Earlier Work Hasn't Sold: What to Do?

You are up to your eyeballs in unsold work!
What you'd really like to do is just get rid of it. It's taking up your energy and you can't afford to rent storage just for early work.

Deep Thought

What do you do with early work that hasn't sold and no one seems to want?
The best response* will win a copy of Chris Guillebeau's book The $100 Startup.

*I am the sole judge of the winner. My opinion is decidedly subjective.


Carol McIntyre was the winner of my challenge. Here's why.

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67 thoughts on “Earlier Work Hasn't Sold: What to Do?”

  1. If you sell recent work to a client you can let them know if they buy 1 item for full price they get a great gift with their purchase for free. Depending on the size of the work you can give away for free. It’s like a two for one deal or a complimentary bonus gift for that month. You can try and do that special every peek month when it’s close to holidays.

  2. I review all my older work once a year.. Anything I consider not of the current standard (and we do raise our standars from year to year, don’t we) gets scrapped.. No quilt is too precious to remake, cut up, sew over, or use for the dog.. Good work is dragged down by the less good.. And, as with any artist’s best practice, i don’t have Sale prices, as that’s unfair to your previous loyal customers

    1. No! That sends the message that your time has no value! Many artists get their names out there later and then you yourself might later be able to sell your old work more expensive or even your children if you are not in this earth!

  3. what great timing. I am in the middle of doing *exactly* this – as i clean out my studio and basement storage to make room for new work.
    1) first, set aside any work that you want to keep. i keep anything that is still teaching me something, or a work that will remind me of what *not* to do, or a work that has sentimental meaning (sometimes i work on location and want to remember that particular day and personal experience, e.g. a plein air work painted during a trip with a friend who has passed, etc)
    2) ask your art friends if they want one, or ask if they want to do a trade, or send it to them as a surprise if they have admired it in the past
    3) if you never want your name associated with it, destroy it (but you should have done this earlier anyway)
    4) at your next party, use them as door prizes – my friends love this
    5) put them on the web somewhere with price, then send your friends and family email with the link and tell them they get “20% off friends and family discount”.
    6) if you are in a gallery, be ethical. i know of someone who was fired from a gallery because she sold her old work at her garage sale.
    7) destroy the rest after thanking them for teaching you 🙂

  4. Oh I always unload tons of older work by having an invite only studio party for people in my area who always say they want to buy work and don’t for whatever reason. We have lots of wine and food and music, people really have fun and they know that this is their one chance since it’s not a show opening that they can haggle with me. It’s really fun and I get to sell work to often times good friends who haven’t bought before in a more relaxed setting.
    What’s left over I then decide what to keep and what to get rid of.
    The left over keepers have often gone to raise money for my neighborhood committee free public cultural space. I only give them street scenes of the neighborhood and they usually sell them at silent auction. Those paintings are NOT signed.

  5. I usually keep a 3 part practice with unsold work, first to archive (to pass on to my children- they pick what they want),set aside work for charity, and lastly reuse and paint over the work!

  6. If I like it it stays… If it Has problems that can be fixed then I fix it. If I don’t like it… Paint over, throw out burn, cut up and use pieces as abstract minis to send as free gifts,

  7. Great question!
    What “nobody wants” in one market, somebody in another market may snatch up, assuming you’ve evaluated it as art you’re pleased with, quality-wise. Before any of the “give away” suggestions above, and assuming you’re willing to invest any more energy into the older pieces, I might think about different markets and different angles on those pieces, that I haven’t already explored. For example:
    1. If you’re used to selling to individuals at fairs, etc., an art consultant might find the work that doesn’t sell there perfect for a particular project in a corporate or medical facility. While a lot of institutional art is large, there are also small waiting and treatment rooms that need art. Also, you may be able to group similar pieces or a series to create one larger piece, simply by renaming it and getting images of it clustered as one piece. You’d need to research what kind of styles and sizes sell in those arenas and see if it’s a fit, then promote your work to consultants.
    2. Before you give away anything, look at it in terms of its parts. Just because the whole piece isn’t selling, doesn’t mean a part of it wouldn’t! Could you literally cut out one part and make an interesting miniature original of it? If you made a print of a crop of it, is that something you could sell at a lower price point? Or give as an incentive to purchase other works? Or even if you don’t want to sell prints, would an interesting piece of it make, say, a profile image or logo for you in the future? Be sure you have all the images you need at all the resolutions you might need, before letting the piece go.
    3. After that, I like the idea of re-working an older piece, if that’s viable in your medium. Or making a second separate attempt to see if you can learn from the first, if you’re still interested in the subject. Oh — and when I first started out, I made the mistake of dating my art next to my signature on the front. Palm to forehead! What was I thinking??? (Please don’t make the same mistake.)
    And after THAT, I vote for gifting to your nearest and dearest for their occasions, as they know the love that goes into each piece you make, and by doing so you don’t undercut your art business in any way.

