Destroying Your Art

While reading de Kooning: An American Master, I was struck by the following quote from the author:

The downtown artists . . . saw how hard de Kooning was working “on the side,” and how ardently he struggled to find an independent style, constantly destroying his work rather than settling for mediocrity. (pg 122)

A chapter or two later, we find out that de Kooning ended up regretting the destruction of those early works.

How about you?

What’s your criteria for destroying work?
And how do you destroy it? Do you paint over it? Take it apart and make it into something new?

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43 thoughts on “Destroying Your Art”

  1. I am a ceramic artist, so all kinds of things can make a piece not meet my standard – off proportion, bad glaze combo, etc. If the piece hasn’t been fired and is still soft enough, I smash it up and recycle it. If completed, I keep it around for a while to be sure I really don’t like it and to contemplate what I can learn from the piece. Once I have learned what I can it goes under my rhododendron tree. I can’t seem them in the summer when my hostas are up, but they add interest to my winter landscape.

  2. All of my rejects on paper are piled in a box. I don’t know why, I do go through them every once in a while.

  3. My studio is small, and there is simply no room for anthing other than what I feel I must have.
    I used to keep sub-standard pastel paintings “just in case” I could save it later. I finally realized that the time spent re-working poorly conceived work would be better spent creating fresh new work. I perused the pile, learned from it what I could, and tore each painting into small pieces. It was actually refreshing and releasing. The energy each piece was using was freed and I no longer felt an obligation to them.
    It’s been 2 years and I’ve never regretted my actions.

  4. I’m a photographer, so substandard work gets deleted all the time. It’s part of the whole process.

    But sometimes, I’ll have a photo that I know is not up to par, but something about it catches my eye. These I set aside and save. Later, weeks or months or even years later, I’ll revisit them. Often I was right, it wasn’t any good, and it gets trashed. But sometimes, I’ll *finally* see what was good about it.

    One of my recent favorite works was from a shoot that I thought was a complete flop. But I kept coming back to it again and again. And finally, about a year later, I finally saw what was special about it, and finally realized what needed to be done:

  5. I’ve destroyed a piece of my artwork only once. It wasn’t the best thing I had done, but the act of destruction was very cathartic. Also, I ended up taking the pieces and making something new in the yard!

  6. Timely question! I’m a pastel artist trying to move to acrylics/oils, and I’m seeing that many of the early pieces will be substandard. Letting go of paper/pastel drawings is easy (and recyclable) but I’m not sure how I’ll deal with canvas pieces that I don’t like. I do agree with Patricia about spending time reworking a sub-par piece of art – it can become frustrating! But essentially, I take what I learned (a technique, style, color) and move on.

  7. I save or tear up paints that are sub-par to reuse in other works. In multimedia and altered works, the addition gives personalized texture, colors — and sometimes — zing.

  8. I was once taught that you are only as good as your worst piece out there. With this in mind, I do tend to destroy bad work or eliminate it by reusing the canvas or panel. That doesn’t mean I don’t have work circulating that I wish I had gotten rid of-you gotta pay the bills-but, I do regret it being out there (and in a public place to boot).

  9. I don’t destroy my poor pieces. I don’t show them either. I’m very conscious about waste so I paint over them. I used to try to paint back into them but sometimes a mess is just a mess. Now, I can tell if it’s a total wreck and I just paint white all over and begin again. It works for me because I really enjoy texture so little bristles, globs, tears become part of the new work.

  10. I like what Susan Mulder says – the only pieces i’ve thrown out are the canvas pieces that are not on wrapped canvas – so i wouldn’t paint over them anyway. I keep everything else – monoprints and old drawings become collage and texture in paintings. substandard paintings on canvas are painted over. Several of my paintings have had 2 or 3 lives!

  11. I have a creepy extra bathroom in my basement known to all family members as “The Banishment Room.”

    Paintings that refuse to come together are sent there for long periods in the dark. From time to time I haul them out and decide who should be given a 2nd chance on my easel and who just must be thrown out.

