Is There A Heaven For Paintings?

Jane Barton - Santa Catalina Sunset

Santa Catalina Sunset (o/c) – Jane Barton

I’ve painted so many bad paintings. I know I’m not alone. Ned Jacobs once admitted in a lecture to a packed audience of admiring artists and collectors that he probably only saved ONE in FIFTY paintings or sketches. The crowd gasped in horror. I just wanted to know where he leaves his garbage for pick up. Matt Smith advised the artists in a class I was taking to be sure to destroy any paintings–slash, paint over or burn ‘em–before we threw them out so we wouldn’t see these dogs in a retrospective years later. I have a book of Manet still lifes that proves this to be true. Someone decided to include every floral still life they could find, regardless of the quality or finish. Manet would have been appalled to see what was in this collection because even he had paintings not worth finishing. Of course, I tell my students to keep their early paintings, even if they’re horrible, just to see how much better they are than when they started. Sometimes we all feel like we’re not making any progress at all and it’s always good to have visual proof that we’re improving, even if it’s only a little.

Petunias by Jane barton

Petunias (o/c) by Jane Barton

My problem is getting rid of anything. Ever. Sometimes I cut up canvases and give them to friends as bookmarks–the part is so much better than the whole. Recently, advised by a painter friend, I’ve started chopping up old paintings to find new ones, cropping out the unsuccessful parts and keeping the part that works. It’s surprising how freeing and fun this process is for me, and the result is often a painting I’m happy to hang. Then, of course, I hold onto the bad parts just in case those expert artist elves kindly sneak into my studio some night to fix them while I’m sleeping. Finally, there are many paintings that are so bad from edge to edge that I’ve started painting right over them–upside down so that I’m not distracted by the images–and that’s been a great exercise for me. There’s something about knowing I’ve already hit bottom that makes it easier to be fresh and confident on canvas. There’s nothing to lose. I’m recycling, which is always good, and I love the colors and ghosts that peak through the new painting, adding texture and interest. As Randy Nelson from Pixar University once said on learning and creativity, “…the core skill of an innovator is error recovery not failure avoidance.” I guess you could call this my recovery program for troubled paintings.

Who's Counting? - Jane Barton

Who’s Counting? (o/c) by Jane Barton

So, no, good paintings don’t go to art heaven and bad paintings don’t sink into hell, unless that’s what you call the back of your paint closet. Good paintings live wonderful lives on the brightly lit walls of collectors and museums. Bad paintings usually never see the light of day, but I’d like you to consider that they might have an afterlife in “recovery” or “re-discovery”. Try it, until you decide it’s just time to thank them for their service and lessons learned, give them a dignified burial, and send those bad boys to the afterlife, so they won’t come back to haunt you.

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  • Charles Movalli

    Along with Doug Higgins, my wife, Dale Ratcliff, and I visited Ned Jacob some years ago, when he was in Maine, working like crazy on drawings of horses. He had a bucket full of torn up drawings in his living room; and when he went into this kitchen for minute, I had the uncontrollable–almost–impulse to grab a few shards off the top of the pile. We decided, however, to take the Moral High Road. Not an easy decision!

    • Jane Barton

      I’m so impressed with your decision, Charles. I can only hope that I would have been able to resist temptation. Thanks so much for a great story that proves Ned’s incredible control of the caliber of paintings he offers us! By the way, where is YOUR garbage can….?

  • Vicki

    Oh My Gosh! I’m laughing so hard I’m shaking. So refreshing to read out-loud everything that every artist thinks! Jane, you are a mind reader. I’m going to my studio to slash and burn! I’ve already “cropped” many of my pastels, but somehow my canvases were untouchable. I have painted over some and got wonderful results from the nuances of the “underpainting.” But never just thrown them away. FREEDOM! I’m cleaning out my studio today. (I’ll save the stretcher bars—LOL!)

    Thanks ever so much!

    • Jane Barton

      Glad you could relate–sounds like you’ve already enjoyed this process!

  • Vadim

    It is so hard to read and keep my eyes on white text and black background. I would definitely recommend OPA to change it in to a normal text or lighter background.

    • Oil Painters of America

      Vadim, we completely understand and have heard this comment from many people. We will be taking this into consideration with future designs. In the meantime, you can use the link on the upper right sidebar, “Try the light version.” This will convert the blog to a light background from here on out (or until you clear your cookies).

  • Nyla Witmore

    First….the ideas for recycling parts was upbeat…because it is hard to slash and burn, like throwing away a defective “baby.” …and in years hence, some of us who are way too hard on ourselves, might discover that what we thought were “duds” were actually an art form ahead of our time. (Well, realistically it is not likely that they are gems in the rough…but for those of us who “experiment” and push the limits, we might want to hold off burn and slash for another 7-10 years.)

    On the other hand…these of us who are pack rats would do well to destroy or blot out the signature and give them to a charity or half-way house that does not have enough money to decorate the walls.

    Truly, good food for thought in this block. Well done!!!!!!!

    • Jane Barton

      Thanks, Nyla!

  • Patricia Louise Corbett

    Excellent, Jane. This is a “keeper.”

  • Nancy Boren

    Enjoyed the article and it gave me some good ideas for bad paintings–thanks!