  8. Kerye Hartzell

    If the work is not selling, but quality isn’t the issue, I would consider donating my work to a local charity auction of my choosing. Auctions supporting a cause you feel strongly about would offer the opportunity for publicity, networking, and the general feel good for helping a cause.

  9. 1. Never sign anything that isn’t on it’s way to a venue to show, or has been sold.
    2. Hang on to everything for a modest amount of time, reviewing it later for a clearer head while evaluating it for strength or weakness. Later, destroy ruthlessly.
    3. Keep things that don’t sell, but you love, in your own collection, permanently.
    4. Move strong work that doesn’t sell to a new market segment, a new gallery, or a new city, perhaps.
    5. Check for technical or artistic weaknesses that can be corrected, and do so. Then back to 2.
    6. Repurpose. For example, a coat of retouch varnish, and a complete paint over, to use the panel or canvas again.
    7. If you clearly see substandard work coming off the easel, and cannot save it by change or repurposing, destroy it then, quickly.
    8. Most importantly, try not to fall in love with the works. Love the process.

  10. I donate my work to local arts council groups and other community fundraisers to be used in silent auctions. I always put a monetary value on them and generally they bring more than the value I put on them.

  11. My older work is piling up and stored for my kids and grand-kids. They have already begun putting their names on the back of the stretchers (at my insistence) to make sure they get whatever they want when I croak. If they move into their own apartments or house, they know they already have “stuff” to hang on their walls. If I don’t respect one or another of these older pieces I cover the canvas using left over paints from my palette and “voilà” : a new canvas ready for re-borning.
    Not everything we painted yesterday is worth being looked at today. As for sketches, they stay in binders as a testament to my evolution as an arteest.
    My philosophy is “Get over moi!”. We’re much too into ourselves for it to be creatively healthy. Not everything that leaves our studio space merits a second glance. And if it doesn’t bring it back quickly before anyone sees it. Next step? Scrape it down and start over again.
    The most valuable information in my lengthy response? If you follow my instructions you will rarely need to rent storage space. 🙂

  12. I’m a collage artist, old works that are no longer representative of my style get ripped up and worked back into new collages. The whole premise of my work is to bring value to something that seems valueless, a metaphor for our lives, so nothing is ever sent to the trash!

    1. Aleta Jacobson

      Crystal, I’m a collage artist also. I like your idea. I have just gessoed over a piece and left only one paper exposed that I love. It has turned into a nice artwork.

  13. If it’s bead weaving and the piece has merit, it stays “active.” Unless I decide I no longer believe its quality no longer reflects my abilities positively. In that case it goes in a drawer to be taken apart and the beads recycled.
    If it’s paintings or drawings it’s more complicated. Some pieces I can rework or work over, but some are just fine as they are and they haven’t sold because I haven’t really given them the chance.
    Getting my work out and seen is something I am working on now.

  14. Toss it out. If there are parts like stretcher bars that can be reused from gallery wrapped canvases – take it apart and save the parts before tossing out the old canvases.
    If it’s something that has a particular appeal to kids (carousel horses, baby animals, etc) – list it on freecycle with a note that I’d like it to go to a home where children can enjoy it – and things usually find a home quickly – and hopefully I’ve introduced a child to the idea that original art is something that can be fun to have around 🙂

  15. Excellent input. I had a bonfire on dec 31 this year to destroy pieces I did not want to keep. Same planned for 2014 however I will choose a few of these wonderful techniques first….great discussion. Thank you all.

