“Dear Artists, Think Twice Before Purging Your Work” – A Cautionary Tale

Wishing a Happy New Year and all the best in 2016 to all!  (This is a long post, so I hope you make it to the end, especially if you’re thinking of purging any of your art in preparation for the new year!) 

The lamp on my drawing table inspired me to paint this first painting of the year, “A Light For 2016”.  (I have three easels for my pastel paintings and large drawings.  My drawing table is where my laptop lives, along with sketchbooks, note pads and various pens. Thus the funky lamp on my drawing table.)

"A Light for 2016"_soft pastels on Pastel Premier Italian Clay pastel paper_9"x12"_Lorraine Young

“A Light for 2016″_soft pastels on Pastel Premier Italian Clay pastel paper_9″x12″_Lorraine Young

It’s the time of year for making resolutions, setting goals, and reassuring ourselves that the New Year is going to be better than the last (especially if last year sucked). I’m normally a fairly optimistic person (when I’m not being pragmatic or even cynical), so I’ll go along with the idea that 2016 will be better than 2015 (although 2015 didn’t suck at all).  I have at least one good reason for that optimism:  I learned a tough lesson last year, sort of a cross between the old carpenter’s adage “Measure twice, cut once,” and the classic “Don’t burn your bridges behind you.”   The lesson I learned is twofold: Think twice and get a second opinion before you purge your art.”

I’ve been following artist Robert Genn’s blog (The Painter’s Keys) for many years now (sadly, he passed away last year), and his long-forgotten article about purging – literally burning in a bonfire – bad or inferior work rose to the surface of my mind last July. It made sense to me, so I decided to get the “crappy” paintings, “second-rate” sketches and other “poor-quality” works off my studio walls, out of corners and drawers, and literally burn them. I would be ruthless but pragmatic, and keep the good stuff while purging the bad.

The problem is that I didn’t re-read the article first, and I was alone when I decided to do the purge. With no one else nearby to urge caution or voice consideration that some of my choices might not be valid, I went on a crusade.  I was on a mission, filled with a zeal bordering on the ecstatic!  I went through every piece of art that hadn’t already been framed, slipped the “keepers” into protective packaging, and literally tossed the rest into the fire I’d made in the fireplace.  It felt great! I had removed all the evidence of my mediocracy! Only my best work survived! Now I could truly move forward!  There’s a word I like to use when I’ve done something that seemed like a good idea at the time but wasn’t actually very well thought out:


As it turns out, I actually had more reasons NOT to purge than I did TO purge – at least, in the manner I chose.

First, I’d forgotten one of the reasons I kept many of those early works in the first place: To remind myself what it’s like to be a beginner and to see how practice and determination to improve make a difference.  Believing early or inferior work is good might be delusional,  but destroying those earlier attempts and failures was a denial of my journey as an artist, including the fact that the journey had a beginning, and that it is ongoing.  There will always be second-rate sketches and failed paintings – that’s how we learn and grow.  Destroying them is like trying to hide them and pretend they never happened.

Second, some of the works I destroyed (second-rate or not) had a special emotional connection for me.  There were drawings of family members (some have died, others have moved far away); paintings and sketches of places, of memories shared with a loved one that I would look at (pinned to my studio wall), smile and think: “That drawing isn’t very good, but I remember that time, that person, that place, and the drawing reminds me of that wonderful and special moment.”  I forgot that it isn’t always the technique that matters, it’s the emotional connection.  It’s not like they were for sale. They were a special part of my life.

Third, at least one of those paintings was destroyed by accident, and I didn’t find out until months later when someone asked about buying it after seeing it here on my art-blog site. It was one I liked personally;  the composition, palette and values were good, and I had no reason to think it was second-rate.  A detailed search and complete re-organisation of my studio hasn’t produced that painting.  I have no doubt now that it went into the fireplace by mistake.  (I keep excellent records of my sales, and it’s not there.)  A companion piece to it, of the same scene but with a different composition and a bolder palette and technique, survived the purge, although it wasn’t my favourite of the pair.

Fourth, working with soft/dry pastels, almost exclusively on sanded pastel papers, means that the pigment can be brushed, scrubbed or even washed off the used paper and a new painting can be applied over it.  I burned some pretty expensive, acid-free, archival paper because I forgot that it was reusable.

Fifth, deciding which of my works to purge, without the benefit of a trusted and valued second opinion, left me entirely at the whim of my own imperfect and not-exactly-objective mind.  Painting might be a solitary act, but art-purging really needs a trusted and insightful second opinion (but not your mum, best friend or significant other – unless they actually know something about art.)

Thank you for making it to the end!  Have a great 2016! 

P.S. As an aside, I felt so bad about destroying one of my paintings by mistake that I decided to do another, completely different interpretation of the same scene.  Here it is, a landscape painted in levels of full colour, greyscale, and monotone.

"Mill Creek at Jackie Parker Park"_Lorraine Young_ soft pastels on Pastel Premier sanded pastel paper 9" x 12" $150 unframed

“Mill Creek at Jackie Parker Park”_Lorraine Young_ soft pastels on Pastel Premier sanded pastel paper 9″ x 12” $150 unframed








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4 Responses to “Dear Artists, Think Twice Before Purging Your Work” – A Cautionary Tale

  1. rosaveldkamp says:

    Oh my, I felt just sick reading this. 😦 The crazy things we do when we ‘clean the slate for the New Year.’
    I was just thinking of going through my hard drive to do some purging as well! Now I think I’ll just leave everything . . .

    • Thanks Rosa, I felt sick when I realised I’d burned a painting someone wanted to buy! I was so sure it was one of the keepers, I practically tore the place apart looking for it! Lesson learned! I will be much more cautious next time (if there is a next time). Purging itself isn’t a bad idea, it’s knowing yourself and not doing it because some expert (especially someone you admire) says it should be done. 🙂

  2. ray4115 says:

    While I like the replacement piece, the original was very good and it is too bad it got burned. Live and learn I guess.

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