Spring cleaning

Dear Artist, Yesterday, Laura Tovar Dietrick of Portsmouth, Virginia 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?”

“Atlanta, Georgia”
oil painting
by Laura Tovar Dietrick

Thanks, Laura. 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.

“Newport, Rhode Island”
oil painting
by Laura Tovar Dietrick

Best regards, Robert 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.”   Burn only wood indoors by Mary Susan Vaughn, Charlotte, NC, USA  

“Spirit of Black Beaver”
oil painting
by Mary Vaughn

I am surprised you suggested burning in your fireplace. That is the surest way to burn down your house. I know, I almost did, and that was simply from throwing paper in the fireplace. Inside fireplaces are NOT for bon-fires. Period. What happens is that instead of burning, some papers and things get pulled up into the flue — on fire — and then your chimney and roof follow suit. This happened to us in a matter of seconds. One paper envelope from our mail caught the fire and then floated up the flue. We heard this “wummmmph,” looked at each other and walked out on our deck only to see 20 ft flames shooting from our chimney. If it had not rained and rained hard that day, we would have lost our home. Especially with charcoal, paints, pastels, and chemicals that are in paintings, DO NOT burn them in your fireplace. They leave residue on the interior of the flue that WILL catch on fire; even if a simple spark travels up the flue it can burn down your house. The fireman that saved our home told us this and said, “NEVER burn mail or anything other than logs in your fireplace.” EVER. If you do, you will get to know your local fireman up close and personal and not in a nice way either. If necessary, Laura should get a fire permit on a nice spring day and burn her work. She can get one from her local fire department probably. (RG note) Thanks, Mary. And thanks to everyone who scolded me for burning. I’m sitting in my “Salon des Refusées,” drinking Scotch, being thankful for yet another reason not to get busy and get rid of this stuff. There are 2 comments for Burn only wood indoors by Mary Susan Vaughn
From: Catherine Stock — Apr 12, 2011

You need to have your chimney cleaned. I heat my house with wood in winter, and have to have my chimney cleaned every year to prevent the chimney catching on fire, otherwise I won’t be covered by insurance.

From: Sharon Williams — Apr 16, 2011

I don’t throw out ‘failed’ or unmatured work. I’m an experimental abstract painter and find that I can use these, reformatted in various ways in other works. In some cases, the resulting works of art have sold very quickly. In a Virginia Cobb workshop, I learned to view my work in stages, as we live: infant, child, adolescent and adult. To this list, I have added ‘work that needs friends’. These end up being combined with or becoming the base or a layer in a combined piece, often of much higher market value. Prematurely trashing your work can deprive you of income. I keep a large portfolio for things I initially view as unfinished or ‘not good enough’. Years may pass before I review them again, often with one of my friends who are knowledgeable and can see them with a fresh eye. The last time I did this, there was almost enough to start working on a new show. I get a lot of encouragement from being able to look back at older work and see the progression. Even some of these have been viewed as sellable and have sold. So, don’t be hasty, but do review periodically.

  Alternatives to burning by Theresa Bayer, Austin, TX, USA  

“Jester with Egg”
acrylic painting
by Theresa Bayer

Besides burning them you can: — Shred them — Leave unsigned and donate to Goodwill, etc. — Sell on eBay or on Craig’s List — Leave unsigned and put them into Freecycle — Pull the canvas off the stretchers, cut the painting up into little pieces, re-stretch with new canvas — Use cut up pieces as bookmarks or collage or scraps to experiment on — Cut up old watercolors as above — Wash off bad watercolors and reuse the paper. — Gesso over an acrylic (I know you frown on this, but I sand it first, then use iridescent gold paint as an imprimatura, to completely obliterate what’s underneath). — Sign another name on it and sell, donate, or give away. Rose Madder, Georgia O’Cult, Jay June, Michael Handjello, Kerry Vaggio, Ricasso. There are 2 comments for Alternatives to burning by Theresa Bayer
From: Carolyn — Apr 12, 2011

I think you are missing the point. You are saying to sell at a discount or give things away, but these are pieces that we DO NOT want to get out into the world. Sometimes it is better for some things to remain unseen, even if they are unsigned.

From: Sandy Sandy — Apr 12, 2011

I like your creative suggestions, Theresa! ☺

  The freedom that comes from burning by Hugo, Calgary, AB, Canada  

“On The Ledge”
original painting by Hugo

I followed your earlier burning advice when I moved my studio about five years ago. I was not all that sure about it at the time, and I had quite a bit of time to think about it, as most of my work from that period was painted on panel. They take a while to burn. It was a very freeing thing to do, and paved the way to a distinct style for me. As I am currently doing another clean-out of a bay in my garage that is to host my letterpress when I get it completed, I ran across a few panels from that period that at the time I could not bear to burn. Today I see quite clearly that I should have.     Purge before it’s too late by Roxanne Rodwell, Hardu, VA, USA  

“Black Hat and Beads”
oil painting, 20 x 16 inches
by Roxanne Rodwell

When purging art files, a spring cleaning seems appropriate. But the availability of a roaring fire during the New Year season is a splendid opportunity to burn 10% of the work of the past year. That is the advice my mentor passed along to his students, and ever since I haven’t been timid about throwing out work that isn’t up to my standards. He also said, “Go through your studio and throw out all your bad work because when you die they’ll come in, go through it and put it all in a museum,” When I visited Delacroix’s studio in Paris, there it all was. I’m sure he would be chagrined if he could see work he wished he had burned.     Throw a party by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA  

original painting
by Terrie Christian

Many times, when I have not liked one of my paintings, others, including artists whose opinion I value, have really liked the piece. I often gift those pieces to the admirer and feel very good about it. I do not feel as though it was a sub-standard piece, but that it spoke to another differently than me. I think Laura could have a little gathering of friends (a good excuse for a party) and spread out these pieces for them to choose. This could be a “culling” and then what is left over may be going into the burn pile. For myself, I tend not to throw anything out, because I will cut it up or collage on top of it and then these become some of my own favorite pieces. One such painting actually ended up in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts Foot in the Door exhibit for Minnesota artists last year and now hangs in my dining room. There is 1 comment for Throw a party by Terrie Christian
From: libby swingle — Apr 12, 2011

If you destroy your “old” stuff, how do you gauge your new stuff? Seems you’re doing away with your history.

