Death Of A Painting: The Five Stages Of Grief

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' five stages of grief--denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (DABDA)--is quite apropos in describing my usual process of coming to terms with the death of a painting--a painting that isn't going to make the grade and finally, ultimately, must be destroyed. Here are the stages as they relate to how I cope.

  1. Grieving Man Denial: The painting is quite far along by now and I know in my heart there are irreparable problems, but I say to myself, "I can't let this beat me; I can fix it." So, because of my stubbornness, and because some things about the piece  I actually like, I continue on, applying more and more paint, scraping off areas or painting over them with white to start anew. But things only get worse.
  2. Anger: I'm exceedingly frustrated by now, having worked, and worked, and worked on this single piece, unable to focus on anything else until I get this one right. Frustration turns to anger, anger at myself for not thinking it through from the beginning, and at the painting for ever having tried to come into existence.
  3. Bargaining: This is the, "I promise to live my life differently if only you will make it better," routine. I don't do much of this one because I really don't think God cares one way or the other about this particular painting but more about my response to the situation. So I try to "pull myself up by my bootstraps," and change my attitude because, at this point, I have become quite negative. Still, I am unable to gain any positive outlook on the piece.

    Your failures can be joyful, because they are the stepping stones to your success.  Robert Genn

  4. Depression: This one I'm very good at. By now it's utterly undeniable that this painting is done for. I get very down and pretty much stop working (the worst thing you can do). I mull the whole process over and over again in my mind, saying to myself, "where did I go wrong," and I add, "I'm no good at this crap!" It can be days or even weeks before I drag myself back into the studio.
  5. Acceptance: Probably still depressed a bit, having somehow managed to remind myself of brighter days before, I return to my easel to face the truth head on. I accept now that this painting is not to my standards, that it doesn't define me as a person nor as an artist, that its existence and ultimate destruction were necessary in my development, and, there are no failures as long as I am working, there are only necessary steps.

I proceed to cut the canvas down the middle and then from the stretcher bars and throw the pieces in the garbage. I've even burned them in the backyard before, and I think this a more fitting ceremony for a martyr, but the fumes were a bit toxic so I stopped doing that. Either way, physically destroying the attempted work is regenerative, rejuvenating. Now, finally, I can focus on the next one. Now I can move on.

Quote from:
The Painter's Keys  by Robert Genn

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross Foundation
Robert Genn Website
Painter's Keys

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

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4 Responses

  1. Viv says:

    For me, the crucial moment is realising that whatever I do, the painting is not going to work! I’m a bit obstinate and always think I can fix it – but I can’t and it’s a relief when I accept that. Because, then I can see the failed painting as a great collage resource!

    I cut out all the bits I like, often keeping the shapes around the images that work together. I have boxes of canvas bits and boxes of paper bits, depending on the medium I worked in. So when I’m doing a collage, I’ve got lots of resources to build up. Also works to use the paper bits as chine colle in prints.

    So I get this warm feeling of not wasting anything and I can often make several pieces of work from one that failed. Examples of some of these are on Also some stuff about my process in the studio log and blog there.

    Viv Martin

    • MT says:

      I can relate to your feeling of relief at finally accepting what feels like the inevitable. Your use of the cut pieces is interesting – I’ve noticed that when I do cut a painting into several pieces, the cropped images are quite attractive, much more so than the whole painting ever was. I enjoyed looking at your site and will read more on you working method.

  2. Betsy says:

    As usual, I enjoy catching up with your latest, if only through social media. There is nothing more satisfying than to feel the process and to become lost, like being on another plane. The secret is not to stop because the muse is not there today, but to coax it back tomorrow when you are fresh again.

    We still miss your philosophy and teaching.

    • MT says:

      Very wise words indeed Betsy–it is not so much finding the muse as it is just working and letting it find you. Hope to see you soon, got two grand boys now!

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