When do you destroy your art? < Deep Thought Thursday

When do you decide it’s time to give up on a piece and recycle its components?


Share this post

Your mailing list is your #1 marketing asset.

Your Artist Mailing List report

A transcript with the 3 lists every artist should have + a 3-page assessment for understanding the health of your list. FREE with opt-in.

51 thoughts on “When do you destroy your art? < Deep Thought Thursday”

  1. What a fascinating question. I work in acrylics on panel and it’s really easy for me to sand down an image, gesso over it and start again. Apparently I do this often enough that it freaks out my partner and friends who think I should just start again on another panel and sell the first one. Maybe I take the non attachment thing a bit too seriously.

  2. I struggle with this one. Sometimes I’ll work on something for ages and then ditch it 99% complete. Other times I discard almost as soon as I begin.
    The trouble is, I’ve had work that I should have ditched. Later on I’ve returned to it, experimented and really liked the results. Advantages of being a mixed media artist – it can always be turned into a collage!
    Maybe when you can’t get in your studio?

  3. We potters smash our work on a regular basis. Once you put it in the kiln, it’s permanent. Before that, the clay can be recycled and made into a better pot. There is always that moment of judgement. It’s a benchmark for being a great potter, can you evaluate your own work?

  4. I recently went through my painting archive and looked at each piece, asking myself, “Is this helping me move forward, or is it holding me back? Would I want this piece to represent me in public?” I’m now turning many old panels into new paintings.
    I agree with both Gloria and Cathy – I work in acrylic and collage, so it’s easy to cover something up! Also, it’s fun to let some of the old painting show through and inform the new image.

  5. I really hate throwing artwork away but I do have a lot of pieces that I never finished because I didn’t like where they were going… guess is wonderful and/or collage . I am in the Get organized class this time around – guess I will be making some decisions…

  6. Sarah’s statement is a very valid point….if a creation doesn’t seem to move my art forward, then it won’t see the light of day.
    I think if you do enough work, you start to see when something really isn’t as good as it could be. It takes practice to look at your own creations with a very critical eye….I mean in an overall, is-it-marketable way. There may be a good passage in a painting that is otherwise pretty ordinary, but the quality of art out there is very good and getting better all the time. So I don’t hesitate to learn from it, recycle, and move on.

  7. Kate Klingensmith

    I have a tendancy to just put the piece aside. I had a work that I put aside for 3 years, reworked it, and sold it. After that, I learned to not let frustration to take hold of my opinion of the piece. Since I paint primarily in acrylics, it’s easy to rework pieces after I’ve had time to put them away for a while, critique them later and figure out what to do about them. One of my favorite painters, Charles Burchfield revisited many earlier watercolors done decades earlier. He enlarged them and they went on to become many of his classic paintings.
    As a jeweler however, I have pulled stones and melted down pieces. This was especially when the piece had become overworked and simply wasn’t going to become better.

  8. The Japanese potter Hamada never signed his work so only the best pots would be attributed to him! He was a national living treasure! We were taught in ceramics to destroy things we didn’t want seen. No working in another media, I sort of agree but tend to hang on to things.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Lovely story about Hamada.
      We could also sign the best stuff and leave the rest for others to puzzle over.

  9. Just Monday night I gave a talk to a local artists guild about my art and touched on this subject. I jokingly stated that one night in my younger adulthood, after one too many glasses of cheap sangria wine, I was listening to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” I decided I needed to paint this woman RIGHT THEN. Long story short, I later felt that I had to round up everyone who had seen that mess on canvas and eliminate the witnesses. It’s always best to sit it aside for a while before you show it off if you don’t feel comfortable with it. However, it could just be that it’s a piece that has taken you in a different direction than what you’re used to and may be worth preserving. “Black Magic Woman” was not such a piece. It was just BAD. I painted over it within the week. I also spoke of the “intoxication” of a new idea that may need time to simmer before you actually start it. By the next day, that idea may not be so hot.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Oh, my, this made me laugh out loud – especially the “eliminate the witnesses” part! Hopefully you did that legally. 😉

  10. I do mostly collage, painting with paper, and have a pile of stuff in the recycle bin. Pieces I learned and practised new techniques on in my weekly workshops and intermittent forays into “painting with paint” are waiting to BE magic-ified which is as exciting, mayBE more exciting than a brand new ground. Yesterday I was photographing stuff and took photos of 2 paintings that I’d gesso’d over!!! Only when I looked as I put them away did I notice the gesso’d look!!
    So I guess you could say I don’t actually “destroy” but see the process more as new opportunities with gently-used BEginnings.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      But you did destroy it, Currie. You reused it, but you still destroyed the original intent. Yes?