  16. This problem plagues my studio mate. She has amassed decades of works on paper and canvas. I suggested she host a retrospective exhibit in her home or in our studio, pricing the work to sell. “Everything must go!” “Making room for new works!” – some marketing suggestions. We’ve been putting her work in plastic sleeves, pricing them to sell, and putting them in bins. She sold some old works this way at an arts festival recently. I would love to have this problem. If I did, In addition to the suggestions above, I would hold a “flash” sale on Facebook and choose a grouping of art, maybe by year, and price them as a special. For example, if I had a bin of 18×24 inch monoprints, they could be sold as “Monoprints at a monoprice” and set a today only lower price than usual. I have a gallery in town so I would first check with the gallery owner and ask for suggestions. They may be willing to help in the effort or to hold a retrospective exhibition. Galleries that are also frame shops like the chance to sell works on paper, as they frequently lead to framing orders as well. Great topic!

  17. I also like ideas shared by Cory Huff and Melissa Dinwiddie: Pay what you will pricing (offered on their social media and web sites)
    Cory Huff-The Abundant Artist
    Melissa Dinwiddie- Living a Creative Life

  18. 1. Get together with a couple of other artists and partner with your favorite nonprofit organization.
    2. Market like crazy through each participating artist’s list and through the nonprofit’s list. Blog like crazy. Tweet, etc. Be sure your focus is on supporting the charity.
    3. Hang everything salon style over the weekend at the nonprofit location, priced to move. Be sure to enlist volunteer help. Serve refreshments.
    4. Proceeds go to the charity. Think about how donating the income can be tax-deductible.
    5. Follow up with thank you notes/emails to all your new contacts. Be sure to invite them to your next exhibition!
    Move out old work.
    Support a worthy cause.
    Build your list.

  19. Painting over it, re-using, e.g. for collage, or destroying it, are my usual methods. If I think the piece just needs the right buyer, or it’s one of my personal favorites, I hang onto it. We have a small private collection like portrait of our own pets or a handful my husband asked to keep.
    I’ve had moving sales, but not regular sales that people could just expect and hold out for. Hopefully, I won’t be moving again any time soon, either.
    Trading with other artists whose work I like is something I’ve done a couple of times, but never out of guilt, pressure, or frustration; it has to be a trade that both artists truly want.

  20. Wow – at thus very moment I am preparing for open studios this and the following weekend.
    I have a new collection of work to hang in my small but beautifully white outhouse.
    But what to do with the leftovers of those older collections ——–
    Either gift them to charity ( which I’ve done before)
    Have them on sale in a separate space
    Wait and sell them at a ‘flash sale’
    Put pay what you want tags on them all!
    Well I have to decide by Friday…………
    Thank you 🙂

  21. I might not fit the dilema well here as my inventory of unsold work has not been large enough to be an issue. At any rate, I prefer not to do “sales” with my artwork, so have always re-worked old work, with the intent to improve it. And so far, they have always sold (at current prices).

  22. In South Africa (which is where I live) the best way is to put it on a charity auction. IT is often done for another artist who is in dire straights…we have several mouth and foot artists who’s only income is their artwork as well as older artists that have no extra funds such as a pension…sometimes it is for some other cause, but mostly it is about taking care of each other.

  23. About 15 years ago, I had a Fall bond fire at a friend’s country home, with lots of acreage, to burn many old watercolors, prints, and notecards. I invited only a few close friends who understood (I had a couple who got upset with me.) Those that came brought something in their lives that they wanted to burn and tossed that in. It was a wonderful ceremony — music and poems, a great stew, hot cider, etc. — It was cleansing for everyone and an intimate experience. I would recommend it if appropriate.
    Just the other day, I sanded a 30×40 panel with a completed painting, applied gesso and now I cannot wait to start a new painting.