  Dumpster your online paintings, too by Randall Cogburn, Alvin, Texas, USA   I got rid of a lot of stuff recently. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it all at once. The darn garbage can was really heavy walking down the street. Then to heave it into the dumpster, well, that was even harder. Should have thought of burning it but I guess I’d be polluting for sure then. I still have a bunch of stuff still most on the wall as reminders. Then there’s my blog. Well it was three or more years in the making and I hacked off about 2 years worth. Hard to see that go but I have all the photos still which is I guess a nice easy way to keep it all. A lot of my work has been done with memories of me and my dad as he ages, still sick but getting slower. Tuff times for sure. There are 2 comments for Dumpster your online paintings, too by Randall Cogburn
From: Anonymous — Apr 11, 2011

God Bless you and your dad

From: Sharon Cory — Apr 12, 2011

Randall. Trying to locate your work online. Is it in the blog signed Kirby? If so, I love your work and would probably buy a few pieces.

  Dumpster diving for lost treasure by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA  

“Salt Springs”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Eleanor Blair

I’m sorry, but I really disagree with you this time. Seems kind of selfish to me that in the name of personal integrity, an artist should destroy all but what they consider to be the very best of their work. Reminds me of a story my friend Katy King told about her early years as a potter using a kiln at the University of Florida. All the potters, faculty and students alike, always smashed their substandard work and the shards would end up in a dumpster. Katy noticed that some folks were willing to climb into the dumpster to pull out the pieces, so they could glue them together to have some real handmade pottery. Katie decided that, although she’d still discard what she didn’t like, she’d leave the pieces intact, outside the dumpster. Not everyone is in a position to buy an artist’s best original work, but handmade things are rare and wonderful. If you don’t like a piece you’ve done, leave it, unsigned, by the side of the dumpster. I promise you, it will be a treasure for someone. There are 6 comments for Dumpster diving for lost treasure by Eleanor Blair
From: Anonymous — Apr 11, 2011

One needs to be careful… at one stage my best work was going into the dumpster… I didnt appreciate the looseness or the flowing lines at the time…, thinking tight and perfect was better, some distance and objectivity… or a few friends to dive into the trash for me… would have been useful…

From: Anonymous — Apr 11, 2011

what about setting it unsigned outside a gallery

From: Catherine R — Apr 11, 2011

Eleanor, Your Salt Springs is just wonderful ! (I hope you will never dump it! ) Anyway, just thought you should know how beautiful it is

From: Sandy Sandy — Apr 12, 2011

I agree with Eleanor. One man’s junk is another’s treasure. Those that give joy to others, cannot keep it from themselves.

From: Marie-Therese Brown — Apr 12, 2011

Hi Elly I love the Salt Springs painting and agree finding an original work of art in the dumpster beats an old ironing board.

From: Mary Sims-Morey — Apr 19, 2011

I agree with Eleanor. Giving the work away or allowing it to be ‘found’ as someone’s treasure is far better than selling at a discount or destroying the work. I think generosity speaks more for the artist’s integrity than only allowing the world to see “your best work.”

  The ‘three pile’ system by Leslie Anderson, Sedgwick and Portland, ME, USA  

“Blue Bucket”
oil painting, 16 x 12 inches
by Leslie Anderson

I own two homes, each with a small studio. When I arrive at my summer studio, where older work is stored, I force myself to go through the bins and make three piles: destroy, re-purpose, and donate. The destroy pile gets cut up in tiny pieces and goes to the dump. I go through the re-purpose pile to see if there are small gems hidden within larger failed works and if so, crop appropriately, mat, and sell at the farmer’s market. (If not, move immediately to destroy pile). The donate pile goes to a local non-profit that builds and manages affordable housing for seniors, low-income families, and homeless folks who are transitioning to apartment living. These are used to brighten up common areas, and are much appreciated. This process gives me an opportunity to look with fresh eyes at older work, see how far I’ve come (or not), and helps me set painting directives for myself for the coming summer. There are 2 comments for The ‘three pile’ system by Leslie Anderson
From: Anonymous — Apr 12, 2011

Hope you leave a few for yourself!

From: Anonymous — Apr 12, 2011

I admire your methodical approach leslie. I am getting inspired.

  Let the kids deal with it by Louise Francke, NC, USA  

“Vermeer Chimp at Virginal”
original painting
by Louise Francke

Being prolific is a curse. But giving art to unsuspecting recipients is the most rewarding experience one can have. I remove the frames which possibly could be used for future works and let them frame the works. If they do a smashing job, then they can see how much it costs us to do it for them. There is a series of 30 or more oil paintings I did which hang on my home walls. I would be hard pressed to make plans to dispose of them. They whisper to me where I’ve been and encourage me to keep doing it. I am not mentioning the two huge cylindrical containers in which I’ve encapsulated rolled up early watercolors and oil paintings listing the titles on the side and enclosing slide sheets, resumes, etc. Yes, they were done before the digital revolution. Let my sons deal with those! My supplies however remain intact to my husband’s dismay. There is 1 comment for Let the kids deal with it by Louise Francke
From: Ruth Livingston — Apr 11, 2011

I love this painting!