  11. The short/easy answer is when a piece no longer represents where I currently reside creatively. The truth is that is never an easy thing to determine. I have pieces that do not represent where I am right now, but are still very good paintings. They stay in inventory until their buyers find their way into the studio or show. I just went through my finished work and primed over several pieces in an effort to pull a tight and cohesive body of work to represent. Many were “one of” from previous series therefore looking oddly out of place. If these pieces still represent and I don’t want to reuse the canvas, I will often hold them for that charitable donation request that is sure to come along. Bottom line answer is when I know that I’ll feel good about reusing the canvas rather than mourn the loss of the painting.

  12. Shortly after graduating from college I destroyed hundreds of studies and student work. Some was pretty dreadful stuff. I tossed because I was moving into a tiny house with no storage.
    Worst thing I ever did.
    I have regretted it for decades. I am not a hoarder. Just the opposite. And I rarely have flights of nostalgia. But there are pieces I remember, although flawed, I would love to revisit. I learned a lot from creating them. I believe I would continue to learn from them today.
    I now have many works that will never be seen outside of the darkest recesses of my studio but I would think very long and very hard before destroying any one of them.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      I completely understand that, Michael. But maybe it happened for a reason – even if that is unclear now. Maybe it’s better you don’t revisit them. (Just trying to look at the glass half full.)

  13. Deboorah’s comment nailed it for me. I’m getting ready for a show now and when I look at an older piece if it’s not up to my current work or holding it’s place in the collection then it’s for the recycle pile. Sometimes things will live in the recycle pile for months before moving on to a new life.

  14. As a potter, it is best to destroy pieces before they are fired so I can recycle/reuse the clay. Once the pot is fired, it is harder to destroy the pieces that don’t turn out like I want them to especially if they are still functional and others don’t see the flaws that I do! And since I carve my signature into the pot before it is fired, they are still mine – just not my best work. I do destroy flawed works and try to find a mosaic artist to use the shards – but it is best to be ruthless before firing – even a beautiful glaze does not save an ugly form!

  15. I am a metal sculptor. Over the past 11 years I’ve made probably 600 pieces. One of my smaller, earlier pieces was a comprised of an interesting piece of found metal welded to a base. At the time I made it I thought it was fantastic. Over the years it sat in our backyard and rusted up. Nobody seemed interested in it. One day I decided to “re-do” the piece by cutting it off the base and turning it sideways, just for a change. I brought it into my studio, put it on the floor, and promptly forgot about it. The next day someone saw it on my website and wanted to purchase it. I almost lost a wonderful piece of art simply by thinking that it was not right. At the time of creation it was right, and it was right when I shipped it off to the client. I won’t ever change a piece once it is created – it contains me at that point in time. Jeff Owen

  16. @Deboorah…..excellent point about some “leftovers” that are good paintings, but don’t fit with the current body of work. Some of my best auction sellers have been those saved pieces (they’ve actually gotten higher prices that what I would have sold them for!). And people that come to visit the studio love to go through those set aside pieces, and buy them too! This only applies to stuff that is good enough to get archived though.

  17. There are some very old works that I keep for myself, either to remind me where I’ve been or because of some other sentimental value or because I want to do something more based on that piece. One painting was going a long fine, when my sister (who was about eight or 10 at the time and I was 14 or 16) got angry with me and threw glue on it. I’ve always meant to use that canvas but haven’t yet.
    When I absolutely loathe a piece I will, if it is a painting, paint over it, or, if it is bead weaving, take it apart and reuse the components else where.

  18. Recently I’ve had the same experience as Jeff…someone came in and purchased a painting I was contemplating covering. That’s what makes it such a difficult decision. Space, time, and (darn it) finances come into play for me as well as the notion of being current. If I am selling regularly, I am painting regularly, and hardly have time to think about the oldies but goodies. However, for me July was particularly slow and just piling up new work felt counter productive. Taking a couple of oldies and repurposing them helped to keep me inspired and painting.

  19. Did you know, they planned to dismantle the Eiffel Tower after the Expo in Paris (1889, I think).
    Today, it’s the icon of a capitol city. What would stand in its place as a representation of French style, structure and audacity? The baguette?
    I’ve tossed tons of drafts of writing but I do have a trace of most of my writing efforts. As many have said here, you can learn a lot from looking at past work.
    Sarah’s question seems a good one to determine whether to keep or jettison work. It’s sober – not a decision made out of emotion or shortsightedness.
    Great inquiry, Alyson!

