secondary, but my best work. I was just reading elsewhere about how this practice infuriates the artists trying to sell. I see no way to make this camp happy unless it is to join them. It causes a rift…for now I steer clear of the subject. It is a high to enjoy the responses from people who would never otherwise own a real painting, but what palatable philosophy can I put forward to hard working fellow artists?

    • I’ve been railed at by two local artists who believe that I’m pricing my work too low. Too bad. I move more units. Not only that, but people enjoy looking at it, and I find the stuff better sold than in storage. But I also have a pyre every few years.

  5. I have been given a couple of paintings and I love and treasure them. Someday, I may be able to afford purchasing art, but not yet. I would encourage you to give freely. You do not owe an explanation to anyone. Philosophy? Proverb, “Flowers leave some of their fragrance on the hand that bestows them.” (Author unknown to me)

  6. I have noticed that the people who purchased my paintings, especially those who have several pieces, are the ones who expressed the deepest appreciation and joy. I gave away a few and my experience is that people are grateful to receive them, but don’t value them the way true collectors do. Perhaps they think that being free, there must be something wrong with it although I’ve never gifted a substandard piece. I tend to think that collecting art is the whole experience of searching, finding, falling in love, sacrificing something for it, cherishing it. That’s how I feel when I buy a piece of art.

  7. I designed dresses, I threw away samples that were not a good fit, a good idea. I had put good thought and work into some….but nope, they got trashed.
    Research and development. But it is harder to do as painter, I don’t know why. All that praise from family…the oh nos!
    It is so freeing when you get those pieces gone.
    I take the canvas off the stretchers and get them recovered with clean fresh canvas. The limp painting can be torn and thrown in trash or burned.

  8. Or you might have the experience I did…. Browsing in a local second hand shop, I stopped in astonishment when I came upon a piece that was oddly familiar. It was a tiny painting I had done and sold some years before. The purchaser had gone to the expense of having it professionally framed (the cardboard corners attested to that), but then something happened – perhaps a change of heart or fortune? I assume the framing shop put it out there to try to recoup some of their expenses. Of course I bought it back!

  9. Kathleen Guest on

    Loved reading the comments! I so agree about the fire. I burned curriculums I had developed after I retired. Publishing sounded like work! Used a fire container in a nearby campground then dumped ashes in near by river – all paper and yes maybe, sort of, yeah, pollution. But spiritual to me. Fire can be a cleanser.

  10. I would be extremely leery of burning oil or acrylic paintings in your house. Paints can produce toxic fumes. Fireplaces should not be used as incinerators.

  11. I have had several bonfires to dispose of work that I decided either didn’t make the quality of the work I would want to be remembered for and for some old very large (6-8’) canvases that had been seen over the years but I decided could remain as just digital images in my archives

    I have made donations to museums and college and university art galleries too which seems to be a way to get my work out of storage and on a wall to be seen

    Also when I’m gone and my family needs to figure out what to do with the remaining work I’ve given them a head start on the culling
    I recommend it this to older painters

    • Susan Singer on

      My mother had to downsize and had over 500 pieces of art. She had an online auction to sell her things. Many of her pieces went for $.99. Not even $1. It was the worst thing that has ever happened to her and I don’t think she will ever recover from the sorrow of it.

  12. About giving lesser works to family and friends: don’t if you value your name and heritage. They will come back in your lifetime and beyond it to represent your body of work. I saw some embarrassing works by a famous eastern American Impressionist being sold by his family…he must have been rolling in his grave.

  13. Mudito Drope on

    Every single painting, drawing I have done I see flaws in. should I junk the lot? No. a garage sale coming up in my neighbourhood and will put them out for next to nothing and see what happens. I don’t sell much as I have little drive to do so but would like to move some of this stuff along if nothing else for my children. They will be burdened enough when I die.

  14. I say sell what you can while you can. I did a BOGO sale, to raise property tax money in February 2019.
    Money matters. Sometimes we are not the best judge of what we have made. GET P:AID!!!!!

  15. I’m in process of packing up to relocate my home/studio several states away. Moving vans charge by weight. I’ve been boxing, 26 boxes of paintings to date (3-5 per box) and just as many chopped and tossed. Doing this has not been freeing, it has been very painful in fact. I made certain to keep those I had a story with but so many I was holding onto as duds just to paint over. I did learn by looking back about how I used to paint and what I no longer like. This move of my studio is just awful. I believe only another artist can understand. AND it’s constantly threatening my painting time!!

    • I had a tent next to my studio during Annual studio tour in my area. I had paintings and sketches I had outgrown and was selling bargain prices for a good home. One young 8 year old girl discovered a 12×24 inch painting in which I had explored purple, blue, red and a splash of white. She offered me her $1.00 allowance and told me it was the most beautiful painting she had ever seen and would put it in her room. It was the perfect sale. I gave her mother the $1.00 and thanked her for introducing her daughter to art.

      • Make a template and go over the cast-offs and cut out rectangles that can be pasted on note paper and throw the scrap away–it can’t be used with parts cut out and you can send “original” paintings on note paper to special people.

  16. I like to recycle my oil on panel paintings that don’t work. I use the oil primer made by Gamblin and cover over the old surface. First I sand off the lumps and thick paint, wearing a mask. Beware of burning plywood, as it contains glues and other possible toxic substances.

  17. I try to do an annual bonfire for New Year’s eve… of course part of the fire is igniting a chance to keep the fire of creation going by letting go of the ones that don’t express my best. I guess, I see it as a circle of the life of creation.

  18. I work in fiber; starting from a quilt background—but my pieces look more like paintings and are definitely not cuddly. I made a lot of small pieces, experimenting with color and technique. While working in a health clinic with horribly thin walls, I covered the walls with my small pieces. This worked really well in creating privacy of conversations. When it was time for me to move on to another job, I offered the pieces to the patients. They were totally thrilled and I was pleased to see the delight on their faces.

    • Totally wonderful act of kindness and consideration for your patients while you were employed in that space. Lots of memories on those walls and the patients could feel those in your art pieces that you gifted to them. Beautiful soul!

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oil on canvas
40 x 50 inches

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