  The comfort of ‘The Pile’ by Angela Lynch, Toronto, ON, Canada   We’ve all heard “Without valleys, there can be no hills; without losses, there can be no gains.” Without a variety of our work around us spanning across the good, the bad and the downright ugly, how do we gauge ourselves? Memories are fleeting things and if we think we’ll remember how bad we used to paint, forget it! A record of our accomplishments and failures around us, whether it be sketches, drawings, paintings, photographs, is a fantastic reference for us as artists. My pile goes up and down like The Bay of Fundy but it is always there. I actually find “The Pile” comforting as I drag the whole thing out and sift through them on this rainy, damp day, looking for a lost and forgotten idea. There are 2 comments for The comfort of ‘The Pile’ by Angela Lynch
From: Sandy Sandy — Apr 12, 2011

Well said, we’ve all been there.

From: Helen Opie — Apr 13, 2011

I also like having a (small) pile for the reasons Angela Lynch & others describe; as my history and also as reminders of other paths I might still explore. What made me determine to have fewer unresolved paintings in my pile is that Revenue Canada may come in when I die and attach overrated prices to them all, saddling my daughter with a high estate tax on paintings no one bought. One solution is to give many away; to organizations I wish I had money to support, to friends who like them, although I could also write on the back that this painting was made especially for _____ and leave it to them without its being part of my taxable estate…but by then, they might not like it, or might not be alive themselves. I am still healthy, still improving my painting, and am contemplating having some sort of fundraiser for our local ArtsPlace in celebration of my 80th birthday (in 2 years). This would drain my stash of things I made that aren’t bad, just aren’t like anything else I’ve ever done or am likely to do. I knew of another artist who did this, but am wrestling with the concern that it might be seen as unloading junk…mostly what I have is experiments that never became part of my general body of work.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Spring cleaning

From: Marvin Humphrey — Apr 07, 2011

I have a lot of unfinished pieces taking up space, awaiting resolution. The dilemma is deciding which ones should be cremated.

Separating the wheat from the chaff is a constant, necessary battle.
From: Nancy Moskovitz — Apr 08, 2011

Have any of you tried burning oil paintings in a fireplace? It just sounds like toxic fumes to me, especially if there is varnish or retouch varnish involved. Your thoughts or experience?

Meanwhile I think it would be safe to transport the outcasts straight to the landfill and crush it yourself.
From: Jackie Griswold — Apr 08, 2011

In addition to painting, I also do mixed media collage work, so paintings on paper that don’t make the cut end up in the pile of “paper to be torn up to put in a collage.” On the other hand, if it’s a painting on canvas that I don’t like, I’ll just use it as a base for something else, or gesso over it and start again.

Jackie Griswold http://JackieGriswoldArt.com
From: Marilyn Bachelor, Hubbard Lake MI — Apr 08, 2011

Thank you. Thank you.I had a burning which was a response to my thinking about what my sons would do if I should pass away. They would have a week from their jobs to take care of my things and make decisions. To spare them this added anguish, I kept the best, took photos of the mediocre, and burned the rest. It de-cluttered my mind as well as my studio and gave me purpose — keep improving.

From: Fredericks. — Apr 08, 2011

Let me share this story. My wife is my best fan but her enthusiasm far surpasses her evaluation of the quality of art. She has hauled out some of my most immature paintings and exuberantly presented them for the examination of visitors. I shudder when I see this happen for I feel that they belittle my reputation. So, I have been quietly and covertly, putting these works to death – only keeping the occasional one as markers of my development. Keeping this stuff brings with the it the potential of having your works survive your own mortality and gaining a second life of circulation. Its too risky.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Apr 08, 2011

I have been agonizing for at least six months (or longer) and talking to various patrons, friends, family and on-line artists about having a “blog sale” of studies, plein air, and unsold work. I know, I should not have a “sale” and lower prices. These are works that have merit but did not find their owner the first time around. My husband and family are adamant to not destroy them. So, what is an artist to do. Burn them on the sly? I even have a problem with burning them.

Now, after talking to one patron, we decided it might work to have an “unframed sale” and offer about five at a time on the blog. These paintings would still have the retail “per square inch” pricing, but will not have the added expenses of the frame, glass, etc. Most of these are small works that are easily shipped without frame. I bet I have a couple hundred pieces. I am a prolific painter. So, what is an artist to do?
From: Deborah — Apr 08, 2011

Please din’t burn anything but seasined hardwood and appropriate kindling materials in your fireplace! Other materials may create buildup on your chimney flue and help create conditions leading to chimney fire, which could destroy your chimney or even burn down your house. Perhaps your community has a place for burning, if it is illegal to do so on your own property.

From: Thomas Paquette — Apr 08, 2011

A burn is a tempting offering to the Fates and Muses. (And, as a pyromaniac – who isn’t one? – and someone who used to build bonfires for a living, I am easily tempted that direction myself.) But catapulting atomized cadmium and all those other heavy metals and carcinogens into the atmosphere and hence into others’ arenas of Fate, is probably not a good idea. A simple decent burial would probably be far more responsible for oil and acrylic paintings.

From: Darla — Apr 08, 2011

Nancy (who rightly didn’t want to burn painted canvases in the fireplace) — I always just paint over my old paintings that didn’t work. Scrape off excess texture, coat them with a neutral tone, let dry, and just start over! A lot of my watercolorist friends use the backs of old paintings, or tear them up for collage, or cut interesting pieces out to rework as something new. I suppose you could even pulp them if you do papermaking. It beats having to buy new materials if you don’t have to.

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Apr 08, 2011

I am doing some digital decluttering, but at this rate, and this age, I’d better strive to live to 110. Thanks to cost benefit analysis in the health care business, that probably won’t happen.

