Hold On! Before You Throw Away that Failed Painting. . .

By Niki Hilsabeck in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

We’ve all been there.

You’ve worked, reworked, and reworked a painting again until you can’t stand to look at it anymore. Now you’re about to toss it into the trash pile (maybe after hacking it into pieces for good measure).

But before you give in to the temptation to have a Paul Cezanne inspired curse-and-destroy session, take a few minutes to see if your creation really is destined for the dumpster:

1. Seek outside advice

Sometimes the flaws we see in our work are the result of an inner critic that has seized control of our thoughts. If you notice that every time you fix something you don’t like, a new problem pops up, you might be overworking or over-analyzing what you see on your canvas.

The solution? Cover the piece up and ask a trusted person (or two) with a keen eye to take a quick look. If you get feedback that suggests that your painting is beyond rescue, you can remove yourself emotionally from the piece and get ready to say goodbye to it.

If, however, there are a couple of genuinely straightforward fixes they suggest, then give those a try first. You may find that the painting is salvageable after all.

2. Learn from any mistakes

A failed painting may feel like a waste of energy, but it can turn out to be a more valuable tool than a successful painting. When we finish a successful painting, chances are we’ve spent a lot of time in “the zone,” and may not remember why things clicked so easily as we worked. With a failed painting, you’ll probably remember what choices did or didn’t work and why.

I remember doing a painting of water lilies in watercolor class which failed miserably. I looked at my work and realized that I had gotten distracted and lost control of the medium. Creating a total failure in that class session taught me more than I learned from any other session: I learned how important it was to stay focused and maintain control when working with that particular medium.

So grab a notepad and give yourself a critique. There are likely components of the painting that had potential—what do you like about them? What brought the painting down, and why? How can you avoid those missteps in the future?

Keep your notes for future work, especially if you plan to try a painting of the same subject again on a fresh canvas.

3. Scan or photograph the painting

If you can’t stand looking at a piece of your artwork anymore, and you’ve already mentally separated yourself from it, then why in the world would you want a visual record of the piece?

Well, depending on what kind of art you like to pursue, having a failed work on file in your computer can come in handy if you ever work with digital art of any kind and want to incorporate your own textures or elements of the painting (maybe you painted a wonderfully detailed tree you’d like to use on a greeting card?)

Even if you don’t work digitally at this point of your life, you might find yourself doing so one day in the future. Wouldn’t it be nice to know you have some ready-made images and textures at your disposal if you do?

4. Crop out small works

You might not have liked the image you created in its entirety, but there may be pieces of it that you do enjoy looking at. Try using a viewfinder to identify areas you thought were successful, and crop them into smaller paintings.

For example, you might have a landscape with a failed composition, but you hate the idea of letting go of those beautiful background mountains. Crop down your painting so that your mountains are the focus, and frame it for yourself to keep (or give it away or sell it if it meets your standards as a quality piece of art).

Misty Morning Marsh

(The painting above was cropped from a larger piece and made into a newer, smaller painting.)

5. Save it for future mixed media work

Depending on the medium and surface you used, you might be able to recycle your painting into a new piece by cutting it up and incorporating it as part of a collage.

If it’s sturdy enough enough to mix with other media, you can either store the piece until you’re ready to cut it apart or cut the pieces out and store them so they’re available when you’re looking to play around with some different textures for your collage (this may be the best option if you truly can’t stand to look at the piece anymore).

And, if you know that you’re never going to do any collage-style mixed media work yourself, why not cut the pieces up and randomly distribute them to local art classes? Many art teachers can use pre-painted paper and canvas for their students to cut and glue into collages or make cards, so you’d be ridding yourself of work you don’t want to keep and doing a service to your local art community.

Avo Card 3

(This one was created with pre-painted cutouts of old acrylic class exercises.)

6. If all else fails. . .

When the time comes that you’ve truly exhausted the potential of a piece of art, then by all means, toss it in the trash—the last thing you should do is give it away or sell it.

It’s true that not everything you create will be museum quality artwork; however, as an artist, you are ultimately creating a body of work. You know what your personal standard of quality is, and if you feel that a piece doesn’t meet that standard, then go ahead and scratch your name off it and give it a proper sendoff.

So what if that happens to be a bag-wrapped burial, a bonfire, or a Cezanne-style trashing. . . :) Know that you got all you could out of the piece—and now you’re free to create something better!


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