The Big De-clutter: What do artists do with their unsold paintings?

I spent a few hours this fall helping friends empty their house, and that was totally traumatized!

It was an immense task, and I was forced to admit that emptying a big house of its unnecessary possessions has been waiting for me in my own home for longer than I care to admit. All of a sudden, the weight of my stuff became unbearable. So, rather than getting ahead in my marketing and painting work over the Christmas break as I had intended, I embarked on a massive and obsessive de-cluttering.

I went through every room, every drawer, and every closet and either gave or chucked away everything that we no longer used or that no longer make me happy. This, naturally, was pretty stressful for my husband and my sons. (I think my husband wondered if he was in line for the dumpster!) But soon, we all got into the process and everyone offered some of their personal possessions to dispose of. It was a gruelling process that took a lot of hours, and every new drawer I tackled made me want to take a break. But I pushed through and am glad I did.

Today I feel lighter and more optimistic. Our home feels under control and somehow, so does my state of mind. As Bustle says in his blog, 6 Benefits of De-cluttering Your Life, According To Science, “It’s good to know there is a connection between junk and other problems. We can all feel it when our desks are messy, or our kitchens out of sorts. It’s unsettling, and can hold you back from getting stuff done in life.”

Although I already feel the benefits of our de-cluttering, I still want to get rid of more things. Is this a symptom of my mind needing even more space and freedom? It could very well be. What is stopping me then, other than the fact that I have to get some work done now? I’m wondering that myself. I can certainly get rid of a lot more in my closet, but what about my studio and my sculpture shop? That is a lot more challenging.

Supply shelves in my studio

All of us who are artsy and handy know the joy of having exactly what you need close at hand when you are working on a project. Unless an artist works strictly on his computer, he needs plenty of studio materials. Having a stock of various supplies available in-house saves a lot of time and allows for the creative process to flow without interruptions. So as a visual artist, there will always be a limit to how much I can de-clutter those spaces if I want to keep productive.

However, when it comes to finished work, unsold stock is a much more difficult issue. Even the most popular artists accumulate impressive amounts of unsold work; it’s an unavoidable issue. I have an artist friend who started working on paper rather than canvass because she couldn’t stand the accumulated stock of unsold paintings. She turned to paper because it takes a lot less space.

My stock of unsold paintings, for now!

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who, at the time, was working for Alberta Foundation for the Arts. Part of his responsibility involved visiting aging artists’ studios to look through their inventories. The older an artist is, the more stock he has, and my friend told me that in some cases, there were many rooms stockpiled with paintings, despite the fact they reported that they had resorted to burning much of it. At first, I was shocked. It seemed like an extreme measure but, upon reflection, I realized it makes a lot of sense. Out of respect for the collectors who own some of their work, it may be a good idea to make sure that the market isn’t flooded with work at the time of the artist’s death. And, out of self-respect, it’s probably a good idea to destroy work that no longer makes you feel proud.

In light of this, I added a new rule to my professional practice. Every two years or so, I shred or burn any unsold work that I am not really proud of. (And no, you can’t have it for free!) The whole point is to make sure that whatever I leave behind after I die is a legacy that I’m entirely proud of, even if it’s only for my children to cherish. I want the work that remains in the world after my passing to represent what I was trying to create in the best light. My hope is that I will leave beauty behind, confident that through the years it will never be considered clutter by whomever owns it.

Artists out there, what do you do with your unsold paintings?

4 thoughts on “The Big De-clutter: What do artists do with their unsold paintings?

  1. Sabine Lecorre-Moore

    Thank you Patricia for this inspiring text on clearing the past, in the present to leave space for a brighter futur.

  2. Ben Lachlan

    I had dreaded this, when starting out selling my work at art shows when I was in my late teens. Because I was selling only 1 out of 16 of my works, I had to use a better strategy to begin with, which is an application of the 80 : 20 Principle. I would lay down a collection of photos, drawings, ideas on the dining table and only select 1 or 2 of the best / most interesting to paint. Same process goes on with the framing of my work as they did not sell when they were not framed. This really worked for me. I did not want to be known for producing a mountain of sh!t when just a few gems were preferred. Hope this helps.

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