From: John Ferrie — Apr 08, 2011

I am ruthless when it comes to cleaning out my studio. Its like going through your closet sorting out clothes. Whatever I haven’t worn in a year, bought on sale that STILL has the tags on it or will fit when I loose ten pounds, is punted. It is just too distracting to have my studio cluttered up with Duds. If nobody has looked or even sniffed at a piece for a year, destroy it. Like getting the bats out of the attic, these static pieces can be distracting and disturbing. Life is a series of letting go. Once you get over the anxiety of getting rid of something, like somehow speeds up and gets better.

Maybe that is just me.
From: Jackie Knott — Apr 08, 2011

I prefer to recycle canvas after stripping it down and painting over it with a heavy glaze. But if you don’t want to a utility knife works well. Reuse the stretchers. Slice it to shredding consistency and move on.

From: Jean Mazur — Apr 08, 2011

I had the job of helping friends to go through the estate of another artist who saved almost everything, not only her art related stuff but her parents who were artists, too. What a job! She lived in the same small apartment for 29 years. You had to navigate through narrow paths to another area or room. She suffered from brain cancer for 7 years, lived alone and my dear friend just couldn’t cope. She could have been on one of the hoarders shows. It made me think about what would happen to my art stuff. Moving helped me to reduce my accumulated artworks, thinking what would my family have to do when I died. Not a good chore to leave others.

From: Dwight — Apr 08, 2011

Laura, your “endangered” work, so-called, is really very nice. You may be able to do even better, making these seem second rate. But Robert is right. Keep these for the reasons he gives. I tell students to keep early work to look at when they have been painting for a while and think they’re not making progress. Old work can instantly show you what strides you have made.

From: Denyse — Apr 08, 2011

Let’s not burn chemicals in the household woodstove people, that’s just an opportunity for half-burnt slimy gunk to build up in the flue and cause a fire!

This letter came timely this morning. I was thinking about the two rubbermaid totes I have full of “stuff that didn’t sell” – what to do with it? Give it away? Give it to charity? Bury it in the former outhouse pit in the backyard? I have no idea ;-)
From: Marilyn Smith — Apr 08, 2011

Old Oil paintings make great bags to carry home groceries, etc….

and a great conversation starter about art. I use old watercolors-after I have painted on both sides to make my business cards. I also buy a nice sketch book every year and do studies, drawings, and write notes about what is going on in my life. I keep the book and get rid of all other sketches on loose paper. NOTHING is sacred.
From: jill bukovnik — Apr 08, 2011

LAURA STOP… don’t destroy these. I’d be one of those people that would enjoy receiving one. For me these paintings are great. I love what others call “imperfect”… to me they’re perfect.

From: Susan Avishai — Apr 08, 2011

It’s not just about old drawings and paintings. After sorting through all my mother’s belongings after her recent death, I realized I should go home and purge myself of all sorts of stuff I was keeping for reasons unknown — bills, books, bad photos, old letters, clothing not worn, dried out tubes of paint, sad brushes, you get the picture. Why should my kids have to do it someday? Fortunately or unfortunately, I am a collage artist, and am finding a lot of this junk potentially useful in the work so it just gets moved, not tossed. Ah, the downside of the creative soul.

From: Tatjana — Apr 08, 2011

Fredericks, that’s so funny, I know exactly what you are talking about. I have actually hidden some old poorly done pieces that I keep for sentimental reasons, so that they don’t get enthusiastically shown to visitors. Of course, there is a show from time to time of “trying to find them” and wondering “where on earth they might be”… you gotta love your best fans!

From: Hugo — Apr 08, 2011

Always enjoy your messages and how quite often magically you touch buttons of synchronicity even while I’m moving from painting to printing.

From: Enid Egan — Apr 08, 2011

At one time I too had the urge to throw a bunch of my paintings into the dumpster. I had over 30 paintings on 1/8″ masonite that I got rid of by standing on them to break them up. I had taken photos of some of them, and since regretted throwing out some of them. I can see now what I could have done to improve on them. Some of them just needed a little sanding, and a little more work, and voila.

From: Irene Chaikin — Apr 08, 2011

Laura’s paintings that you placed on the clickback, are, in my opinion, beautiful and do not merit burning. She should mat them, and shrink wrap them, and let the buyer worry about framing them. If the buyer is a young person with not enough money to buy a frame, he/she can hang them as is, until they can afford a frame.

She could designate the price, and give a 50 percent reduction to people under the age of 30. Please send this idea to Laura, before she burns these paintings. My best wishes to Laura.
From: Russ Williams — Apr 08, 2011

I’ve always understood that there are a lot of hazardous chemicals in many types of paint and that burning is illegal in many places for good reasons (of health and reducing environmental damage)….? Am I mistaken, or was this a cavalier suggestion that was made without thinking about ecological damage? Surprised at the recommendation.

From: Graham Dexter dexworks@me.com — Apr 08, 2011

Hi Laura,

Just read Robert’s artists letter and I hate the idea that you might burn or throw away your work just because it doesn’t come up to your standards. At the very least just take a quick shot of each piece. Then when you can, make up a digital print book of them. If you do it chronologically then it will be an interesting documentation of your ‘journey’. It will also serve to inspire lesser artists to do better. Looking through failures helps make the higher standards appear more achievable. I was more inspired looking through Monet’s sketchbooks than by his celebrated paintings. Likewise, seeing some early Toulouse Lautrec work was fascinating. I could see that my own work was comparable to some of his and if I put in the effort I could improve considerably. We (and others) can learn as much from our mistakes as we can from our successes. If you decide to make up a book. Do let me know – I’d buy a copy : ) DEx Oh, and if someone loves one of the images in your book it would be nice to be able to give them the original!
From: Tim Pielak — Apr 08, 2011
From: Paol Serret — Apr 08, 2011
From: Catherine Stock — Apr 08, 2011

Before tossing anything out, I look over work carefully, often using a small cardboard viewfinder. There is very often something worth salvaging which I keep in a file or pin up on the wall for awhile. I encourgage my students to do this too. Once I even found that by cutting a watercolour into three pieces, the compositions succeeded individually much better than they had as a whole.

