Posted on 39 Comments

The Art of Destruction

“When a picture isn’t realized, you pitch it in the fire and start another.” (Paul Cezanne)

“Angry Dog” (c. 1938-43) by Edvard Munch – Please burn!

Artists create. Over the years they can create a lot. Not all of it is good.

A while back I read an article about a man who had been left hundreds of paintings by a relative of his, an aunt I think, who was an enthusiastic amateur artist. My recollection of the paintings is that they were bad. Really bad. I mean, I would have struggled to keep one of them (hidden in a dark corner of the house) but he had hundreds of them! Sadly, they weren’t quite bad enough to be added to a collection of the wonderful Museum of Bad Art.  Yet, the loving nephew was going to keep and treasure them all! This story has haunted me. As artist Robert Glenn wrote, “There’s enough bad art in the world already and we don’t want to add to it by leaving substandard stuff out and about.”

I just don’t have the room for everything so a cull has been taking place. I have been destroying old paintings of mine that I don’t think are up to the mark. It’s a form of curation. In fact, I believe that destruction and renewal are central to the all creative processes. Writers cut and redraft. I think of the time I wasted reading Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman”, which turned out to the first draft of the much-superior “To Kill a Mockingbird”. Harper Lee was right not to want to publish it. Painting is the same.

An element of destruction and renewal has always been part of my process. If part or all of a painting isn’t working, I would much rather scrub the paint off the canvas and start again than let it dry and attempt to paint over the error. I usually have to work myself up into a minor frenzy to do this. I feel better looking at a scrubbed canvas than one that is “wrong”. Sometimes, I might spend a whole day on a painting that I scrub away and start again the next day (to the dismay of my husband). Usually, this is down to poor light. I don’t often do this, but I think its important to be able to”kill” your work so that better work can come forth. It’s reassuring to know that great artists like David Hockney have also destroyed unsatisfactory work in the process of creation.

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures). David Hockney destroyed an earlier version of this painting

Over the years I have stored older, or just less successful paintings away in the attic, behind stacks of other paintings. They fall into two categories a) early work done on cheap canvases. These are easy to destroy with a metal spike. You get what you pay for, I suppose. I actually like some of these paintings, especially the animals and so I have taken a sharp knife to them and carefully cut them from the stretchers.

Saved for another day

I have decided to store these in a large folder the rest will destroyed; and b) work done on linen canvases I don’t think are up the mark. I wont show these to anyone. Again I will cut the canvases from the stretcher to keep the wooden frames to reuse with a fresh canvas. The canvases will be cut up and thrown away. If I had a large garden I’d burn them.

These need to be cut up!

I have tried reusing canvases in the past by sanding them down and painting gesso on them but I am never really happy with the result. I use paint too finely. i like a smooth surface. This is a luxury. In his early days as an impoverished artist, Picasso would often paint over pictures he thought unsuccessful because he didn’t have the money to buy a fresh canvas.

Picasso "Still Life" 1922
Picasso “Still Life” 1922 – on the front


It is important to conduct the destruction in private so no one can make you feel bad about it. I have found the process quite cleansing. I did not realise that every time I looked around my crowded studio and glimpse the edges of an unsuccessful painting that it brought me down. They reminded me of my failures. That I was a lousy artist. Out comes my imposter syndrome! Ironically, if an artist sells a lot of work, they have little evidence of their successes around them.

Stretchers can be reused

I think that most artists have to come to terms with destroying work that isn’t up to the mark. One of two duff paintings can make all the others look bad. It’s sometimes difficult to decide as many artists develop their style, improve their technique, or just explore new themes so their earlier works can seem at odds with their later stuff.  How to decide if it is bad or just different? Lucien Freud is an excellent example of an artist whose style changed significantly throughout his career as he found his own style of painting.

I once went to an exhibition of Cezanne’s early work In Paris and decided, that with the exception of the House of the Hanged Man, most of it should have been burnt. We know that Cezanne burnt his poorer work so it must have been really, really bad! We are best not seeing it.

House of the Hanged Man
Don’t put this one of the fire!