  24. Barbara McLaughlin

    I have stopped showing it, put it the safe (jewelry) I kept a few piece which where my favorites, & wear them on occasion. It is my hope that 15-20 years from now I can host my own “retro-spective” and I’ll have work to sell from all points of my career. Sometimes I have dumb plans that just work out 😉

  25. I call my older work “Little Gems”. If I like the pieces I keep them as “Collection of the Artist”. If I think I can fix them, I fix them, if not, it’s collage time! If they are too good for either fixing or collage, I offer the older work as “Little Gems”. What are “little Gems”? Rather than discount an original painting or quibble about the price of a painting I offer them a second painting.

  26. I call my older work “Little Gems”. If I like the pieces I keep them as “Collection of the Artist”. If I think I can fix them, I fix them, if not, it’s collage time! If they are too good for either fixing or collage, I offer the older work as “Little Gems”. What are “little Gems”? Rather than discount an original painting or quibble about the price of a painting I offer them a second painting.

  27. I study the piece as critically as I am able. Sometimes there is a glaring error I never before noticed. If it is something fixable, ie.: values I will paint over problem area. Enhancing the point of interest helps. Sometimes I find a portion of the painting which IS working and cut the painting down to a smaller size. That often works. If the composition is off then I just toss the painting. It is actually very freeing to throw it away!!

  28. Monica Gonzalez

    Donate .if . Always a good cause will be open to receive pieces of art to do an action or bring up light through creative expressions into the walls of hospitals, community centers,…
    Arts for Service . Gift of giving . Thanks and blessed day! Monica

  29. I like Helen Howes and Jana Van Wyk’s ideas of repurposing or destroying those pieces that are not worthy. And all the other suggestions for worthy pieces.
    I will add one more; be patient. I just recently sold two older works (from 2010 & 2011) that I still had on my website. Maybe it will take a while for works to find a home, especially if you keep expanding into new markets or reaching new people.

  30. This is so timely…my studio is overflowing with older work, and more importantly, work I started and did not finish. My goal this week is to review unfinished work and determine if they can be successfully completed. If they are duds, I can either save a part of the work by cropping, recycle them or destroy them. I saw earlier comments about giving them to charity, but I want the artwork bearing my name that is out in the world to be the best possible work I could produce at that time.
    At the end of this process I have a pile of gessoed-over boards and canvases that I can experiment with.

  31. Once in a while I go crazy – drag all the paintings which are old, do not fit into a present series or do not reflect what I am into at the present time. If I find them still to be excellent work I put them aside for donations or fundraisers. I gesso over the rest of them, cover up the parts that do not resonate with me. I keep them out of sight for months then one day I start a new series with the old/gessoed paintings – I paint over them. Love the texture and the layers these oldies present. I don’t show old outdated work. But I keep at least one from each series, each stage of my career as a souvenir. Love to see the progress.

  32. I compile a portfolio of work I no longer wish to keep or store, and forward it to local hospitals, schools, hospices, and local charities, so they can either hang it or use it as auction prizes.
    The higher value large oil paintings, I offer to family and friends , on a loan basis, they can return and swap at a later stage.
    If I hate the work, I burn it, you’re only as good as your weakest work…..

  33. I got out the old work and reviewed it. I had been feeling anxious about having a ‘sale’ corner with my new collection.
    What I discovered was that there was framed work from previous collections,still worthy of showing,there is work, framed, which I will keep but take out of the frames so they can be reused, there is work that I dont want or show–or indeed sell, so it will, at some point be donated,given, painted over or destroyed–but really not enough of the latter to be upset about!
    So the show goes on—-11 The Gardens, Whitley Bay, Tyne and Wear, NE25 8BG UK Sat and Sun 21/22 and 28/29 June in my ‘Garden Studio’ aka whitewashed shed!
    Come if you can–tea and home made biscuits in the garden – you will be very welcome.
    I cannot thank you, Alison and all the contributors to this post, enough for your thoughts and ideas on this subject. What was nagging anxiety to me 24 hours ago is now successfully resolved in time for my opening this weekend!