From: Marjorie Moeser — Apr 08, 2011

On the question on what to do with paintings one is not totally satisfied with… those directed to the Salon des Refugees, I find that I can keep a record of the work done by means of a jpeg image filed electronically . Thereafter, I usually recycle the paper, canvas,board,etc. by either gessoing over or simply painting on top of, using the “rejected” piece as an underpainting, the colours of which can come through and shine again in the new creation. The painting becomes reincarnated, so to speak . In these days of economic hard times, and expensive art materials, I find this is a good way for the artist to recycle good paper, canvas, board,etc. Long live pentimento!

From: Maryjo Warstler — Apr 08, 2011

Years ago while wintering in Florida and taking a workshop, a lady sat at the end of my table. She was most enjoyable, had great spirit and was also helpful. Now I belong to the Martin County Arts Council, of which the lady is a member, and we paint together plein air when I am in residence in Florida each winter.

Last summer when residing in Indiana and reading your weekly letter, you posted the pictures from the helicopter art workshop in Canada. Low and behold there was my friend. My comment, “I know that woman”. We laughed a lot bout my findings when we were together this winter in Florida. It truly is a small world!!! Thanks for your time each week online. Being a “young artist” learning to watercolor at age 59 which was ten years ago, your weekly letters are instructive and encouraging.
From: Kim Jarvis — Apr 08, 2011

Why not recycle the canvases, i.e. paint over them?

From: Suzanna Hunter — Apr 08, 2011

Hoarders, I could be one but I know too many, move too often, and am allergic to mold and dust.

Give it away to friends, they are very appreciative and it is great to see my work in another setting. Burning does not work well with my medium of choice, I play with clay, On the other hand it could be an interesting finish.
From: Mary Walberg — Apr 08, 2011
From: Diane Overmyer — Apr 08, 2011

First I want to say “Good for you!” for doing some spring cleaning! Then I would add to Robert’s comments to take a photo of each of the major pieces you are disposing of. If you are really organized, you can keep a dated record of what was done when, and make a few notes about each piece; positive or negative impressions and results. You never know someday after you are gone, your family or perhaps the world will want to know more about you and “get inside your head”. After all I am sure Vincent Van Gogh never dreamed his letters would be published for the whole world to read someday!

From: Roslyn Levin — Apr 08, 2011

Many years ago, 15 I think, I was moving to the US for a few years to realize a project my partner was involved in.

I looked over my hoarded paintings going way back to my twenties and decided to put the match to them. There were a lot of pieces in the lot and to this day I only miss two of them that were very personal pieces that I would never have sold and perhaps never have framed. I do not regret the flames. I do feel some regrets, however, over my Mother’s doing away with all my old paintings and drawings while I was away at university. I should have been the one to make that decision. Of those pieces I only miss one. All in all, the entire flaming business helped me to move on with my muse. Life is a coin. You can spend it any way you wish, but you can only spend it once. (Lillian Dickson) “We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are.” The Talmud “Meditate. Live purely. Be quiet. Do your work with mastery. Like the moon, come out from behind the clouds! Shine.” (Buddha)
From: Stephanie Martin — Apr 08, 2011

If an ‘abstract’ piece does not work for me, I know and I chuck it, the same for any representational piece I might do. I guess one has to be observant and critical of one’s own work and not settle for mediocrity in any genre. It’s in the doing and truly loving it. Having fun!

From: Paul deMarrais — Apr 08, 2011

When it comes to old, substandard, unwanted art, I think of the famous remark used by the black radical leader H.Rap Brown back in the sixties. ‘Burn, baby, burn!!!” I’ve got a pile developing myself that will accompany some brush, twigs and cardboard soon. A raging iferno is cleansing. Afterward, I feel like I have had a wonderful shower after a day of hard labor. Artists can’t afford to have fire sale this studio debris and have it sullying their reputation. As they say you only get one chance to make a first impression. Let it be a positive one. I don’t let myself feel negative, though. Each painting taught me something and helped me along on the long journey of improvement that must be an inner goal of every artist. Maybe I should raise a toast as the flames shoot up to the heavens. I say honor the effort you gave and move on to better and better.

From: Ed Pointer — Apr 08, 2011

My rejects are all waiting in line for the big “paint out” — or I should say the big “painting out.” Can’t bear the thought of all that cutting panels and stretching and nailing to go to waste, not to mention the gallons of premium gesso used in the preparation process.

I line ’em up and paint ’em out with more expensive gesso. Of course I sand ’em down first, not too complex a process. Behold! I have new painting grounds and nothing short of an x-ray will say any different.
From: Sandy Essex — Apr 08, 2011

As a former art teacher’s take on Laura dilemma about her “old” work: I had an art exhibit each year in which every student I had during the year was represented. Sometimes, we (the student and I) had to really work to find something that was worthy of hanging, but there was usually something – and fragment, a corner, something that was “good”, which we would isolate and frame. Even now, I often take some of my “not so good” work, cut out the good sections, and make them into small, unframed works, note cards, tags, background for other work, collages, etc. And they really can be delightful. (The rest I trash.)

From: Ann McCann — Apr 08, 2011

Laura’s work doesn’t look like throwaway to me!