Likewise, Vincent Van Gogh should have burnt more. Before he discovered colour and light in the south of France in 1888, he produced a lot of dark and miserable work that no one wanted to buy. Yes, its interesting to see his journey as an artist, but I don’t think the world would have many of these early brown works if he’d burnt them.

Claude Monet was prolific. He painted around 250 “Water Lily” paintings over the last three decades of his life—but originally, there were many more. Before an exhibition of the paintings in 1908, Monet destroyed a group of them with a knife and a paintbrush, disappointed by their quality in comparison to “better” canvases. Time magazine called this a “rage of perfectionism”.


Monet was at this time struggling with his eyesight and was diagnosed with cataracts in 1912. Over the next decade, both his vision decreased progressively as well as his colour perception. Monet had surgery in 1923. He recovered excellent near vision and reasonable distance vision in the affected eye, but he complained bitterly about the world appearing too yellow or sometimes too blue. It took almost two years before he finally told friends that his color vision felt normal. After his surgery, Monet destroyed many canvases, maybe as many as thirty of them. I can only imagine his rage as I saw these substandard works.

Francis Bacon also frequently destroyed work he was not happy with. He worked on the Screaming Pope paintings for about 20 years and some of them turned up as recycled canvas which had been used by an amateur painter, Lewis Todd. When these scraps were discovered the Todd paintings shot up in value. They are still on the lookout for a pope’s screaming head! Below Todd’s paintings (left) Bacon’s scraps (right)

Francis Bacon was not at all thorough about destroying his work. In 2007 a group of damaged Bacon paintings was found in a skip outside the artist’s London studio by electrician Mac Robertson. He sold them.

Georgia O’Keeffe, was another painter, like Monet, who had difficulties with her sight, and who destroyed her own work. Her decision to destroy work was also about keeping her reputation strong. Curation. 

She had been diagnosed with macular degeneration in 1964 at the age of 77, and by 1972, her vision had fallen below 20/200 despite attempts at laser treatment, and towards the end of the 1970s she gave up painting altogether. In the 1980s “she wanted to go into storage to destroy some of the paintings that she didn’t think were at her level,”  Some allegedly destroyed works have apparently slipped through the cracks.

The one that got away

Red and Green II (1916), one of her first watercolors, is listed in her notebooks as having been destroyed after she showed it once in 1958 at New York’s Downtown Gallery. Yet the work surfaced in a Christie’s New York American Art sale in November 2015. 




Some conceptual artists have made a career out of destruction but that’s not what I am talking about here. I am talking about Monet’s “rage of perfection”. It is not vandalism if its your own creation. Sometimes, after a distance of months or even years, you can see your creations clearly. I once only “saw” a painting of mine clearly as it was leaving the room in a collector’s arms.  “Ah”, I thought “That’s a lovely painting”. It’s not always the way. Sometimes, I look at a painting from several years ago and wonder “What was I thinking?” I hadn’t been able to see it before then.

Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed

Being able to let go and destroy work is a sign of emotional health. I am not doing so well as many of these paintings were done over a decade ago. I don’t think Edward Munch, who suffered from terrible anxiety exacerbated by excessive drinking, could let go of many of his paintings let alone destroy them.

He was in the position that he did not need to sell his work and he ended up with a collection of almost all his art on the second floor of his house. He even called his paintings his “children”! In Self-portrait Between the Clock and the Bed, which he painted in the years just before his death, Munch seems crowded out by his “children” on the wall behind him. I think they should have been made to leave home!

Anyway, I digress. Artists and writers should be allowed to destroy early work, failures, something that was really only a first draft (Harper Lee), a work in progress or a cry for help (Edvard Munch’s Angry Dog, surely?). It’s not always easy to do. That first novel should stay in the locked drawer and those early paintings and sketches go into the bin. So those paintings of mine in lying in that folder may yet end up on a bonfire! 