  34. 1. If I’ve exhausted all exhibit and show options for the work, I would find a space for it in my home.
    2. If I don’t like it enough to exhibit in my own home, then I shouldn’t expect someone else to want to buy it.
    3. If I evaluate the work honestly and still feel it’s good, I would think of a way to give it away.
    4. If I evaluate the work honestly and don’t think it’s good enough, I would think of ways I could rework it, and then do it! Nothing to lose, a good creative exercise, and I have wound up with work I loved by reworking paintings that came back unsold.
    5. If all of the above fail, I would take the painting off its stretchers (to reuse) and either store it or destroy it.

  35. Penny Overcash

    I have some sculpture that was made specifically during a very difficult time in my life (getting through my husbands cancer treatment and recovery). I still feel it is really good work but I have decided to “rework” it. I have a Kickstarter project I wish to get off the ground of new work related to the same “Alice in Wonderland” theme – in my case – “The Illusion of Time” series. As people pledge for the project different levels will be awarded a sculpture. The main sculpture of the Rabbit holding a pocket watch will be for purchase only as it is a significant piece of work and rather large.
    I don’t want to give my idea away at this time as it is in the working stages. I also have some other successful Kickstarter artists who will help me navigate all the pitfalls of doing such a major project. It will probably take another year to get it off the ground but I do feel confident about the project and its success.
    PS: I am in the throngs of overhauling my website – it is so overdue! I couldn’t agree with you more about the black background….Thanks for all you do for us!

  36. Every three or four months, I have to “clean” the studio to reboot my creativity and regroup. I toss as I go. I also put in one pile all the paintings I haven’t sold, finished, etc. I go through them once, quickly critiquing, and send to the local dump those that do not measure up for one reason or another. I simply don’t have the time to dwell on old stuff. I need to push forward to increase my skills, and the only way to do that is paint, paint, paint.
    The time to search out someone who might just want them or sand off cadmium paints (which is very dangerous to your health) or re gesso is better spent painting or studying. Life is short and time so precious. Time is the one thing we cannot buy more of.

  37. I would suggest donating them to charitable auctions. This gets your name out in the community. Shows you are a kind hearted creative person. You can include a information sheet so they can find you and more of your artwork. Just tape it to the back of the painting. You’re helping a worthy cause. It is a win/ win situation.

  38. I think a distinction needs to be made about whether something hasn’t sold because the right buyer hasn’t come along…or if it’s really not to one’s standards. I have had some of my very early paintings bought recently with great enthusiasm and with prices adjusted to today’s rates. Then again, I sometimes have had paintings purchased that I have cringed a bit when seeing them hanging in someone’s home. If I wouldn’t want it hanging in mine…It gets discarded or painted over. If I still like the piece, it stays….not always framed but it could fit into another show later and thus used at that time.

  39. I gift some of my unsold work to some of my students. Sometimes they are demo pieces, work that I created just for the fun or exploration of it. They don’t really fit into any of my “series” and they don’t compete with any work that collectors/patrons have.
    My students feel valued and I know that I have a fan for life 🙂

  40. I usually paint over work that hasn’t sold. Or I raise the price. Discounting older work seems to put it into collector’ heads that if they wait they can get work they want for cheaper.

  41. I review paintings periodically… If I still love them and don’t know why they haven’t sold I send them to a different gallery for a different audience. If they are not up to scratch (which is normally why they haven’t sold), I slit my paintings with a stanley knife and give the stretcher to my canvas guy for a restretch. If its not good enough to sell, its not good enough to give away. You don’t want inferior work coming back to haunt you.

  42. Option 1: Move to another location where your work might be appreciated more – and people might actually pay you for what it’s worth.
    Option 2: If all else fails, and you happen to be a glass fusing artist like me, smash it up and re-use it in something new.
    If these ideas don’t work… I’ll let you know what else I can think of, as I am first trying option 1… then option 2, if necessary. We just moved from a very small rural community in the west (pop. 29,000) to an area much larger in population that attracts a LOT of tourists, and is very big on art galleries and art shows. Hoping Option 1 is the deal maker! 🙂

    1. May I add one more thought?
      At the end of the year before holiday gifting times, I usually would have an open studio party with lots of foods, and give folks an opportunity to make a Christmas/window ornament. I always had postcards printed and handed them out at shows or wherever I saw people to invite them personally.
      When I knew we would be moving to the eastern side of the US and didn’t want to pack and haul so much glassware with me, I had another open studio party. I covered up my glass this time and didn’t give the option to make an ornament – and sold waaaay more than I usually did with the “give away” deal. Maybe folks showed up for the freebie and then felt guilty if they didn’t buy something? 🙂 I did give discounts on “sets” of items and got rid of a lot of things that way, too.