From: Lynn Arbor — Apr 08, 2011

While disposing a bad paintings is a good idea, burning in a fireplace sounds a bit scary. Cadmium and other toxins turning into fumes, Yikes! Obviously you’re not going to burn canvases with oils and acrylics in the fireplace.

I tear up my old watercolors on paper, save the best parts and use them in collages. As for disposing of the really bad stuff? On some pieces I paint out my signature if there is one and leave it out for the trash collectors. Or rip it, squash it, water it and stick in in a black trash bag with really gross garbage.
From: Alex Nodopaka — Apr 08, 2011

I appreciate your bonpyre (sic) recommendations in your spring cleaning article. You’re spot on. My own suggestion is that out of accidental tragedies new sphinxes arise. Don’t overlook to photograph your bonfires or breakages or ripping fits of madness as they may turn out surrealistic masterpieces in the form of freshly singed drawings or paintings or sculptural subjects.

From: Dan Gray — Apr 08, 2011

I recommend the fire method, very cleansing and good for my soul, I save em up and have a fire once a year or so, becomes hard to stop though as it feels so good. Others might question my selection of donations for the fire so I do it when alone. I set up the camera and take a picture as they go in.

From: Loraine Wellman — Apr 08, 2011

I believe in keeping the piles down. When you do Life Drawing every week, paper piles up. I keep a few quick conte’ sketches to put up for an Open Studio as people are interested in what a one or two minute sketch looks like, but the rest just get burned in the fireplace. They are practice drawings after all – and the carbon contributes to the compost box and ultimate beauty of the garden.

Sketch books get kept and are a wonderful memory deposit. Canvases can be re-used. You have to be a bit ruthless and consider whether you would want your work judged by a piece that just isn’t very good. Emily Carr had Lawren Harris go through her work after she died and he made a pile of donations, sellables, and one to dispose of. Unfortunately, her sister felt there could be money in the “junk” pile – and that is why there are a lot of sub-par Carrs around. People see them and think that represents her work and dismiss her before they see the really good stuff. Keep weeding!
From: Elizabeth Pudsey — Apr 08, 2011

When I was teaching Watercolour classes, I found that if I made a few small “L”s or matts I could often find a gem in some of the pieces. This started as way to get the student to think of how and why they did that section and help them be more aware of their actions. Because I was doing quite a bit of demonstrating, I too had many not fit for sale pieces. I began to look for small sections that I found interesting and cut them out, then decide either to use it as a “jump” off section for an abstract painting OR use pastels and work back into it, making a nice little painting that quite often attached to a card/envelope and gave to a friend or relative when needed. Many of these came out better then expected and and the balance of the painting it came from was destroyed. This can not be done with Oil paintings but can be with Acrylics.

From: Peggy Small — Apr 08, 2011

When I was first beginning to paint, in Prince George we had a visiting instructor, with whom you may be familiar, Anne Meredith Bary(? spelling). She had a summer studio in Newfoundland. She did a spring cleaning when she got there and put her discards out in the garbage. Soon, tourists were calling at her studio and asking to see further work. And she said, “My rotten kids were selling my rejects on the street, downtown!” A good early lesson. Mine are either committed to the pyre or gessoed over, depending on the medium. I’ve had lots of great fires!

From: Lynne Schulte — Apr 08, 2011

One of the most wonderful results of having a piece you do not like is that you have no vested interest in it so you are free to go ahead and take risks in painting, collaging, pasteling, and such on top of what you have done so far. You have nothing to lose, so you feel quite free. And sometimes surprises happen….

From: Dotti Wilke — Apr 08, 2011

Some of us are lucky enough to be able to use water instead of fire; I can wash away work I don’t think is good enough to sell. I paint in soft pastels on sanded paper that can handle water media. When I have a painting I want to get rid of, I just wash it off with water — and reuse the paper that now has an interesting underpainting! One of these just won a prize in a juried show. I find it very freeing and fun.

From: Jeanean Songco Martin — Apr 08, 2011

LEARN DON’T BURN: In response to “Spring Cleaning” I think as artist we must be careful what we discard. Pieces that have special meaning even if they will never see the light of a gallery should be saved. Be very careful what you decide to get rid of. I learn from my old work. I have an extremely hard time getting rid of any artwork that I do. I even have drawings that my mother lovingly saved from the age of 5. My college student work is very very important to me as it represents milestones in my learning curve. I look back at those drawings and paintings and can immediately place myself in the classroom or the location where it was painted. I remember my professors and other students who contributed to my artistic pursuit. The next ten years after that were also important milestone years. The paintings range in subject matter and quality, but all of them have a special place in my psyche. The next ten years after that are very important pieces of work to me. Most of the better pieces are in private collections but many paintings have not been sold. I always make sure to take a picture of paintings that are sold for my records. If you intend to hold on to your work you must protect them from damage. If you don’t have a lot of storage space a good way to “warehouse” your work is to give a gift of a painting you really love to someone who you know will appreciate it and offer a painting to a family member or good friend to hang them on their walls. They can be retrieved in the future for a show if need be. I have seen a real link to what I am doing now and work from twenty years ago. I have greater control and facility compared to the older paintings but the imagery has similar qualities. Personally, I think this is a positive thing. For me, the “constant” reflects a continous thread that has much to do with how I feel as much as how I paint. I have revisited those paintings from earlier years from time to time to “evaluate” what it is that I liked about them or what it is I do not like and will try not to repeat in my new work. I have a large closet that I keep this personal work in and probably will never show them unless it is pertinent to a retrospective. I do not think it is in our best interest to simply sell inferior pieces of work. Only display and sell work that you are proud of and has meaning. If you really don’t love the piece than by all means burn it.