    Sometimes they look much more promising than I remembered. What’s is important is to not trash everything when one is feeling particularly discouraged. Low morale can temporarily blind an artist.

  12. I destroy anything without a future (that is, anything I can’t recycle into another piece or anything that I can’t use as a study). I also get rid of anything I feel isn’t up to par (and I’ve become much more critical).

    No regrets. If I kept everything I’d worked on, I’d DROWN.

    James Gurney has an interesting approach to destroying his unwanted works:

    I also create works on my computer. Those I keep. I have a tetrabyte external drive – I think I’ve got a lot more .jpgs to go before I run out of space!

  13. I am a ceramic artist. Just before a show I put up during graduate school, I boxed up a bunch of pieces that didn’t turn out well enough to show, sell, or give away and tossed them into the dumpster behind the studio. About a week later, I saw one of those pots in the office of one of my professors. I asked him where he got it and he said that one of his students had a box full of pots that she found in the dumpster and she gave it to him.

    The biggest problem was that one of my professors had a piece of mine that I knew was flawed. Also, people who can get the work for free won’t buy the work at the gallery. And, since it was his now, there was little I could do to fix the problem. (I ended up talking him into trading me the bad piece for one I liked much more just to get it out of his office.)

    Now, when I throw work out, I smash it to pieces before it goes to the dumpster.

  14. My studio space is too small so I don’t hold on to inferior pieces — plus I want only my best work to represent me — but I’ve often been ready to smash a piece only to have someone fall in love with it & show me something that I wasn’t seeing.
    Expectation is a killer — so often we fail to see the piece as it truly is & only see what we hoped it could be.

  15. I’ve only been painting in watercolor since 2005, so I don’t have a lot of paintings yet. I’ve sold several, but the ones that I’m not happy with are in a flat file in my studio. Recently I thought I would see if any of them are salvageable for miniature abstracts, with a little reworking in small areas. But haven’t done that yet. Might be fun to try!

  16. Dianne Poinski

    A bunch of us artists who have studios at the same place got together last fall and had an “archive sale”. This is where we felt it was ok to heavily discount flawed, damaged and simply old pieces. What I didn’t sell, I destroyed and I don’t regret it.
    I love looking around my studio now and only seeing work I feel good about!

  17. Hannah Perkins

    I bought a whole bunch of canvases and canvas boards when I first started painting alot. I started paintings on them but I never finished them and they weren’t that great anyways.

    In the past 2yrs I’ve started texturing almost all my paintings. and I like being as efficient as possible so I have this big box full of old post-it notes, scrap drawings, to-do lists, newspaper, macaroni boxes(and other food boxes), if its paper and I don’t need it it goes there. I rip all that up and cover my old canvases with it. It feels good to finally use them and finish pieces I’m happy with.

    There is one painting that I finished, and had been sitting in my studio for over 2yrs, its a 24×36 stretched canvas. I’ve been thinking about painting over it. When I first did it I was so proud. It was the first time I’d painted on a canvas that large and the first I’d done texture on a piece, but I’ve just got tired of looking at it. I’m pretty conflicted about it. I’m not exactly rich, so buying big canvases isn’t something I do everyday. And I know if I did something on it now I could actually use it for something worthwhile.

    *shrugs* Most of the time I’d never paint over a finished painting unless it was awful and I hated it enough to want it gone. But this one is different. lol I’m so indecisive.

  18. If you are going to destroy something, make sure it happens. Years ago, I tossed two paintings in the dumpster because they weren’t what I wanted and I felt that they had to go join other dead paintings in unwanted artwork heaven. Unbeknownst to me, one of my sisters hauled them out. She framed them and put them in a prominent place in her living room. Yep, you guessed it. She has tons of parties and everyone asks the name of the artist. AAAAAaagh!

  19. I did a major purge a few years ago. I’d run out of room and the 100+ old paintings felt like a dead weight. I have photos of a bunch of them, so there is a record for future PhD researchers ;0).

    I cut about 30 out of the stretcher bars and gave those away to another artist to re-use.

