Group Discussion: When Is It Ready For The Trash?

I recently began a discussion on the above question at in the group, True Artist: Living The Art. Specifically, how and when does the artist know, while in the process of doing a piece of art, that the work is not going anywhere and must be destroyed or redone? Here are some interesting insights on my query from other artists (italics) with my responses. Part 1 of 2.


"I know you've heard the question, 'when is a painting finished?' My question--'when is a painting finished--ready for the trash?"


"It's finished, when you finally realise that that feeling of disappointment with yourself does not go away the more you work on it." E. E.

"I am never disappointed enough with a painting to throw it in the trash! I consider it a learning experience and note the things that do not work, and then, if I don't want to work on it anymore, I paint over it..." M. D.

"...I paint layer upon layer upon layer of paint and depth and soul. Sometimes it is hard to know when to stop. It is very easy to destroy something in an attempt to make it perfect...Then again, I am more abstract and I let images emerge from the canvas so it would be different if I were painting from life." J. U.

"Taking the Artist out of the equation, a work of art is "Finished" (Trash) when no one wants to take care of it any more. No one wants to dust it, no one wants to display it, no one wants to preserve or store it." M. D.

“I am usually finished when I get bored with the piece and can see no measurable improvement. Sometimes, I continue to work on it, knowing its not achieved any excellence, but to experiment and see if I can pull something out of it…it breaks my heart to know that some of those canvases I cover over, I have invested so much time – and it leads to feelings of self doubt as an artist.” L. E.

"When I have a clear vision of what I want a piece to be, before I begin, these are more apt to reach completion. It's when I don't have that clear understanding that things seem to go bad and I work and I work and I work because, in reality, I'm searching to produce something that I have know idea about. I've often thought and said that having something to say is paramount to your art..."

Cut Painting"MT - I want to state that you explanation of a clear vision was so expertly written I was impressed and inspired. You said it so well - clearly - and comprehensively explained. I heard many years ago (maybe 30?) that a good artist has a clear vision of what they are doing when they go to the canvas. When I have enquired of other artists, I have found that the most talented of the bunch always came to the creation with a clear vision of what they intended to create."  L. E.

"Generally, if I feel a painting is "finished" in terms of ready for the trash, I strip the canvas, re-prime it, and paint a new one. I don't like the thought that many years down the road some curator or art critic may try to find out if there is another painting underneath the one I completed and am happy with." S. B.

"I think about that also...--if anyone cares enough one day to look underneath a painting of mine. But my main concern(s)...whether the paint on top adheres well...and from a technique point of view, painting on top can hinder the application of thin color over bare canvas... Another point...I have several paintings that I did years ago...that were not "gallery worthy" in my opinion but were somehow worthy in their own right to exist...had some areas of accomplishment in them..."

"Depends on the medium... If acrylic, just paint over it, if you aren't pleased with how the piece is evolving!" C. D.

"I like the idea that underneath one painting are a few paintings that have been tried and failed. It's almost as if the lessons learnt from those are shaping what (are) now being created. And also, so much emotion goes into each painting, sometimes far more emotion than if it did work, that to lose it completely would be like losing a part of myself." L. D.

"That's an interesting point also...the aspect of medium.I do enjoy the ease in which acrylics can be manipulated, but don't you find that painting over can created a heavy texture visually--to me it's not as pleasant to paint onto--but maybe I just prefer thinner applications of paint--I would be interested in knowing exactly how you go about painting over...Another question...I can't seem to feel quite so casual about it; it drives me crazy and I worry about it when I have to redo things so completely. Doesn't it bother you as well?"

"I agree with you 100%...great point; I think a painting that comes off without a hitch is one that exists because of all the others that didn't--it is the result of all the "failed" attempts, the visual representation of what we've learned, not one we might learn from. Seen in this light, the "failed" pieces become the obvious, necessary steps in the process...I like to poetically say (I just tweeted this in fact) that often, paint must be scraped from brush to canvas but, every once in a while, a painting seems to just fall from the brush, and all is right with the world..."

"Yes MT, a painting that 'falls from the brush' brings more inner warmth and glow than the best single malt! Its obvious we are learning with each stroke, albeit painfully at times. I suppose we each have our ways of dealing with the 'trash' work and the measure of us is determined by how we move on." L. D.

"I give you much credit in your ability to put practicality--ie, the painting's "learning experience"--over emotion; You say, almost casually, "if I don't want to work on it anymore", whereas I would say, I "can't" work on it anymore, It's killing me! I am amazed at you calm. And your word "disappointment"... continues to resonate with me..."

"how much of a role does in our decisions as we paint--and what are we trying to be perfect about. For me, I think, it's wanting to be perfect in what I want to say, not perfection in depiction..."

"...taking the artist out of the equation" is a brilliant way of looking at this a bit differently. Maybe it's not us, the artists, that make the final call, maybe, even when we still have the piece of art in hand, working on it, maybe we think about the critics, others who will see it, and so ultimately they decide on the paintings fate..."

see Part 2


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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2 Responses

  1. Sarie says:

    My one art teacher always said you throw nothing away you can fix everything me I don’t know sometime it looks finished sometime I paint over it and sometimes I leave it for weeks and then I get to a point to finish it Thank you for you word it really gives me time to think about a painting and wonder if it is  worth it to put in so lots of time in it Make no mistake me I am just a Amateur but I enjoy to put the paint on a canvas  

    • MT says:

      I can leave a piece for weeks also and, by the time I come back to it, I either like it more than before or I just can’t get back into the same “mood” with which it all started (this later is usually the case–I paint fast and am moved quickly to paint something but can lose interest fast).

      I actually think it is good to put the “blood, sweat & tears” into our work because I think we come out more refined on the other side–John Ruskin said (I collect quotes), “The best answer to questions is perseverance…”, but at some point, we have to make a decision I think. Mantises said, “draw a great deal, and do not reflect too much.” This “do not reflect too much” always pops into my mind when I’ve spent days on reworking something.

      And Robert Genn says, “You should have the courage to do your own weeding…anybody who takes a chance tends to hang their ego on their efforts, hoping–just hoping–that the quality is there.” I sometimes catch myself trying to force the quality into a work by pure will–like if I look at it long enough I will see that it is worthy–usually in this case it is not.

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