From: Karla Pearce — Apr 09, 2011

I’m having an inventory sale right now and have had a lot of interest in the first few days. Not everyone sees the artwork same way as I do. Paintings are moving that were scheduled for burning. As far as I look at it it’s money in my pocket. However I do have a time limit on the sale. When it’s all over, the inferiors burn.

From: Edy Martin — Apr 09, 2011

What an good idea to give studies and other older work to visiting friends to the gallery. Every art competition around wants recent work – like in the last 3 years, so over time, I’ve got scads of art……can hardly move around in the studio. Keep up your good advice.

From: Natalie Fleming — Apr 09, 2011

Nobody mentioned another thing you can do with paintings that just don’t cut it. Use them for collage material, and of course you can paint on both sides of the paper.

From: Dorothy Gardiner — Apr 09, 2011

I had a young artist come help me sort & dispose of old inferior work. Since we attend the same church, she suggested I donate the frames for future projects. I agreed and also gave her some canvases I thought could be used and painted over. Well, a week after the donation I was walking past the teen room when she stuck her head out the window and said, ” how do you like where I hung your painting?” I said , “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”. She said, ” look in.” To my horror was a huge orange painting I had done 30 yrs ago ( a sunrise and saguaro cactus). I thought I was a young ingenue in those days painting my Arizona childhood memories Loved the painting then, when I was in my orange phase. I’m now horrified that anyone will see it, much less than any congregation member who passes the teen room. Oh by the way my young artist helper thinks it’s fantastic, as do all of the teens. They have painted the room a complimentary orange, and found a rug with the same. I hate it and can’t take it back! Beware of generous urges! Especially to churches.

From: João Augusto Travanca Fonseca — Apr 09, 2011

Hi Robert, as long as we have a hand we are keeping doing things.

Thanks for your inspired writings. You are a true special one.
From: Steve Brown — Apr 09, 2011

I love the fire idea except for one kind of important thing. Some pigments put off very toxic fumes when burnt. Maybe to a good idea not to do it in the house. http://www.stevebrownartis.com

From: Lina Daukas — Apr 10, 2011

Even Beethoven disposed of work that didn’t meet his standards!

From: Bernice Koff — Apr 10, 2011

Being a compulsive cleaner-outer, I have done 2 or 3 interesting things with older, but still good quality paintings. The one that made me feel the best (and gave me a small tax deduction) was donating framed pieces to the Cancer Center at our local hospital…people undergoing treatment get to choose a painting for their room and I can’t think of a better feeling than giving someone in that situation a bit of painted joy. I have also removed pieces from frames or good mats and donated the latter to the art department in one of our poorer school districts (I was so taken with their appreciation that I also cleaned out old watercolor supplies and papers etc. and gave those away. I always keep some pieces in a large file that were important to me at one time, but I do destroy the others…cutting them up or slashing them…I can’t burn them so I have to risk the dumpster, but I make them pretty hard to resuscitate. I enjoy your letters…

From: Paddy Cake — Apr 10, 2011

The unwanted paintings, unlike your other work which I enjoyed seeing, look incomplete. Perhaps you could approach a senior artist for some suggestions as to how you might resolve these pieces.

Paint over them or make them into something else but please don’t pollute the air by burning oils.
From: B.J.Billups/Elizabeth Billups/Betty — Apr 10, 2011

Hi Laura…what I have discovered over the years…on those “not so great paintings”…is that I no longer destroy them RIGHT AWAY…but put them into a stack, and check them again, maybe 5 months later.

What I have discovered, is that sometimes, because a piece did not reach the goal of what my dream was…it is none the less a pretty handsome piece (I learned this the hard way…viewing a slide of a destroyed painting, thinking it was someone else’s nice “handsome” piece! Yiks! It was the one I destroyed!) Also, another reason for not destroying right away, if you can get some distance on it, that is, not be so attached…coming back a few months later, with your improved abilities, you might find some simple solution, that will pull it into a “keeper”…it might just be one value off, or one shape, or one just minor thing, that has made it “not so good”… AND THEN, if I can’t pull it off, I will do one of several things: 1. destroy it… 2. cut it up (board or canvas)…rough up the surface, so it will accept more fresh paint…and either make an abstract or 3. use it for the under painting, for another painting…HOWEVER, you need to be careful NOT to place a “lean” color over a “fat” color (this only applies to oil paintings)…because the oil pigment (fat…like the cadmiums) on the bottom, may make the lean color (your earth tones, etc) NOT ADHERE properly, and in time, it could crack off! Any how…choices…that is what ALL ART IS ABOUT…there are no ABSOLUTES!! Just new discoveries!!! Hope you will take the time to view my web site: www.bettybillups.com
From: Dick Quis — Apr 11, 2011

John W. Hilton had an annual custom – to burn an entire year’s accumulation of his own paintings which he had decided unworthy of him. This ritual was carried out at the stroke of midnight every New Years eve in Box Canyon. It was a holocaust of art. It was a symbol too. He was determined to paint the things he saw with his soul. But his hands would not obey the commands of his mind. He knew his depictions of the desert were not what he wished. He was uncompromising. He would not permit them to continue to exist. “How we wish,” said some, “that we could burn up all our mistakes of the year like John does his paintings!”

From: Sandy Johnston — Apr 11, 2011

I ‘recycle’ my substandard and unwanted work. If it’s on watercolor paper, I texture it and then do a painting in acrylic that I glue to a canvas board or similar backing to then be framed and sold. Or, you can glue it to a gallery-wrap canvas leaving about 1/2 to 1” boarder as a ‘mat’, then varnish the whole thing and it is ready to hang and sell.

Anacortes, WA
From: Deborah Lacativa — Apr 12, 2011

My medium is textiles so when a piece is really beyond redemption I donate it to the local humane society where it quietly becomes an anonymous cat hammock or dogbed depending on the size.