    Another 30 or so I gave to a local program for developmentally disable people that runs an art studio, with the caveat that the canvases and panels be gessoed or coated out before use to obliterate my images.

    I’ve kept a sampling of paintings that I still like going back to my first ones and the study copies I did when I was learning from a local painting teacher.

    I keep an inventory of ones I still think are saleable, that it wouldn’t kill me to see on someone’s wall, and sell those cheap, like under $100 for a 8×10″, at our county open studio event. It makes it possible for anyone to own an original piece of art, which I really like.

    It was so liberating to get rid of all that old stuff and not have it literally and psychologically cluttering up my studio anymore.

  20. I don’t sell seconds for the same reason as Sallyann (above) mentioned. They can come back to haunt you.

    Depending on the degree of a flaw (stoneware pottery, at least), they will either end up in my kitchen or under my hammer. With art pots (raku, pit fire, etc), I sometimes live with them for a while, then eventually they end up in my driveway.

  21. How fascinating to read the wide variety of thoughts, attitudes and handling of old work that doesn’t meet one’s artistic standards anymore. I have concluded that it is really such a personal matter as well as relative to the medium in which one works. I’ve done nearly all of the above thing with work I don’t care for anymore, but only after enough time has passed for me to be really objective about it.

  22. I had a bonfire of old paintings and drawings a few years ago. Included was a large self-portrait of a me at a miserable time of my life. Burning it was healing. I live in the country so a bonfire is possible, but still toxic. I’ll reconsider that option next time I purge. Pottery failures are given to the earth: a tree, my stone wall. I like Anne’s idea of paving her driveway. Silver clay pieces are salvaged for store credit. Yes, I destroy work all the time. It only hurts when I find my work in the dumpster that someone else chose to toss rather than give back to me. That happened once.

  23. Drawings get kept because they can lead to other thoughts and inspirations. There are some paintings I made very early in life that my Mother loves. I would not want to sell them, but I’m not about to take them away from her and destroy them. Other paintings get painted over or torn up if they are on paper. Beadweaving gets re-worked. Or squished into a bag to be taken apart when and if I need to re-use those beads. 🙂

    I’d love to have some destroyed pottery shards to use in my beadweaving just the same as I use cabachons. I think using pottery shards in mosaics is pretty good recycling as well. I used to do some mosaics and I’ve seen shards utilized this way. I don’t do pottery yet (though I’ve always wanted to try, the opportunity never arose).

  24. This is timely for me also, having just decided to get rid of two large paintings whose stretcher frames I’d already re-used. I really don’t have the space for substandard work.

    So yes, I’ve been known to destroy a few paintings through the years. And I have no idea where all those art school pieces are…that might not be a bad thing.

    I do keep digital images of everything. That way, I don’t have to hang on to substandard work, but I still have it documented.

  25. I usually wind up never finishing the painting and stacking the unfinished canvas along with other unfinished images in a closet or in the corner of my room. I wait until I am inspired to paint again, and then eventually paint over some of them. There is one specific painting I painted over, and now regret it. Sometimes I’ll scan an unfinished painting and try to touch it up in photoshop and print a giclee.

  26. Waste not, want not. I don’t destroy my less than the best work because it was done on supports that can be used in other ways. I tear watercolor paintings into 5×7 pieces and practice my drawing on top of the colored background. Or I gesso over the watercolor and paint with acrylics. If an acrylic painting doesn’t meet my standards I use it for collage, or gesso over it and use this for another painting. Why burn perfectly good supports and do harm to our atmosphere? Why add to our landfills?
    I have a post-it note on my monitor that reminds me “Buy no art supplies. Use what I have. Be creative”. I don’t have money to waste but I want to continue to develop my eye and my skill as an artist.. which reminds me, I need to get to work.

  27. As a mixed media painter, I set aside–revisit several times–then it becomes collage material or a surface to texture ad paint. Early in my career, I was given the following advice… “Never show anything you wouldn’t buy yourself”

  28. I agree, interesting to read what everyone else does. I tend to keep bad paintings around for a while, until I’ve decided if they can be re-worked. If not, I enjoy gessoing over them and having a clean new canvas to start a new work on.