39 thoughts on “The Art of Destruction

  1. Ah Emma, you have made me think. I know I am not a gifted painter. I sell regularely my art books or altered books, but selling a painting is a big exception. I don’t mind because I like to paint.
    I only destroy paintings with bad materials. But if the materials are alright I keep them for one or more years. Then I invite a bunch of people I know they want to have some art in their toom or house. And then they can choose which one they want to have for free. Ofcourse I can do that because I don’t have an oeuvre in which I have to preserve the quality.
    That brings me to ‘style’. I have never found out what my style is, or even of I do have a certain style.
    I do have a friend who is a portret painter and she has been to the art-academy. She once said, when I asked her : I don’t know ehat style it is, but they are recognisable yours.
    Weel, what to think about that ?

    1. You are very generous to your friends, Cécile! I think that all people have a style, like a style of handwriting almost. The more you paint the more your style comes out – I have tried out different ways of writing over the years but it was all my writing. I think that I have settled into certain themes and styles in the last 4 years. The themes may well change (I hope so) but I think the paintings will all look like mine.

  2. Very enlightening post on how artists destroy their “bad” work. Thank you! I once tried to cover a clumsy attempt with titanium white but the results were so bad I had to put it in the trash for pickup.

    1. Ha!Ha! I think that I have done the same thing myself!!

  3. I quite often have a cull…and find it liberating and exciting. One thing you said is so true…never have anyone else around when doing this….their thoughts get in the way.

    1. I am glad you agree. My husband has pointed out to me this lunchtime that his advice and opinion has sometimes stopped me from scrubbing a perfectly good painting (tiredness sometimes blinds me).

  4. What is an “amateur painter”? One of the art professors I studied with insisted that “if you paint, then you are a painter.” I am very curious to hear your opinion on this topic.

    1. Good question, I suppose I mean some one who does it for pleasure and does not intend to make a money (or a living) by selling them. I have always been creative and painted but I underwent a mental shift when I started selling my paintings. I toughened up and got used to parting with them. This was hard to do at first but now I regard paintings as being with me for a temporary period only – sometimes its short, sometimes it longer. For me, painting is about the process of creation. Once I have finished a painting, I admire it and enjoy what worked, and move on to the next one. This may be a product of my PTSD, because I find the physical act of painting calming and enjoyable, I don’t know. Maybe it is just “professionalism” because I underwent a similar shift when I was teacher, I toughened up and put my efforts into doing my job well, rather than being popular! I agree that anyone who paints is a painter, but there are painters and there are painters. I have to paint. It stopped being a hobby a long time ago. The lady in the story may well have “had to paint” too but she did not that that toughness you need to part with your work.

      1. yes, parting is such sweet sorrow. thanks for your insight,

      2. Sometimes – it’s a joy! Thank you for stopping by! As a last thoiught on your original point I suppose I could have used the term “hobby-ist” rather than “amateur artist”.

      3. …and there are painters, and there are painters…

  5. So you’re off to new digs~ Best wishes on your move. And best wishes with your cull. I routinely paint over bad paintings but nevertheless I have an overabundance of “children” (HA) that refuse to leave home. It is starting to give me nightmares.
    I came across something you wrote, offering tips on selling, and I am working on implementing them. Hopefully I’ll be ushering some of the paintings out the door soon as a result!

    1. I have had too many of those darn “children” lurking in the attic. I felt much better when they had gone. I hope some of my “tips” in that article/post help. I also published a book via Amazon and linked my blog to my author’s page and that, I think,helped with my visibility with the search engines. It’s all a bit mysterious as to what actually “works”, Everything does a bit of something.

      1. Oh, what a good idea! As you say, everything does a bit of something. Thank you.

      2. If only you had to do just one thing, eh?

      3. Haha, yeah, although I appreciate knowing that little actions add up so that if I’m missing one, I draw comfort from knowing that other things I’d doing help. And aren’t we lucky to live now, when we are no longer at the mercy of galleries?

      4. Yes, I quite agree!

  6. Wow, I must be the only artist on the planet who lacks a need to cull and trash. I have on several occasions removed inferior paintings from their stretcher bars and reused the bars for something better. I roll up the not-so-nice one and put it in a large bag along with its companions…birds of a feather, etc. Every once in a while I will peruse this bag either to refresh my memory of the past and realize how I’ve progressed, or to revisit some technique I may have used long ago and forgotten about.

    As for our friend VanGogh and his early work, I am always delighted and encouraged to see that as a self-taught artist he was at times just as clumsy as me. That gives me much pleasure and hope for the future.