From: Elsha Leventis — Apr 12, 2011

These works are beautiful (no sign of black though!). As with all art, it’s important to do the research – find fine art galleries that specialize in the kind of art that you are hoping to place. In Ausby’s case, contemporary abstract. One of the museums that exhibited his work previously or the college where he taught might also be interested in a memorial show. Take your time – don’t do anything rash for the first few months…

From: Diane Keeter — Apr 12, 2011

When I first scrolled down to Rollin Kocsis’ happy painting, Where the Road Goes, my mind took me “sledding” down the “red snow”…SUCH fun! I love this painting; makes me happy and energized!

From: Laura Tovar Dietrick — Apr 12, 2011

All of the comments and suggestions mentioned are good food for thought. I have received some emails telling me to stop and not burn the paintings shown on the clickback. No fear, these items shown are images that Robert took from my blog and are not the ones that will be pitched/burned/tossed or whatever I end up doing. Those “firesale” studies/sketches etc. are not in the blogoshere. It’s interesting to note that some of my best work shown in these images from my blog are also those that some have encouraged me to get rid of! A bit discouraging for me…

From: cassandra — Apr 12, 2011

The art business has a problem in taking responsibility for the many toxic materials we use. I have seen artists working with solvents and aerosols that in a commercial graphic arts shop are never handled without a vent hood. When the works are complete they may be stable but the toxins in paint and other products will be released if burned. In our small community we have regulations on disposal of industrial wastes, pesticides, herbicides, housepaint, oil, solvent, batteries, tires etc. Your paintings contain some of the same components that industrial regulations treat as pollutants and regulate disposal methods. Please consult your local fire department, environmental by-laws, responsible municipal government officials and provincial environmental authorities. It is not sustainable to damage our planet in the name of art, we must be more responsible. For acrylic artists has anyone tried a power washer to strip canvas? It works on houses perhaps it could strip canvas to a reusable state as well.

From: Kathleen J — Apr 13, 2011

There is a blessing and a curse in working in the acrylic medium. The blessing is that if a painting isn’t working the canvas can be overpainted or started anew. The curse is the rogues gallery of failed paintings lined up for their “makeovers.”

There is an Artists’ Garage Sale event that I am considering entering some of my less than successful items into, but I have mixed feelings about putting work out there that I am not 100% satisfied with.
From: Jillian Adevasio-Peebles — Apr 13, 2011

I’ve never been prolific, yet I have bins full of work. I go through them and each time discard a few more pieces. Eventually, I expect to get through with the culling, but it sometimes seems like an endless process. I have to be done with a piece. I have to have finished learning from it. I have to know I don’t want to see it on my wall, or anyone else’s. Then it goes. After a year of not painting — or anything else, for that matter– due to health issues, I again went through the exercise and was amazed that I’d wound up with less than half what I’d begun with. As odd as it might sound, I was very pleased. There are some strings that are meant to be cut.

From: Tatjana — Apr 13, 2011

Cassandra, acrylic paint is thermoplastic. Try scrubbing the painting under very hot water. I have relatively easily scrubbed areas on a painting to raw canvas this way.

From: Barry John Raybould — Apr 14, 2011

I have found old paintings to be very useful as a basis for new paintings, particularly when the old painting is on a board. I sand the old paintings down to create a smoother surface and also to simplify the texture by removing some of the thicker brushstrokes. When I start a new painting, I look through some of these old boards to see if any of my scraped down paintings have some colors that might harmonize in the new painting, or that have some nice accent colors. Then I use that as my new canvas.

There are a couple of things I like with this approach. The first is that you have a nice oil primed surface on which to paint, which I found is great for taking thin transparent washes. You get some really nice lush transparent darks with this approach that create wonderful dark accents in the final painting if you let them show through in a few places. The second thing I really like about this approach is that you get a sort of ‘pentimento’ effect, where some of the underlying brushstrokes or color patches show through the later painting and create some really interesting textures as well as a layered effect. If you leave some of the underlying color areas showing by being careful not to completely paint over them, you end up with an optical color mixing effect. This can really enhance the abstract design of your painting when you look at the painting’s brushwork closeup. In fact some of the paintings I have been most happy with have been done using this approach, but it does require a bit of luck to find just the right underpainting for your new work, and then to make sure you don’t destroy too much of the old painting. It’s a fine balancing act in practice and does not always work, but when it does I think it can really enhance a painting. (Tip: I always use a mask when sanding old paintings so that the paint dust does not get into my lungs. The lungs absorb paint chemicals much more readily than the lining of the gut.) Tuscany, Italy
From: Cheryl Daye Dick..Vermont — Apr 14, 2011

Another idea for cleaning out is to take digital shots of everything, put them on a CD and just file it. You can trip down memory lane or get ideas from running through your less then best stuff on your computer and not have to store them.

From: mars — Apr 18, 2011

burn your work? think it’s a bad idea —— as how can U tell how the progress of your work is doing??? The ones I didn’t think were worth while keeping I destroyed– but necver burned — the ones-I didn’t like — I keep for reference as 2 — how I am doing now —

From: Sue Stevens — Apr 19, 2011

Please, Laura Tovar Dietrick-don’t burn those paintings or throw them out. They are beautiful. I only wish I had work of such fine quality.

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Where The Road Goes

acrylic painting, 28 x 30 inches by Rollin Kocsis, Memphis, TN, USA

  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 Lynette Fuller who sent this quote: “The end of all my labors has come. All that I have written appears to me as much straw after the things that have been revealed to me.” (St. Thomas Aquinas) And also Bill Kerr of Courtenay, BC, Canada, who wrote, “In a silly mood I have signed a few poor paintings ‘Adolph H.’ and left them in garbage containers in plain view. It helped me get out of a funk.”    

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