  29. Another name for it is EDITING your work.

    Choosing to show pieces that present your thoughts and reflect your skill is what makes a good artist.

  30. Sometimes a piece I work on just doesn’t want to come together, no matter what I do to it. Even if I re-gesso the canvas and start all over again, sometimes it still won’t come together. The canvas or board itself if holding some kind of negative energy. It becomes an albatross around my neck and keeps me from moving on. Destroying such pieces is extremely freeing. I’ve put my foot through some work on masonite board to break it in half, and then thrown it away. Wonderful feeling and I was then able to move on to something else.

  31. I purchase small wooden frames made from end pieces from my framer. Next I place these frames over interesting areas of “reject” paintings, cut them out and place them in the frames. I then leave these pieces of art work in public places for someone to find. On the back of each work I include the following message: The abundance in our lives comes through giving. The little gift you have found has been given to you by an artist.

  32. From a corporate art perspective: you may consider selling discardable works at reduced prices, with no signature through consultants.

    Corporate art clients typically are not collectors, but rather purchase for decor.

    For those frustrated with “bad work,” take a look at this video lecture by Elizabeth Gilbert who wrote “Eat, Pray, Love.”

    It is about artistic genius. She ponders the question that maybe as artists we only have one or two genius pieces in us. And that is pressure – a lot of pressure. But she made some very good points and I feel much better about going back to a substandard painting and just letting the “ala” happen.

    Sometimes the great creator (god, or whatever) talks through you. Sometimes she doesn’t. But it is your job to show up and see if this is the day for artistic genius.

  33. I recently delved into my old negatives, searching for something specific from high school. I was shocked to discover that at some point I’d destroyed and discarded 95% of them! Looking back I doubt there were any real gems in there, and when I remember certain disturbing incidents with my teacher I understand why I did it. I’m only surprised I didn’t do the same with my college work, where critiques were miserable and I never came into my own. Now everything goes into the fire-resistant safes. I only print my favorites, requests, or sales. I do intend to begin a comprehensive catalog this coming winter, for posterity, but as embarrassed as I might be by some of the images they’ll remain.

  34. I finally yesterday burned a few things that I had been hanging onto for years. I’d forgotten about them and was moving stuff into my new studio building. I was so horrified by how “bad” I used to be that I didn’t want anyone else seeing how bad I was — ever.

    It was like coming across a photo of a hot woman, but back when she was a nerd w/ head gear and bad acne. Sure it shows progress for the better, but you still would rather forget you ever saw it.

  35. Some work I keep for a mark in my progress. There have been times I thought something was very good and later realized after improving my skills that it wasn’t very good at all. The bigger ones I usually take the canvas and roll it up if it has any redeeming quality at
    all. Looking at poor quality drags me down so I only keep out the best I am doing. I “practice” painting. I really mean I work every day so I my work brings a more enthusiastic reaction that makes me and my collectors happy.

  36. Pingback: Make your art big enough to hold your ideas and dreams — Art Biz Blog

  37. I’m a watercolorist and used to keep every painting that wasn’t finished or didn’t meet whatever expectations I had for it in an big old portfolio case. A few years ago, I started going through these old paintings and tearing or cutting them up thinking I woud use pieces of them in a mixed media piece. Some of the pieces became bookmarks but most of the ‘pieces’ just sat in a box while I waited for inspiration, which came in the form of handmade cards… using small bits and pieces of paintings, sometimes recognizable as part of a landscape and sometimes not, incorporating silk string,or jute cording, metallic inks, and sometimes natural stones or shells or torn handmade papers into them. So, I actually look forward to a disaster painting now…

  38. Michele Bruce-Carter

    I agree with Susan about representing your best art only. But I am also one who shreds anything I dont like and that is quite a lot of coldpress and paint. It makes me work harder to represent myself the way I feel. If I were to go over old work i hated Id feel like I let myself settle. Having only the best work is a guide for me to either equal or supersede.

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