  20. As a sculptor, I put too much time and money into a carving or modeled work to scrap anything. That’s why I invest my time up front, creating pages of drawings and models. They help me focus and to get very clear not just on WHAT I want to make, but also get a very focused WHY and HOW I’m going to do it.

  21. After reading some excellent comments re trying to get gallery representation I am going to try and focus on developing a series of related paintings-that means I need to go through my inventory and seriously organize by theme and ruthlessly discard or rework all the paintings which will not be relevant to developing a series. I think this is a great opportunity for growth as I can explore new techniques and let the process take me where it will. The paintings that don’t fit but I have had people say they like I will keep aside. As noted, sometimes a buyer appears who really likes something that you might have discarded when being really critical of your own work.

  22. Just read Jeff Owen’s memo on scraping his art and was pulled into his corner for the moment… Nice work and I totally agree with scraping metal art. It is what it is when it is done but you can alter it at a later date or add to it for dimension.
    My metal craft scraping is done in the making of every detail prior to putting it into the sculpture. Making a sketch or layout of a more complex piece helps to eliminate scraping because once it is completed the expended “Studio Time” is gone forever…
    Dave Bushell

  23. Along the lines of the post by Michael Lynn Adams, I would avoid recycling/destroying work at all costs! Being an artist is a lifelong journey, and there is always something new to be learned.
    That means learning from mistakes. And such “MISTAKES” can be the artist’s CURRENT BODY OF WORK! Sometimes it takes a review of old work to revitalize your current direction. Even stuff from the past that you have written off as “bad” can still have a good effect on your future creations!
    I don’t let lack of storage be an issue. If it is, I make sure to document each piece in digital format.

  24. A few years back, I discarded the canvases and kept the stretchers from a number of things I painted in college. It was the typical college stuff that there were already 3 versions of since everyone on my side of the studio painted the same still life. I don’t think. I also got rid of some paintings I did after breaking up with my fiancee, as I had moved past all that and there was no need to keep it around.

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      Brad: I have one painting I did in college and my drawings. I was a good life-drawing student. I do keep those, but am thrilled that my name is never attached to some of the other pieces I did in school.

    2. Heh, that “I don’t think” was supposed to be “I don’t do still lifes.”
      I do have a few other pieces I did in school that I like but have nothing to do with what I’m doing now.

  25. For a Mother’s Day present, my husband foraged through my old college drawings and had one framed for me. It’s an old Life Drawing class nude, but 25 years later, it’s a great reminder where I started out. And it’s a nice drawing! The framer was aghast at framing something on newsprint, though . . .
    Being a mosaic artist, I recycle and set aside regularly. It’s rare now that I have technical concerns. It’s more that I don’t like where the piece is headed or don’t have the exactly correct material yet to finish the piece. Our glass recycling man loves me, however!!

  26. When a piece is frustrating me so much that I wake up during the night to look at it to satisfy my hate for it, I know its usually beyond salvage. Most of the time I can pick out the elements that are wrong with the painting and fix them but if the whole thing is screaming in my face its time to start again.

  27. I had a professor that has been extremely influential in my growth. He mentioned a group that he and his colleges had formed when they were younger. They would meet at least monthly and would periodically to show their works to each other and bounce ideas about. He told me that every so often they would bring the piece that was bothering them the most ( the ones they hated) and have a ritual of destroying their own awful art together…
    In this economy it may be better to salvage useable parts….???
    Personally there are a few of my bad works staring at me that, I stopped working on and they are almost begging me get rid of them!!!!I

  28. when i am sick of looking at it and it finally hits me that it hasn’t sold because there must be something wrong with it that i just don’t see…. yet our work always evolves and the older things have bits and pieces of who we are today…… so its a tough decision. Even so, I recently weeded out some things from 2006. How can i move forward with all these skeletons around me?

    1. Alyson Stanfield

      CA: That’s what I think: That work you’re not proud of weighs you down. It would me. But it might not be the case for everyone.

  29. My framer saves left over pieces from his jobs and creates small frames for sale. When a painting no longer belongs to what I am currently working on and it hasn’t sold, I find interesting areas of the painting, cut it out and place it in one of those frames. I anonymously place this painting in a public location for someone to find. When my framer found out what I did, he gave me his next batch of remade frames to help spread the joy of discovery and abundance.