  43. Christine Sauer

    Last year I did a studio cleaning and decided to try an online sale to my newsletter subscribers to clear out stuff. I offered two small groups of pieces from an older style for a 3 wk time period each. I offered free shipping and a little lagniappe (note cards, etc). This gave the opportunity to learn how to use ecommerce on my website and how to market online. The $ earned covered my expenses and a bit more, and the work went to really good homes. Several were first time art buyers. Will do this again on occasion.

  44. For my earlier work that hasn’t sold, I have found a consignment gift store where I have taken quite a few pieces. I leave them there and my studio has less inventory and more space. They are consistently selling because the store has reached a group of buyers with different tastes in art.
    Another thing I do with older pieces is look at them with different eyes. I quickly revamp each one. Sometimes with a watercolor painting I will brighten up an area in the picture…. add something to an acrylic painting or quickly add or remove a mat or frame. I Change it up and then I make a new display in my studio.

  45. My sister and I have a site together. We get together in the summer and have a sale. Our best sale is on the front lawn of a busy street. (We borrow the lawn) We sell our items as, buy one get one free. We have our free ones in a box for the customers to choose from. Customers love it!

  46. Each month I select a non-profit arts organization (the smaller the better) that I think is doing great work. I introduce my audience to the organization and ask them to donate whatever they can to the organization to be entered into a drawing for a piece of older artwork. This raises awareness of and money for really worthy organizations, promotes my work to the organization’s supporters, and allows some people that might otherwise not be able to afford my work to own a piece.
    My “Be Nice and Do Good” give away program is on hiatus for my summer traveling season right now, but you can find the details here. http://chrisdahlquist.com/be-nice-and-do-good/

  47. Paint over your name if you don’t want people to know who did them. Take them to a place with a decent amount of foot traffic (best if this is right outside your own home) and leave them outside next to a trash can. People will take them. (It’s fun to watch people react to them!)

  48. I think of my old work as a journel. I try to hold on to it, its packed away, but if it is a total bomb of a piece I generally will paint over it.
    My newer work that is crowding my studio I hang on the walls of my sisters and brother, my mother.
    Why put it in stacks if they and others can enjoy it. When I need something for an exhibition I just go and
    pick it up. Replace it with another painting.
    It good to see my work in someone elses space. I look at it more objectively.
    I have donated work but seldom do this. Artist are always been asked to give away their work, as well as musicians, this trend seems wrong to me. Artist are generally a poplulation of people who struggle financially.
    I will dontate or parttake in events where my work will get sold for a lot less then I would normally receive for a work. I rather donate my time to a worthy cause.

  49. Lawrence Humphrey

    Yes Vincent, you should just destroy all those paintings you haven’t been able to sell.
    Frankly, those garish colors and those pecky brushstrokes of yours are never going to catch on.
    Not only that, but you’ve been sponging off your brother for the past 10 years. Give the poor guy a break.
    Get a life!! Get a job!! Be a man!!

  50. Lyna Lou Nordstrom

    Hi all,
    I found Lawrence Humphrey’s comment to be very interesting! It could be that you haven’t found the right audience or perhaps you are ahead of your time! My favorite was the one where you advertise the heck out of a show for charity with other artists & then take a tax deduction on the $$ earned & donated. The buy one get one free is also an
    interesting concept!

    1. Lyna, Please don’t forget that the IRS allows only the cost of material for a tax deduction for artists for any donation. So the cost of the frame, canvas and a bit of estimate of the paint, etc. used is all that you can claim. Not very fair, but that’s the way it is for us artists. Thanks.

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