    1. I have spent years hding those canvases in the attic, Alli! But once I got going getting rid of stuff, I found it very cleansing! My husband keeps saying you need examples of poorer earlier work to encourage others’ – progress is possible! Yes, but not too much of it!

  7. This is fascinating! Lucien Freud was an odd fellow or at least his self portraits would make him look odd. I have a cousin who actually knew him. But I have never asked her what he was like. Francis Bacon is another one whose work is like a physical shock! I think that creative art be it painting, or writing is a process and sometimes that process just does not go in a way that sits well with the creator (I never knew about the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird) . Thanks for this very interesting and thought provoking post Emma.

    1. Thank you Leueen. I would definately ask your cousin about Freud. Yes Francis Bacon’s work is like a physical shock. It’s so wierd to think that Lewis Todd was painting away on the back of thise reject canvases of his! A friend of my sister says he used to see him on the tube in central London and he looked pretty grumpy! I started reading “Go Set A Watchman” thinking it was a proper book as I kept thinking that it wasn’t half as good as “To Kill a Mocking Bird” when I did some reasearch I found out that it was an earlier version, although the story is quite different in many ways. I was quite annoyed that the publishers had got Harper Lee to let them publish it, it wasn’t what they claimed it was.

      1. I will ask my cousin about Freud. He did a portrait of her at one time. Our son has said he has seen it in an exhibition in London. My cousin is a very eccentric woman so I will need to choose my timing of the question carefully.

      2. How interesting. I wonder what it looked like? Yes, you don’t want to upset her.

      3. I will see if I can find a photo of it online and I’ll email it to you.

      4. Thank you! I’d be very interested to see it.

  8. Such a timely post Emma. I have started to tear up some of my older works ~ as you know I work on paper, not canvas. However I am reusing them in textile works, stitching some of the fragments onto material. Rather than a cull, it is more trying to think about ideas like impermanence and not knowing what the future will be. Whatever the reason, I agree that it is quite liberating and satisfying to tear it up.

    1. I love the way how you are reusing your work in your textile pieces. Perhaps, if I had more patience and energy I might have thought about how to reuse the canvas in a more creative way?

  9. I always imagine that if I painted, it would take me years to finish one painting, so I would never have so many that I needed to burn the old ones! This is something I honestly never thought of, and your page was a very interesting read.

    1. Yes, the destruction is due to too many “substandard” paintings lurking in the attic. When I painted just for fun I treasured all my paintings and maybe took a canvas off its stretcher to store it rolled up so it took less space.

  10. I like Van Gogh’s early, dark work. There’s a power to it, and you can see where the later painter came from. (No one wanted to buy his later work either, so let’s not judge the early work by that standard.)

    This isn’t exactly to the point, but your title made me think of the Elizabeth Bishop poem, “The Art of Losing.”

    1. Okay, I was over the top about his early work. My husband also said “But I like the painting of the boots” and I do like his ink drawings. I think its refreshing to see that Great Artists weren’t always great but I hate how everything single thing they touched can sell for a lot of money even if it wasn’t very good. I will look at Elizabeth Bishop’s poem now….

    2. That’s a poignant poem…

  11. I like the boots too, but I’m really not able to say what is good art or bad. I just know what I like 🙂 🙂 Good for you, being ruthless!

    1. I don’t know that what I have destroyed was all that “bad” as such, I just didn’t like them. They made me feel bad/disappointed when I looked at them.

  12. Interesting article, I am putting together a catalogue of all the works I have done in the last ten years and because I photographed all my work good and bad I can still see the works that I destroyed. I am so glad that I did this because a lot of those works were not that bad after all and with digital photography these pictures can still be reproduced as prints etc. It is a well known fact that artists are the worst at judging when it comes to their own work. Good luck.

    1. Good for you! Not all of them were bad paintings. Some of them I destroyed because the materials were poor quality – I bought cheap cotton canvases and student oil paint before I decided to back myself and buy the better quality stuff!

  13. You remind me to get rid of the paintings I did for a university art course. I’ll keep the frames and maybe one piece.

    1. That seems like a good idea!

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