  30. When I can no longer make any further improvements I rip it up and start all over again. I wasn’t comfortable doing this at first but I just got tired of drawing in circles.
    Personally it’s quite liberating and when I redo the piece, I create the work in no time, thanks to the learning curve.

  31. I give up on a piece the same way I stop eating at a buffet… when it’s no longer fun and rather seems like a painful burden. Time to move on!

  32. I destroyed a painting with a chainsaw (wih the help of my husband!). it was oil on panel. huge, cumbersome and there were only a couple of elements I liked about the piece. I took the huge frame to a frame shop and had them make several smaller frames, so at least something was salvageable.

  33. I am in the middle of an “artistic mid-life crisis” at the moment and am really examining my art, my directions and what I want my future to look like. Slowly but surely things are being made evident and one of them was that if I have canvases sitting in closets or stacked in the studio that I would never hang in public again, let alone sell, it is time to “set them free” instead of having them weighing me down. Last week I spent a very meditative, almost spiritual day with twenty of them, from tiny little 6×6″ pieces up to 36×48″ ones. I love texture in my acrylic/mixed media work so many of them received added layers of paste, paper, gesso, sand, etc. before they all were painted over with white. Some ended up completely white & textured while others have hints & glimpses of the original art peeking out. By the end of the session I was literally singing out loud to myself (be glad you didn’t get to experience that part of the process) I was so happy! There was a release to it and the possibility of those pieces being artistically “re-birthed” into something new, current and in line with my future direction feels wonderful.

  34. Letting go of something that you worked hard to make and has emotion involved is very challenging. I found this very difficult in the beginning. I have grow to now love the process of discarding works I do not love. I liked them at the time I make them or they may have been difficult to create but in the end if I don’t love it…….. I don’t want to present it to the world. If I no longer love it and it’s been sitting in the stock for a while…..I let it go! It’s served it’s purpose. Sometimes I keep items for years and other times they are gone very quickly.
    I’ve learned that a fresh painting over canvas only stirs up renewed motivation/inspiration and has proven many times over that only better comes out of it. Some of my best pieces have been a result of a painted over canvas that “didn’t feel quite right” the first time or the second…. or the third. There is cleansing in getting rid of the old!
    We have to all grant ourselves permission to change our mind! That’s the beauty in what we do 🙂

  35. Liking the comments of Mea, Karen and c j taylor. I keep the not so hot vessels on my shelves, look with a different eye than the initial disappointed eye, learn what I don’t like about them, then, each January, I have a personal & private smashing party for those that didn’t pass muster. If they are not to my standards, I don’t want them out there with my name on them. Smashing sets me free and it provides material for mosaic artists who come by for the shards.

  36. I like to hang on to most of my stuff. Ok, everything. I get satisfaction remembering where I came from and seeing my progression over the years in only a matter of minutes. The pieces I’m not proud of are only there for me to reflect upon. They shaped me into the artist I am today.
    Granted I only visually reflect once in a great while, but most of my work is either flat or digital and doesn’t require as much space as some other mediums.

  37. Although Facebook has continued to further my art career in great ways, sometimes I wish I HAD destroyed some early (and I do mean EARLY) artwork when an old friend says, “We still have that painting you did for us back in… (the dawn of DUST)…and HERE IT IS ON FACEBOOK FOR ALL TO SEE.”
    Lord help me!

  38. Like the other potters have said, the hammer is my best friend. I jokingly say that I fear future archaeologists will painstakingly reassemble the shards I have landfilled, thinking they are examples of how our current society functioned and try to find deep meaning in them. NO – they are garbage. I do like the idea of making a ritual of the destruction and may try to save this year’s reject pots for a cathartic New Year’s “bash”.

  39. Pingback: Clean Up, Wrap Up, Gear Up « Art Biz Blog

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top

Your Artist Mailing List: Rethinking + Assessing

Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

Where can we send it? 

To ensure delivery, please triple check your email address.

You’ll also receive my regular news for your art business.

Privacy + Terms

Your Artist Mailing List: Rethinking + Assessing

Get a transcript of episode 182 of The Art Biz (Rethinking Mailing Lists for Artists) followed by a 3-page worksheet to evaluate the overall health and usage of the 3 types of artist lists.

Where can we send it? 

To ensure delivery, please triple check your email address.

You’ll also receive my regular news for your art business.

Privacy + Terms